Wines that rock - Pinotage: Searching for the Sugarman of the wine lands

Wines that rock - Pinotage

Searching for the Sugarman of wine

South Africa is one of the hottest wine producing regions in the world right now, and it just gets better and better year on year. Every wine region needs it own signature grape, or blend, to make its mark on the world. The region needs something that makes it stand up and stand out above all others, the wine that is associated more with that region than anything else. California and Zinfandel, New Zealand and Sauvignon Blanc, Argentina and Malbec. For South Africa, that wine that rocks harder than any other is Pinotage.

Much like the story of Rodriguez, Pinotage is a wine that almost disappeared from the world only to be saved by the unique tastes of South Africa and their yearning to be a part of a world that had shut them out. Again, much like Rodriguez, the current renaissance and acceptance of South Africa culture in the larger world is allowing Pinotage to come into the spotlight and have its much overdue moment, at a time when the world is finally able to accept something that was ahead of its time.

Rodriguez certainly was ahead of his time, a fantastic artist that the world was just not ready for. After two failed albums he disappeared from the world, never to be heard from again. Pinotage was new cross bred vine that too was ahead of its time, and its creator left it behind in his garden at Stellenbosch University to move on to better things. In both cases they were saved from oblivion and raised behind the tall walls of apartheid South Africa. Myth has it somebody from the United States brought a copy of Cold Fact to South Africa, played it at a party, and from there it spread like wildfire. South Africa had never heard such rebellious lyrics and challenging themes before, and it became a staple of underground, left wing counter culture. Pinotage was saved from a clearing by a young lecturer, cultivated, and after years of careful work, finally made into a wine.

Rodriguez would sell millions of album copies in South Africa, Pinotage would win award after award in South Africa and yet the world had no idea. When the shades were lifted and South Africa opened its doors, both would be forgotten as South Africans were more interested in attracting, and mirroring the trends of a world they had not been a part of for decades. Wineries shifted to more European grape varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, etc. in order to capture an increasingly sophisticated palette of South African and tourist wine lovers. There is something uniquely South African about both stories though, and thanks to persistence and cultural pride both were pushed to the forefront. Rodriguez, long assumed to be dead, was found living a simple life in Detroit and would come to South Africa a triumphant symbol of freedom post apartheid. Pinotage would become a symbol of South African heritage and promise moving forward in the world, forged from pieces of different backgrounds coming together. Only when the world was ready would they ripen enough to come out of hiding and be discovered.

Pinotage is a bold statement, in flavor, and in its sheer existence. It is a challenge, a rebel, a liberal outcry, a decree of freedom fought for, freedom gained, and a new found realization in South African people and wineries alike that we can create something new. We can do whatever the fuck we want.  It is one of those few truly heavy, full bodied wines, bursting with character and teeming with delight, each form very much the same yet so unique in its own right. The vines are just now starting to age, and old vines are good vines. Pinotage is maturing much like the South African people twenty years on from their release of the cold grip of oppression and on to build a bigger future. It is a perfect wine to warm the heart, whether just sitting down with friends or over a big red meat dinner. Much like Cold Fact, the heavy subjects of the wine force introspection and reflection, pondering on where have come from, and yet how we have so much farther to go. Share with friends, enjoy the moment, and enjoy life for what it is. Celebrate the dark fruits like plum and, blackberry  blended with smoky tobacco. Breathe in the countercultural vibe of this little rebel of a wine. I wonder, I wonder, wonder I do.

When to drink:

Hanging out with friends and having bold, philosophical, meaningful conversation

Dinners with big red meat; lamb, beef, even venison (especially African venison such as Eland)

Pinotage to look out for:


Kanonkop Black Label - $ don’t ask

Beyerskloof Diesel - $ least you can probably find it for less than $100


Kanonkop Pinotage - $30

Ashbourne Pinotage - $30

Easy finds:

Fleur du Cap

Dark Lady of the Labyrinth

Southern Right


Stay away from cheap Pinotage (less than $10 in the US), it smells like paint thinner and tastes just as bad.