Reconsider Pinotage

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On a recent trip to California, I headed out to the dramatic Sonoma Coast to visit Fort Ross Vineyard, high above the Pacific. Yes, the winery makes the expected fine Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in this cool, cool climate, but the owners also produce this delicious and unusual 2007 Fort Ross Pinotage, a nod to South Africa where they both grew up.

Pinotage is a controversial grape that people generally love or hate. Developed in South Africa in 1925, it’s a thick-skinned cross between varietals Pinot Noir and Cinsault. In the best wines, it exhibits the same bright, tangy fruit as Pinot Noir, along with the rustic, earthy, brambly flavors and robust structure that come from Cinsault. But some bottlings in South Africa have the unattractive taste of wet ashes and burnt matchsticks, which turned off wine drinkers for years. More recently producers there have been growing the grape in better terroirs, vinifying them like serious wines, in styles that range from fresh and fruity to deep and rich.

Lester and Linda Schwartz, Fort Ross Vineyard’s owners, are following the same route as the best South African producers and use pretty much the same methods and care as they use with their Pinot Noirs. The result is a dark, concentrated wine with bold smoky-berry flavors ideal with grilled meat.

Fort Ross Vineyard is only one mile from the Pacific, and is in the new Fort Ross-Seaview American Viticultural Area, made official as of January. The estate’s vines are planted on steep mountain slopes at elevations of 1,200 to 1,700 feet. Both the proximity to the ocean and high elevation mean a cool climate, but because the vineyards are above the fog line, the grapes bask in long hours of sunlight. That allows for the long slow ripening that develops more flavors and aromas.

There are now about 20 California producers making Pinotage, but the Fort Ross example is one of the most successful I’ve tried. If you’ve avoided the varietal, it will convince you the grape is worth planting.


Zester Daily contributor Elin McCoy is a wine and spirits columnist and author of “The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste.”

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