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?