A recent survey found that 56% of respondents, when asked if Pinotage or Chenin Blanc should be South Africa’s signature grape, chose Chenin Blanc. The sample was small (540 persons) but the result got me thinking. Whilst one can argue whether or not a country actually needs a signature grape – and what it means – we nevertheless connect certain countries with certain cultivars: America with Zinfandel; New Zealand and Sauvignon Blanc; Australia for Shiraz; Germany and Riesling; and Argentina with Malbec. What of South Africa, the 8th largest wine producer in the world? What is our signature grape? We have none.
Pinotage is uniquely South African. We all know how Professor Perold planted 4 seeds from his Cinsault-Pinot Noir cross in his garden in 1925. It was not until 1961 that the word Pinotage featured on a commercial wine label, a 1959 Lanzerac. The grape has since suffered a rough reputation for making jammy, overripe fruity wines with banana and acetone flavours. Recent improvement in winemaking acknowledged, the variety has done little to allay South’s Africa’s international standing as a cheap wine producer. That is not what one seeks from a signature grape.
No doubt the ‘100s’ banners will be fully out for Pinotage’s Centenary celebrations in 5 year’s time. Sure, there is no country competitor (unless you count 0.75 hectares planted in Horsham, England in 2018) but is that enough to make a variety a signature grape for a country? What of Greek Assyrtiko, incidentally soon to be planted at Jordan Estate, Stellenbosch?
Let us look at Chenin Blanc. South Africa grows more Chenin Blanc than any other country in the world (55%) followed by France (25%) and a further 12 countries. We grow 2½ more of it than Pinotage too. Moreover, Chenin Blanc has been in South Africa since the first cuttings arrived in 1655, some 270 years before Pinotage was even ‘born’. Does not that count for something? Chenin is much more reflective of the terroir in which it is grown. It is made in numerous styles, ranging from lean/dry to rich/off dry, wooded and unwooded, to sweet and botrytised dessert wines, even brandy. I have tasted perlé, rosé, white, red, Cape blended and jerepigo Pinotage too. Most frankly were pretty awful.
You will not find many great Pinotage in the Top 100 wine lists but you will find South African Chenins. There were 6 times as many Chenin as Pinotage rated 90 points or over in the Decanter 2018 Awards, for example. The 2019 Platter’s Wine Guide, our very own ‘bible’, has 54 Chenin Blanc (18 x 5*) and only 9 Pinotage (3 x 5*) scoring 94 or more points.
Let us celebrate in 2025, sooner perhaps, by ditching any thought of Pinotage as South Africa’s signature grape. I vote for Chenin Blanc. We make better, more interesting wines from it, have grown it for longer and more too. It is not just South African’s who think so but the judges of the world also.