Pinotage in the World

Monday, 15 July, 2013
Peter F May
Ask for a glass of house red in a bar in Kelowna, British Columbia, and you could well be served Pinotage.
Such is demand that nearby winery ‘The View’ has an exclusive on-trade bottling especially screw-capped for ease of opening. The View isn’t alone growing Pinotage in the Okanagan Valley. Further south almost, on the US border, are five acres growing ungrafted on phylloxera-free sandy soils at Stoneboat winery and close by is Lake Breeze Vineyards, who pioneered the variety in Canada in 1996.

In the hills above Santa Cruz, in northern California, owner-winemaker Paul Kemp has been methodically going though his Loma Prieta estate vineyard grafting Pinot Noir over to Pinotage. More than 30 California wineries are listed as Pinotage producers by and Loma Prieta is the largest of them all. Kemp buys in as many Pinotage grapes as he can from other growers and pondered long and hard about removing his gold-medal winning Pinot Noir to increase his own Pinotage plantings, but such is demand for Pinotage he decided to take the decision. Loma Prieta offers four vineyard specific Pinotages. In addition to an estate wine Kemp sources fruit from Sierra Ridge vineyard in Amador County and from Amorosa and Karma Vineyards in Lodi. Last year he contracted with Karma to increase their Pinotage plantings by another three acres. Loma Prieta Pinotages sell for upwards of $45 a bottle at the winery and to ensure allocations customers sign up to America’s first Pinotage-only wine club which entitles members to regular shipments. 

On America’s eastern coast the variety is gaining traction with several growers plus four estates in Virginia now growing and making Pinotage. It was first planted there 20 years ago where its early ripening and thick mildew resisting skins are welcome qualities in a state that has hot, very humid but short summers with heavy rain storms.
Some South Africans would prefer to have exclusivity of Pinotage but it doesn’t make sense to be the only country growing a variety because it implies no-one else considers it worthwhile. In fact the Cape was the sole commercial producer of Pinotage wine for only five years before New Zealand released their first bottling. The picture is not so bright there now, however.

Pinotage was well-suited to the humid conditions of New Zealand’s North Island, but the winemaking focus in the past 20 years has shifted to the South Island where Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir grow well and have gained international reputations. Pinotage is mostly found on the North Island in small wine farms. Majors looking for exports found difficulty in exporting the variety because markets looking for Pinotage associated it completely with South Africa.

Spread of the variety round the world subsequently was slow, probably because of trade sanctions, and indeed most Pinotage planted in the northern hemisphere originated from New Zealand nurseries.  
Currently eight nations, in addition to South Africa, grow and make Pinotage commercially. They are, in alphabetical order: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, Switzerland, United States and Zimbabwe. California, Maryland, Oregon, and Virginia in the USA are commercial growers and producers. Confusingly wineries in some other US States, including Oklahoma and Texas, also make Pinotage but they source the juice from California.
There are experimental vineyards in other countries. I have drunk Pinotage from Cyprus and we may expect to see more countries join the Pinotage community, and maybe even France after this year’s announcement by L’Institut Français de la Vigne et du Vin giving legal approval for Pinotage to be planted and used for wine production. They stated that it “makes deep coloured wines, powerful and fruity with aromas of blackberry and plum. Pinotage is well suited to the production of rosé wines.”

With global warming we might one day see Pinotage growing at Chateau Latour.