Pinotage & Petite Sirah: An Unlikely Pair?

By Gerald D. Boyd
Aug 10, 2010

The other day I was thinking about “six degrees of separation,” the idea that was circulating around a few years back that claims one need go no further than six steps at most to discover a connection with any other person. Random musings like that pop up when a writer has writer’s block–the non-productive exercise of staring blankly at the computer screen waiting for a special muse to strike with a stellar idea.

Eventually, my enlightened moment arose when my muse whispered, “Why not a relationship between Petite Sirah and Pinotage?” On the surface the idea sounded implausible, but these two seemingly different grapes do share some things, and maybe at one of those six levels Petite Sirah and Pinotage are related. I know it sounds like a stretch, but stick with me while we consider a few similarities:

Heritage: The labyrinthine ancestry of both grapes can be traced back to southern France. Pinotage is a South African cross of Cinsaut and Pinot Noir. In South Africa Cinsaut (also spelled Cinsault) was called Hermitage, thus the name Pinotage, a contraction of Pinot + (Hermi)tage. Known as a blending grape, Cinsaut is planted throughout southern France and is among the grapes authorized for making Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Petite Sirah has been linked by DNA testing to Durif, Syrah and Peloursin, the latter an obscure southern French grape. Syrah, of course, is the premier red of the Northern Rhône and Durif is a variety planted in southern France.

History: Pinotage was developed at Stellenbosch University in 1925 when viticulturist A. I. Perold crossed Pinot Noir and Cinsault. Known at first as “Perold’s Hermitage x Pinot,” the name Pinotage was eventually adopted, although the first commercial Pinotage did not appear until 1959. From the beginning, winemakers experimented with cool and warm fermentations in an attempt to tame the pungent, acetate-like esters that sometimes plagued Pinotage. Partly because of the objectionable pungency, Pinotage never caught the attention of the world market, until the early 1990s, when new interest took hold in South Africa’s winemaking community.

In 1880, Francois Durif, a grape nurseryman in the south of France, introduced a new grape which he named for himself. Durif selected the seed from an old French grape called Peloursin which he pollinated with Syrah. In 1884, the Durif grape was introduced into California where some growers called it “Petite Sirah,” the name it was known by in the south of France. Controversy regarding Petite Sirah’s parentage persisted until 1999, when UC-Davis professor Carole Meredith set the record straight with DNA testing that showed conclusively that Syrah was the “father” of Durif and that, in fact, Durif and Petite Sirah are two names for the same grape. Over the years, Petite Sirah plantings have been up and down in California, controlled mainly by market demand for the wine. After a peak of more than 14,000 acres planted in 1976, acreage plummeted to 1,700 in 1995, but then climbed back to 7,500 acres by 2009.

Transformative Promotion: With science and new knowledge about both grapes, it was time for marketing to get the word out. In 1995, dedicated South African winemakers formed the Pinotage Association to transform the image of Pinotage as a varietal wine and also as a valuable component to what became known as Cape Blends. In 2002, an advocacy organization of mostly California wineries and growers was established to promote, educate and legitimize Petite Sirah as a noble varietal. Called PS I Love You (PSILY), the organization has 101 members divided into a number of categories ranging from Small Winery, Grower and Groupies.

Wine Color & Styles: Pinotage and Petite Sirah are red (or “black” if you prefer) grapes. Because of their rustic, robust flavors, wines made from both Pinotage and Petite Sirah have been used by winemakers to bolster red blends. Shortly after its creation in Stellenbosch, the hope was that Pinotage would be a stand-alone wine, but because of inbred flavor problems, it became more popular as a blending component. Complaints about Pinotage included such unflattering words as “metallic” and “rubbery.” The great hope of Cape winemakers to find a grape they could call their own was dashed, at least for a while.

Today, Pinotage runs the stylistic gamut from lighter Beaujolais-style to heavier Rhône styles with more noticeable oak, higher alcohols and more extract. On my first trip to South Africa in the early 1990s, I made a point of trying as many Pinotage wines as I could. The South African wine industry was still shaking off the damaging effects of apartheid then and wineries were struggling to catch up to the vineyard and winemaking standards of the rest of the world.

