The Wonderful story of Pinotage

The incredible series of coincidences which is at the heart of the history of this uniquely South African grape is becoming increasingly well-known. But it is always worth telling one more time. It begins with a man without whom we wouldn't be savouring Pinotage wines here and now, Abraham Izak Perold.

A fascinating series of coincidences
We know what Abraham Izak Perold did. He physically brushed a male Hermitage (Cinsaut) flower against a pollen donor Pinot Noir (also described as the Prince of French varietals.) This he did in the garden of his official residence at Welgevallen Experimental farm in 1925. The experiment created four seeds that he planted in the same garden, rather than in the university's nursery. What is less clear is why Perold tried to create offspring from two seemingly mismatched parents. He left no notes at all on the experiment, so we are left to guess. The generally accepted theory is that he was trying to create a baby with the best characteristics of mum and dad - the classic Pinot taste of Burgundy with the easy-to-grow, disease-resistant quality of Cinsaut.

After having conducted the experiment, Perold seems to have forgotten about it. He left the university two years later to take up a position with KWV in Paarl. His Welgevallen residence stood empty, and the garden became overgrown. The university administration despatched a team to tidy up. That could have been the end of Pinotage, but for an incredible coincidence. A young lecturer, Dr Charlie Niehaus, who knew about the four seedlings, happened to cycle past Perold's former residence just as the clean-up team entered the garden. He was just in time to save the seedlings.

These were then re-established in the nursery at Elsenburg Agricultural College by Perold's successor, CJ Theron. The seedlings seem to have spent the next seven years largely ignored. In 1935, Theron grafted material from the seedlings on newly established Richter 99 and Richter 57 rootstock at Welgevallen. This could be another one of the coincidences that seem to indicate a benevolent eye looking out for the yet to be established varietal, since most of the long-established rootstock at Welgevallen were soon thereafter found to be so severely infected with viral diseases that they had to be destroyed.

Perold used to make regular visits to his old stamping grounds. It was on one of these visits that Theron showed the four grafted vines to his predecessor. Perold rekindled the enthusiasm of ten years previously, and suggested the new variety be propagated immediately. According to legend, it was during that visit to the vineyards of Welgevallen that the name Pinotage was born. It had previously been known as Perold's HermitagexPinot. (One source says that the name Herminoir was seriously considered.)

The graft that performed significantly better than the rest was chosen as the mother material of this new vinous trend. Again, the records of early plantings are frustratingly sketchy. But it's generally accepted that Elsenberg was the site for the first experimental vineyard of Pinotage.

Lecturer CT de Waal is credited with making the first Pinotage wine in small casks at Elsenburg in 1941. The farm Myrtle Grove near Sir Lowry's Pass will go down in history as the place where the first commercial planting of Pinotage was made. Wine show deeper.

More intense ruby colour than parents
There was general excitement at the results of the early commercial plantings of Pinotage vines. The grapes ripened early, high sugar levels were achieved easily and the vines stayed healthy and vigorous. The early wines also showed a deeper, more intense ruby colour than either parent did. Some tasters liked the vinosity of the newcomer, others were deterred by the acetone-like quality which was to bedevil Pinotage's development for many decades.

The first real recognition came in 1959 when a Bellevue red wine made from Pinotage was designated the champion wine at the Cape Wine Show. The feat was repeated in 1961 by a Pinotage from Kanonkop Estate. Stellenbosch Farmer's Winery (SFW) was first to use the name Pinotage on a label when, in 1961, they marketed the 1959 champion Pinotage wine, from Bellevue Estate, under the Lanzerac brand. This success, and the knowledge of how robust and early-ripening the variety was, inspired more and more farmers to plant Pinotage.

Many farmers over-produced and a lack of skill in handling those grapes in the cellar resulted in wines of lower quality. Much of the harvest was used to bulk out popular blends, or for cheap jug wines, or was even distilled for brandy.

It seemed as if the final nail had been hammered in Pinotage's coffin during a visit to South Africa by a group of British Wine Masters in 1976. They did not like this new varietal at all. They described the nose as 'hot and horrible', and said the wine reminded them of acetone. The flavour didn't fare much better. 'Rusty nails' was one of the more polite phrases used. Many producers then decided Pinotage had no future, and uprooted large areas of well-established Pinotage vines. Hardly anybody dared to plant new Pinotage vineyards.

Pleasant berry; Bananas and chocolate flavours develop
A few producers kept the faith. They continued to look for ways to improve the quality of the grape. More particularly, they concentrated their efforts in the cellar. They remained convinced that Pinotage could take up a place in the front ranks of the great varietal wines of the world. It was a lonely row to hoe, until another wine competition re-energised the Pinotage industry.

The Diner's Club Winemaker of the Year focuses on a specific varietal or wine category. The 1987 competition was dedicated to Pinotage. The winning wine was made by Beyers Truter at Kanonkop. Wine lovers went back to their cellars and opened the old bottles of Pinotage that they had stored right at the back. They were very pleasantly surprised at how well the wine had aged. Pleasant berry, banana and chocolate flavours had developed.

The future for South Africa
Four years later, the same winemaker put South African Pinotage on the world wine map once again. Kanonkop's Beyers Truter was named International Winemaker of the Year at the 1991 International Wine and Spirit Competition. He was the first South African winemaker ever to win this prestigious competition. It's very apt that he did so with a wine variety which is quintessentially South African, at a time when political developments were ending the country's economic isolation.

The stage was set for a reappraisal of Pinotage's qualities. This started to happen in forum after forum. Another delegation of British Wine Masters visited the country in the early 90s. This time they sang Pinotage's praises. No more 'hot and horrible', or 'rusty nails'. This time they used phrases like 'excellent wine and grape variety with tremendous potential', and the 'future of South Africa', and 'Pinotage should be taken seriously'.

In 1995, James Suckling, the editor of American Spectator, visited the Cape for a tasting of old Kanonkop Pinotages. He declared: "What the hell is going on here? These are spectacular, spectacular!"

At last, after seventy years, South Africa's home-hero wine was receiving the kind of acclaim for which it had been waiting for.

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