Bottles of Pinotage. / Photo by: Joel Goldberg / Props by: Paige Hicks
Few grapes elicit as strong a love-it-or-hate-it response as Pinotage. With established advocates in each camp, from producers and retailers to wine writers, judges and consumers, it’s easy to overlook any middle ground and head toward an extreme to plant your own Pinotage-position flag.
But why did the dialogue around Pinotage get to this point? How did a grape hailed by many as a uniquely South African variety, positioned for decades to serve as a distinct calling card for the country, become so divisive?
After all, many wine regions have experienced success in building a countrywide identity on the global wine stage by promoting a specific variety or wine type: Argentina burst onto the scene thanks to its Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc is king in New Zealand and, for many, Australia is practically synonymous with Shiraz. Not only do producers embrace the synergy between variety and terroir, but consumers eventually come to rely on such established connections as well, ultimately associating a sense of typicity and character to the wines of that country as a whole.
However, if consistent quality and identity are not available and firmly established, or are established through lesser examples and present a profile of poor characteristics, such branding can become problematic. For U.S. consumers, both of these situations contributed to Pinotage’s historic struggles, and that’s why opinions surrounding the grape became so intensely disparate.