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When Pinot Tastes Like Syrah It Might Be Pinotage

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jul 22, 2009 1:52pm ET

Last week during a blind tasting flight of 2007 Sonoma Pinot Noirs, I came across one wine that stood out, and that I really liked.

It was dark in color, notably spicy and peppery, with pretty floral scents and ripe, vivid black and wild berry fruit. Tight in structure, dense and concentrated, even a tad rustic, ending with a complex array of fruit, herb and anise, with firm tannins.

My first reaction: Is this a Syrah? Had I missed the change in varietals in the lineup? Did we shift from Pinot to Rhône reds?

The wine certainly fit the critique some people have of some California Pinots--that is, they’re too big and almost Syrah-like in their structure, strength and flavor profile.

When the bags came off, the wine made sense. It was a 2007 Pinotage ($38) from J Vineyards and Winery (which is owned by Judy Jordan, the daughter of Jordan Winery owner Tom Jordan, but is a separate entity). I liked the new J Pinots, too, but the Pinotage caught my fancy that day, and later that night as I tried it after it had had eight hours of aeration. It was still going strong the next day.

It’s a wonderful wine. Pinotage is rather rare in California, and I can only recall having tried a few others over the years. The grape is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault. The latter grape gives it its tannic backbone and muscle, along with the pepper and spice, balancing out the more tender, fleshy, fruitier elements of Pinot Noir.

Pinotage first gained recognition as one of the signature wines from South Africa, where it was created in the 1920s. However, as my colleague James Molesworth pointed out in an article a few years ago, the grape and wine have fallen out of favor there.

J’s Pinotage isn’t the lone Pinotage from California. I’ve given high marks to Fort Ross’ Sonoma Coast bottlings as well. If you like Pinot but have never experienced a Pinotage, you owe it to yourself to try one and taste the crossroad of Pinot and Cinsault, or the point where red Burgundy meets the Southern Rhône.

David W Voss
elkhorn, Wi —  July 22, 2009 3:07pm ET
Thanks for pointing out Fort Ross as I have been a fan of their Symposium since the 2003. I managed to corner most of the supply after tasting it with my wine merchant and the supplier one day at lunch. It also has long legs, tasting even better to me the second day.
Jim Gallagher
Jim Gallagher —  July 22, 2009 3:29pm ET
Frankly I'm taken back by your enthusiasm for Pinotage, but then I haven't tried the wine your describing. Your description of "tannic backbone" and "muscle" which I tend to disfavor in Pinot Noir when it rises to perceptibly harsh levels. I'm looking for a Pinot Noir with fragrant bouquet, complex flavor without mouth challenge.
William Andreotti
Aurora, IL —  July 22, 2009 4:59pm ET
Sorry, but in my opinion if a Pinot Noir ended up tasting like Pinotage, then someone screwed up!:-)
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  July 23, 2009 2:20am ET
wow! weird. last night a guest asked for a pinotage, the server told them 'never heard of it.' but ran it by me anyways. I went to the cellar and sure enough - a long long forgotten Hidden Valley 1998 Pinotage from Stellenbosch, South Africa. Not too bad. You could smell & taste the pinot roots. This one was silky, a bit heavier than most Pinot noirs, fairly aromatic & spicy. The one negative-it had a slightly herbal, sharper than preferred leather note on the finish. Expand the palate. Glad I got a taste
David Nelson
CA —  July 23, 2009 3:47pm ET
Jim - just so I don't screw it up.. how do you pronounce Pinotage?? Thanks
James Laube
Napa, CA —  July 23, 2009 4:21pm ET
pee-no-tahj...as in Taj Mahal
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  July 25, 2009 11:00am ET
James: A little help please. I know in CA that a cab only has to be 75% cab to be called a cab. Is the same true for pinot? Can a CA wine be only 75% pinot and still be labeled a pinot?
Sandy Hamilton
Vancouver, Canada —  July 25, 2009 2:24pm ET
the 75% rule on labelling applies to any grape variety.
Jim Gallagher
Jim Gallagher —  July 25, 2009 2:55pm ET
Sandy,I realize you asked Laube, however, he may not view the question over the weekend, so the labeling of a grape varietal (e.g., Pinot Noir) is federally regulated requiring at least 75% for the grape variety, this applies to Pinot Noir, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot,...
Linda Schwartz
Fort Ross, CA —  July 25, 2009 4:26pm ET
Pinotage is a very difficult variety to vinify as the skin is much thicker than its fragile cousin, Pinot Noir, so it needs a very gentle punch down regimen - once every 36 hours rather than twice a day like Pinot Noir - or else it will be too tannic and have a bitter finish. Some reviewers - but not James Laube who has been very encouraging - have had bad experiences with Pinotage from South Africa and have been reluctant to even try our Pinotage - and a common response after their first sip is "It's a revelation!" and have become our biggest supporters. Our 2006 Pinotage - that is vacationing at the WS and would love to be tasted - is our best Pinotage to date. Since our first vintage in 2001 we have learned to treat this variety more and ever more gently. We still have not released our 2005 Pinotage as it needs more time in the cellar. I would like to thank David Voss for his kind words about our FORT ROSS PINOT NOIR "Symposium" - that contains 4% Pinotage along with 96% Pinot Noir. Our 2006 SYMPOSIUM follows our 2003 SYMPOSIUM - as we can only made this blend if we produce enough Pinot Noir in our low yielding vineyard - that clings to the steep ridges less than a mile from the Pacific Ocean and overlooks the water from a dizzy height - an area know as the "Wild Sonoma Coast" for good reason...
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  July 25, 2009 4:31pm ET
Thanks guys, wasn't sure. Just wonder how many pinots have syrah, for example, blended in to give it more tannin structure, darker color, along with addtional flavors? In the US, we never know what we are really getting. It would be interesting to see how a wine critics score lined up with blended versus unblended (pure) pinots. Who gets the higher score, on average? Suckling's blog kind of follows this with BdM's. Everyone one there is saying they want BdM's to be sangiovese only, or be told. Why can't we be told if we're getting a pinot or a pinot blend? Just asking.
Ted A Hunt
Fort Lauderdale, Fl —  July 26, 2009 9:09am ET
James - Congratulations to Judy Jordan and her team at J. Although we do not prefer her pinotage, we have been big fans of the J Pinot Noirs and other bottlngs for many years. We think they make great wines.

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