In a tasting for this column, I found a pleasing span of styles in the 2007 and 2008 Pinotages, matched by a range of bottle prices from $10 to $35. Overall the wines were bright and fruity with nicely integrated oak, good structure and length, clearly the result of modern winemaking, with none of the “off” aromas and flavors that plagued Pinotage in years past. Despite Pinotage’s European heritage, the wines I tasted did not taste “European,” but then South African Pinotage doesn’t fit in the New World mold either. And the few California Pinotages I’ve tried are no closer to a South Africa Pinotage than an Australian Zinfandel is to a California Zin.
So why should you drink Pinotage? Well, consider this bit of hyperbole from the Pinotage Association: “Because it is different, because it is uniquely South African, because it allows you to strike a blow against the tyranny of the conventional.” Then there’s the problem that outside South Africa, Pinotage is mostly unknown. The South African wine industry needs to get behind Pinotage the way the Argentines have promoted Malbec. If that doesn’t get you to open your wallet, then just drink Pinotage because it’s tasty and better than ever.

Petite Sirah struggled with image problems as well in California, competing with the rising popularity of Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. The issue for Petite Sirah seemed to be more about winemaking than the grape itself. In the 1970s, when the California wine industry was struggling through growing pains, red winemaking lacked flexibility, treating such varied varieties as Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir the same. With few exceptions, red wines then were more rustic than subtle, characteristics that were magnified in Petite Sirah. Many winemakers used Petite Sirah as a blending component. Kent Rosenblum, former owner of Rosenblum Cellars referred to Petite Sirah as the “band aid wine.”
Traditionally, Petite Sirah was matured in American oak, especially in the early years when the resinous nature of American oak would stand up to the strong character of Petite Sirah. “Petite Sirah soaks up oak,” complained one winemaker. Today, winemakers producing Petite Sirah and Pinotage are aging their wines in French oak or a combination of French and American oak barrels, the latter being made using French coopering techniques that tames the resinous nature of American oak. And Petite Sirah doesn’t demand the same top dollar as a Cabernet Sauvignon, so wineries tend to fall back on less expensive American oak barrels.

Aging Potential: In the past, Pinotage and Petite Sirah had a reputation for long aging, mainly to soften the big tannins and allow the tightly-bound fruit to develop. Under the right storage conditions it wasn’t unusual to have these wines age for decades, although sometimes the wines never mellowed or lost their aggressive tannins. Today’s red wines are made in a more accessible style, supposedly because consumers do not cellar their wines for years.. Except for the lightest, fruit-forward styles, most Petite Sirahs and Pinotages will age nicely for five to eight years, with many of the bigger styles developing for twice that time. Find a style you like, buy a half-dozen bottles, and then experiment by drinking a bottle every six months.
Today’s wine market offers many choices, and of course you could play it safe by drinking tried-and-true Cabernet, Merlot or Pinot Noir. But the next time you’re quibbling over what red wine to have with dinner, why not be adventursome and try a bottle of Pinotage or Petite Sirah, or both?

How to Pour Champagne – Tilt the glass, as if you were pouring a beer

How to Pour Champagne – Tilt the glass, as if you were pouring a beer.

The Swartland Revolution – 12 & 13 November

AA Badenhorst Family Wines, Mullineux Family Wines, Porcelain Mountain Wines, Sequillo Cellars and The Sadie Family Wines
would like to invite you to the first annual Swartland Revolution Weekend.
When: 12 – 13 November 2010

Where: Riebeek Kasteel

Price: Weekend package is R1750 per person –

What do I get for my R1750?
* A Swartland style welcome hamper.
* A fantastic in-depth sit down seminar and tasting and tasting of 8 world class wines from Stephane Ogier of Cote Rotie.
* A truly gatskop Braai by Reuben Riffel, including wine and Jukskei lessons.
* Breakfast and coffee on Saturday morning.
* An insightful sit down seminar & tasting of the experiences and next level Swartland experiments of the AA Badenhorst and Sadie Families, moderated by Tim James.
* A presentation by Michael Fridjhon on the Independent character and spirit of the Swartland.
* Saturday Lunch at the World famous Bar Bar Blacksheep, including wine.
* Entry to the Real Men Ferment Wild tasting where you get to taste over 50 wines from more than 16 wineries, convened by Neil Pendock.
* The chance to tell your grandchildren that you were there!
(view the entire programme of events here)

To only attend the Real Men Ferment Wild Tasting on Saturday afternoon is R50 pp.

Bookings: Mail
or call the ladies at DNA Events: Ann (082 909 1116) or Darielle (084 207 3820)

The event will also host the launch of the Swartland Independent, a forum for all independent wineries in the area to work together.

The Swartland is producing some of South Africa’s most exciting wines, with its old bush vines expressing a lot of intensity of fruit. Winemakers such as Eben Sadie and Adi Badenhorst have made their names in this incredible region with unique terroir and wine making styles. – Under the influence, June 2010

So, tired of fashonista cuvees, head out to Malmesbury to embrace the zeitgeist of zef wine – Neil Pendock, May 2010

There is unqualified respect for the area’s terroir and the wines it produces. In its favour are ancient soils, old bush vines and interesting grapes – from Chenin Blanc, red and white Grenache to Clairette Blanche and Shiraz. – WOSA

Champagne fizzics: Science backs pouring sideways

Champagne fizzics: Science backs pouring sideways.

