Everyone loves a good story and when introducing overseas wine lovers to our distinctively South African Pinotage, the story never fails to entrance. The anecdotal tale of how four almost forgotten experimental seeds were saved from obscurity and went on to form the basis of South Africa’s bold new wine paints a vivid picture, and the subsequent series of the ups and downs involved in launching this iconic varietal make for even more interesting reading.
Our series of happy coincidences kick off in 1925 in Stellenbosch where Abraham Izak Perold, the first Professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University, set out to combine the elegance and refined taste of the great French Pinot Noir grape varietal with the more robust and disease resistant Cinsaut. Cinsaut was known as Hermitage in South Africa at the time – hence the charming portmanteau name – Pinotage. Perold mysteriously kept no notes on this experiment and illogically planted the only four seeds that were produced in his own garden at his official residence Welgevallen Experimental farm and not the university’s nursery for observation. Two years later Perold moved out of the Welgevallen residence and the garden was left to run riot. University staff sent a cleaning crew to the property to tidy the overgrown garden up for its next tenant.
Were it not for another twist in the tale, the first Pinotage grapes as we know it today might have been destroyed in that supposed clean-up. As it happens, Dr Charlie Niehaus, a young lecturer who knew about the existence of the four rogue seeds was cycling past the property as the crew prepared to start their clean-up. We can only imagine the erstwhile Professor Perold must have mentioned their existence to his junior colleague, and this is what saved the Pinotage varietal in the end. The young plants had flourished and were carefully transplanted to the nursery at Elsenburg Agricultural College.
After another few years of peace and quiet the seedlings were grafted into established rootstock once again at Welgevallen. Once again fate seems to have been keeping a close guard on the progress of this young varietal. Much of the Welgevallen rootstock was subsequently largely wiped-out by a fungal infection. And to make matters even more interesting, Perold was allowed to once again play a role in the future of this bold new varietal. Upon visiting his old home he was shown the new grafted plants after 10 years of progress. Perold was once again swept up in the excitement of his initial ground-breaking experiment and immediately set plans in motion to have the new varietal propagated to see how it would perform. And in tradition of legends the new plants naturally outperformed all others. The best specimens were selected for further cultivation and according to history the first Pinotage wine was subsequently produced at nearby Elsenburg from the first Pinotage vineyard in 1941. Myrtle Grove farm near Sir Lowry’s Pass will go down in history as the place where the first commercial planting of Pinotage was made. Plantings were also made in nearby Kanonkop estate and it is this winery that went on to play a significant role in the development of Pinotage as we know it today.
Initially there was great hope and excitement surrounding this new truly South African varietal. While the grapes themselves proved to be hardy and significantly easier to grow and boasted a beautiful deep ruby red colour, the resulting wines were very unpredictable. When choosing the elegant Pinot Noir as one half of this marriage, Perold had hoped to impart the refined flavours and aromas of the Pinot onto his new varietal. Unfortunately the Pinotages produced rarely possessed this refined bouquet and tended to lean towards stronger and heavier aromas of dark fruits, tar and chocolate, some detractors even going as far as mentioning flavours of nail polish and banana. The South African wine industry in the 60s and 70s was suffering from isolation due to the reigning Apartheid government and the sanctions imposed by overseas nations, conditions that severely hampered young and inexperienced winemakers. Many had no idea how to go about handling this new varietal, its lush and easy growth meant it was overproduced and ended up used to bulk out more popular blends and easy drinking table and house wines.
By the 90s and at the end of Apartheid, the star of this local wine had faded considerably, both locally and internationally, but the new spotlight on our young Rainbow Nation awoke fresh interest in all things South African. While many winemakers had given up on figuring out how best to handle the Pinotage grapes, a few die-hards had perfected both the growing and making of Pinotage, most notably one of the original Pinotage producers – Kanonkop. By growing the vines in a free bush shape growth was optimised, and old-fashioned open-top fermentation seemed to produce wines that aged beautifully. In the late 80s Kanonkop’s Beyers Truter produced the winning wine for the first Diners Club Pinotage category. Many wine collectors sat up and took notice, some returning to their cellars to open up earlier versions of Kanonkop’s Pinotage – and found that the wine had matured exceptionally well.
Truter went on to become the first South African winemaker to be crowned International Winemaker of the Year at the 1991 International Wine and Spirit Competition. The fact that he earned this award by perfecting South Africa’s own wine is truly a testament to how far this wine has come locally and internationally. While there are still many oenophiles locally and overseas who won’t touch a Pinotage, this home-grown hero is definitely here to stay. Beyers Truter went on to further experiment with his favourite varietal at Beyerskloof vineyards, currently one of the most successful producers in the country. While Pinotage will never become a dominant varietal such as Merlot or Shiraz, it is certainly a success in its own right. Recently various other “new world” wine producing countries have also reached success by cultivating Pinotage vines, most notably New Zealand, California, Israel and Brazil.
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