I have never believed in coincidence. And I have never believed as strongly in that statement as I do when I talk about the existence of Pinotage. A series of very lucky and very fortunate events or a well-orchestrated blessing in disguise? I will tell the story so you can decide for yourself.
It all began one glorious day in the Boland town of Stellenbosch. It was the year 1925 and Professor Abraham Izak Perold – the very first professor of viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch – had decided to develop a new wine grape cultivar by crossing the delicate French varietal Pinot noir with the robust and easy-to-grow Hermitage (more commonly known as Cinsaut). As the late professor didn’t leave any notes on this experiment and why he chose these two cultivars, we have to guess that he had hoped to marry the desirable flavours of Pinot noir (that is difficult to cultivate under South African conditions) with the resilient growth characteristics of Cinsaut. So, by rubbing the pollen of the one (Pinot noir) on the flower of the other (Cinsaut), a new varietal was born – although it didn’t have a name yet. This was a little home experiment that Izak did in his garden at Welgevallen Experimental Farm. This is also where he planted the four seeds that had emerged from his experiment. It seems that after that Professor Perold had forgotten about his precious seedlings, as he left the university two years after that to pursue a career at KWV in Paarl. Along with it, he also left his home and garden at Welgevallen. Leaving it unattended, the garden became overgrown and a clean-up team was sent by the university to get the place back into shape. It was on the very same day the team was going to tidy up that the young Dr Charlie Niehaus (who thankfully knew about the seedlings) cycled by Perold’s old residence just in time to save the four seedlings (and therefore Pinotage itself) from being lost forever. Thereafter, Perold’s successor, Prof CJ Theron re-planted the seedlings at the Elsenburg Agricultural College. After a couple of years, Prof Theron grafted the vines onto strong, disease-free rootstocks and it was seen as another blessing in disguise, as the other older rootstocks was soon after found to be so disease ridden that they had to be destroyed. Perold often visited the experimental farm and it was on one of these visits that Theron showed him the four grafted vines. Perold was so impressed with their growth that he demanded they be propagated. It is also believed that the name “Pinotage” was also used for the first time on this day.
And so, we thank you Prof Perold, as well as Dr Niehaus and Prof Theron, for giving us Pinotage and making sure it survived all the perils and pitfalls. But now, who actually made the first wine from this exciting new, proudly South African varietal? A lecturer at Elsenburg, Mr CT de Waal, had the honour of making the very first wine from these grapes and the first commercial planting was on the farm Myrtle Grove, near Sir Lowry’s Pass. Although the grapes showed great potential with the initial plantings, having naturally high sugar levels, ripening earlier and staying healthy and vigorous, it is the wine that eventually almost destroyed our beloved cultivar. As the vines produced such large amounts of grapes, many farmers planted Pinotage for the production of bulk wines. Also, because of its dark, ruby colour, many producers stretched their wine as to produce even more with the result of a very thin and imbalanced wine. Many wine drinkers also experienced acetone (nail polish remover)- like aromas. These kinds of comments cast a shadow over the cultivar and it seemed like the varietal was doomed even before it had a chance to prove itself.
Most producers gave up on the cultivar after that, but a small group kept the faith and experimented with ways to improve the wine with special attention paid to what they did in the cellars. And by 1987, things had started to look up for our cultivar. Beyers Truter (then at Kanonkop) had just won the Diner’s Club Winemaker of the Year award with an inspiring Pinotage and thereby caused quite a stir in the industry. Wine collectors from all over flocked to their cellars and wiped down the dust from their old bottles of Pinotage. To their pleasant surprise, delightful flavours of ripe berries, chocolate and banana had developed over the years. The future of Pinotage started to look all the more promising, especially after Beyers Truter won yet another award for his Pinotage soon after that – this time at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in 1991 as International Winemaker of the Year. And after that, the world was hooked. Positive forums and comments from all over the world put Pinotage on the pedestal it so long deserved.
The rest, as they say, is history. Pinotage was put on the map and it is now here to stay. The versatility this cultivar lends itself to, is just one more reason to get excited about it. Whether you like the chocolatey, coffee-like Pinotage or the ripe berry, smoky and leathery style, there is bound to be a Pinotage that will tickle your taste buds. So, if you haven’t given it a try yet, what are you waiting for? Remember: local is lekker!