10 Top international wine destinations

10 Top international wine destinations.

Pinotage: Love it or Hate it


via Pinotage: Love it or Hate it.

Zulu Royalty and Celebs jol at Shaka Zulu in London

Last night saw the launch of a new era in Camden, London with the opening of Shaka Zulu Restaurant and lounge. Guests at the launch of the South African

via Zulu Royalty and Celebs jol at Shaka Zulu in London.



Wine, social media and the power of the internet

Originally published in Off Licence News

Clay Shirky may sound like the sort of moniker people come up with when they combine their first pet with their mother’s maiden name to create a fictional porn star, but the American academic, writer and commentator is real enough and nothing to do with Debbie Does Dallas. Indeed, I think he’s one of the most stimulating thinkers of our time, a man who has important things to say about the internet and social media and their impact on our lives.

I’ve just been reading his second book, “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age”, which, despite the jargon-heavy title, is every bit as good as his first, “Here Comes Everybody”. I can’t do justice to the full complexity of his arguments here, but I’d like to focus on a couple of points.

Shirky argues that, thanks to the internet, we are “becoming one another’s infrastructure”. We are also free to “participate in the public conversation” at the click of a mouse. Unlike television, the new media provide people with ample opportunities to “comment on the material, to share it with their friends, to label, rate, or rank it, and of course, to discuss it with other viewers around the world”.

Facebook, Twitter and the like may look “trivial and frivolous”, he adds, but social media give people the capacity to connect, communicate and, if necessary, take action. He cites the example of the lifting of the ban on US beef imports in South Korea, a decision that was reversed because of popular, internet-driven protest, and forced President Lee to sack his cabinet. Not so trivial after all.

How many people are part of this global community? An exact figure is difficult to arrive at, partly because of shared computers and cyber cafés, but Shirky estimates that two billion people have access to the internet, while three billion have a mobile phone. We live, for the first time in human history, in a world where “being part of a globally interconnected group is the normal case for most citizens”.

What does this have to do with wine? Quite a bit, as it happens. As in is so many other fields, the way that wine is sold, described, criticised and presented is changing for ever. The surprising thing is that many of the people who work in and around wine haven’t noticed or are in denial about the power and scope of the revolution.

If you disagree with what I’ve just said, I suggest you take a look at a few winery and generic websites. How many of them connect with their audience? How many present information in new, interesting and visually-appealing ways? How many of them ask for feedback or seek to create communities of fans and aficionados? How many of them are on Facebook and Twitter, conducting tutored tastings or telling people about their latest releases, winemaker dinners and so on? Surprisingly few.

Wine writers have adapted faster to change than the wine trade. There are two reasons for this. First, we’re in the communication business, so are supposed to be good as using words. And second, we’ve all seen the dwindling number of wine publications and the truncated space allocated to the subject by many national newspapers. If we want to present our opinions to a wide audience, and engage with them as individuals and groups, then increasingly we have to do so on-line.

As a comparatively late convert myself (whose website will be relaunched and redesigned later this year) I raise my spittoon in admiration to wine writers such as Jamie Goode, Tom Cannavan, Jancis Robinson MW, Neal Martin and Tyler Colman (aka Dr Vino) who saw the potential of the new media at an early stage. Good wine writing doesn’t have to be marginalised any more. Indeed, it has a greater opportunity than ever to connect and communicate with real consumers.

The same applies to the wine business. One of the most remarkable things about the internet, typified by Wikipedia but apparent everywhere, is that people are happy to share their opinions for nothing. Some of these opinions are worth more than others, but they are freely and often rapidly expressed. If you want feedback on a new wine, label, brand or concept, what better way to get it? Using new communications tools, punters readily exchange views, news and tasting tips on a worldwide scale.

Lobbying and, where necessary, direct action are part of this too. At a time when wine is under threat from health and religious lobbies, the internet is the place to tell the other side of the story: to promote the diversity of wine, its role in a balanced diet, its suitability with food. A global coalition of wine lovers would be a very powerful group of consumers, capable of influencing the way wine is made, taxed and sold. To people who argue it that it could never happen, I say this. The brave new world created by the internet and social media is the present and the future; it’s time we embraced it.

