Once infamously described by one winemaker in the Cape as ‘The bastard son of Pinot Noir’, let’s face it, Pinotage rarely gets a good press – even within a nation that somewhat naively considers it South Africa’s ‘signature’ variety.
One can imagine the brief given to Abraham Izak Perold who perfected the crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault in 1924: ‘Professor, we want you to create a uniquely South African grape variety that has all the nobility of Pinot Noir but the high-yielding potential of Cinsault’. Pinotage is what they got.
Abraham and the Heretics is something of a tongue-in-cheek challenge to those non-believers to accept the variety into their vinous lives.
Abraham Izak Perold was born in 1880 in Cape Town. Clearly a very bright boy, he studied Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry at Victoria College in Stellenbosch before going on to obtain a PhD in Germany in 1904. For the next two years, Abraham travelled widely, exploring France in depth and conducting what could be considered as the 20th Century’s equivalent of the Grand (viticultural) Tour of Europe. He returned to the Cape with a knowledge of colloquial Spanish, Portuguese and Italian to add to his fluent French, German, English and Afrikaans.
Soon after accepting the post of temporary professor of Chemistry at the University of Cape Town, Abraham left for Europe again, this time at the behest of the South African government with the objective of exploring international grape varieties. He returned with some 177 examples, forming the core of a collection – and which still exists at the Welgevallen Experimental Farm of the Stellenbosch University today.
In 1910, Abraham discovered the table grape Barlinka whilst travelling through Algeria. Returning it to South Africa, he cultivated the variety to the point of establishing it as one of the Cape’s most valuable agricultural export assets. This initiative alone should be considered of much greater significance of Abraham’s contribution to South African viniculture than he his most celebrated work – the creation of Pinotage.
In 1917 Abraham became the first Professor of Viticulture and Oenicology at Stellenbosch University, where he began his scientific examination of vines and researched into their origins and best growing conditions. From 1927 onwards, he served as chief wine advisor for the KWV.
It was before he left to take up this positon that Abraham planted four seeds from a crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault in the garden of his official residence at Welgevallen. He then appears to have (conveniently?) forgotten about them. With his departure, the garden became overgrown and a team of workers was sent in to tidy it up. Fortuitously, a young lecturer, Charlie Niehaus, who knew a thing or two about seedlings, just happened to be passing by at the time and decided to rescue them from the clean-up team.
So, we should perhaps be blaming Niehaus rather than the innocent Abraham..?
In 1935, the young (and as yet unnamed) plants were transferred to Elsenburg Agricultural College under the direction of Abraham’s successor, CJ Theron, where they were grafted onto the newly established Richter 99 and Richter 57 rootstocks and re-planted back at Welgevallen. Abraham continued to visit his former colleagues and it was here that Theron showed him the newly grafted vines – with the best performing example being selected for propagation. It was at this moment that the newly-created variety was a christened Pinotage.
The first wine was made in 1941 – incidentally, the same year as Abraham Perold died – at Elsenburg College, with the first commercial plantings established at Myrtle Grove, close to Somerset West. The first recognition came when a wine made from Pinotage at the Bellevue Estate in Stellenbosch became the champion wine at the Cape Wine Show of 1959. This wine would become the first to mention Pinotage on its label when, in 1961, Stellenbosch Farmer’s Winery (SFW) marketed it under their Lanzerac brand. This early success, and its reputation for easy propagation, prompted a wave of planting during the 1960s.
Often wrongly referred to as a hybrid (it is in fact a viticultural cross between two vitis vinifera grapes), Pinotage has not escaped criticism. Most notably when a group of Masters of Wine (visiting the Cape in 1976) were sufficiently unimpressed to refer to the nose as ‘hot and horrible’ and compared the taste to ‘rusty nails’.
In the early 1990s, as Apartheid ended and the world’s wine market was opening up, South African winemakers had largely ignored Pinotage in favour of more internationally recognized varieties like Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. Towards the end of the 20th century, the grape’s fortunes began to turn and by 1997 it commanded higher prices than any other South African grape in terms of Rand per tonne.
Today, Pinotage accounts for around 7% of the Cape’s vineyards – in comparison to the most prolific grape variety, Chenin Blanc with 18% of total vineyard plantings – and which, by rights, should be considered the Cape’s true ‘Signature’ variety.
Its versatility ensures that Pinotage can be made into a full range of styles and qualities, from easy-drinking reds and rosés to wines worthy of cellaring. It is even used in the production of both sparkling and fortified wines, and there is a legal definition of how much Pinotage is required in the make-up of a Cape Red Blend (between 30% – 70%, since you ask…). The latest fad is for the production of coffee-flavoured Pinotage which, I am sure, has poor old Abraham turning in his grave…
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