South Africa is full of suprises

By Jamie Goode | 13 July 2010

South Africa is full of surprises. Before the World Cup tournament, most commentators were expecting trouble as the world’s soccer fans arrived en masse. The challenges of logistics and security were deemed to be too great, and many were predicting disaster, but instead the tournament went without a glitch. Overall, it was a great advertisement for the rainbow nation – even the Dutch thuggery in the final as they tried to kick the Spanish off the pitch couldn’t spoil things.

In terms of wine, probably the biggest surprise about South Africa is how well it has done with Sauvignon Blanc. It’s a variety that flourishes in cool conditions, and if you were to sit down with a chart showing the growing degree days (a measure of average temperature) of South Africa’s key wine regions, Sauvignon wouldn’t be your first choice grape for planting. But winegrowers have managed to find combinations of vineyard sites and soils where Sauvignon can flourish, have managed these vineyards well and worked hard in the cellar, and as a result Sauvignon is now South Africa’s fastest rising variety.

Back in 2002 it accounted for 6.7% of vineyard area; by the end of 2009 this had risen to 9.3%. There is now more Sauvignon than Chardonnay in South Africa, and the only white varieties more widely planted are Chenin Blanc and Colombard (most of which is used for brandy production). It may surprise you to learn that with 9446 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc planted, South Africa now ranks third, behind France and New Zealand, in the Sauvignon league table.

Sauvignon Blanc is an interesting grape variety, because it’s probably the one where we have a better handle on the science underpinning how the viticulture and winemaking affect the flavour than for any other variety. There are two groups of chemicals that are considered to be key to the flavour of Sauvignon Blanc.

The first is the methoxypyrazines. These are responsible for the herbal grassy/green pepper flavours and aromas, and are an important part of Sauvignons varietal character. If you want to train your nose and palate to recognize methoxypyrazine, then take a green pepper and cut it open. That’s methoxypyrazine, and in high levels it can be quite pungent and even unpleasant. It’s produced by the grapes, and levels are initially high during the early stages of ripening, falling as the grapes get riper. Viticulturalists have been working hard on ways of managing the grape vine canopy (the leaves) to get just the right level of methoxypyrazine when the grapes are ripe and ready to pick. These methoxypyrazines are stable and the levels remain unchanged during fermentation and ageing.

The second is the thiols. These are sulfur-containing compounds produced during fermentation by the yeasts, from precursors present in the grapes. They’re closely related to compounds that can cause problems in wine, so it was a surprise to find out that three thiols – 4MMP, 3MH and 3MHA – are actually responsible for attractive fruity notes in Sauvignon Blanc. Their typical signature is passionfruit, grapefruit and boxwood, and if you want to get a handle on what they smell like, take a passionfruit, slice it in half and take a good sniff. Thiols aren’t all that stable, and can be lost with ageing. Because they are seen as desirable in Sauvignon Blanc, a lot of work is taking place trying to identify the precursors that the yeasts use to make them from, and then finding out ways of enhancing these precursor levels in the grape by intervention in the vineyard.

The key to successful Sauvignon Blanc is getting a balance between these more tropical fruity aromas and the green herbal notes, and this is what South Africa seems to be doing very effectively. Part of this comes down to growing the grape in the right place, either in cooler regions (such as Constantia, Darling or Elgin) or in cooler spots (such as south-facing vineyard blocks) in otherwise quite warm regions. But it is interesting to note that even among the leading examples of South African Sauvignon there are stylistic differences.

Perhaps the biggest difference in style relates to the level of greenness, contributed by the methoxypyrazines. Some people just can’t get enough of them, while others can only tolerate them in small quantities. A little grassy, green pepper character is an important element of Sauvignon style, adding freshness and focus to the wine. Sometimes, however, this character can be dominant, resulting in overtly green herbal wines. Still, the high-methoxypyrazine style is very successful with some consumers. An example would be Springfield Estate’s Life From Stone Sauvignon Blanc, which is one of South Africa’s most celebrated Sauvignons. Personally, I find this level of greenness off-putting, but this is very much an individual taste issue. My preference is for wines with less of this character, such as Warwick Estate (Professor Black) or Vergelegen.

While Sauvignon Blanc has proved immensely popular with consumers, there has always been a feeling that it is a non-serious variety. You just don’t find many Sauvignons priced £15 and over, whereas for most other varieties, this sort of price ceiling doesn’t exist. For this reason, it’s exciting to see the work being done by Duncan Savage at Cape Point Vineyards. From this cool, maritime spot Duncan has for some years been making one of South Africa’s top Sauvignons. With some oak and a bit of Semillon in the blend, the Cape Point Isliedh is one of the world’s best expressions of Sauvignon, complex and precise and capable of ageing. This is the sort of wine that could see Sauvignon taken much more seriously by the fine wine community.