Pinotage: a history of determination and victory

Date posted:
February 9, 2012

Some 90 years after pinotage was born as a South African grape variety, the history tells of an international success story. But as with so many great achievements, success didn’t come easy and the story of pinotage could so easily have ended with the country’s wine industry shooting itself in the foot, so to speak. That it didn’t, was thanks to the Pinotage Association, Absa Bank, and a group of individuals led by Beyers Truter, the greatest ambassador for pinotage over the past three decades.


The biological “mother” of the crossing that resulted in pinotage was cinsaut (or hermitage as it was then known in South Africa), a variety from France that is important in Languedoc-Roussillon and grown from Provence to the Midi where the name is spelt cinsault. It was the flower of a cinsaut vine that was fertilised by the pollen from pinot noir, the “father” of the offspring also of French origin and a noble variety – most famous in the Côte d’Or and elsewhere in Burgundy, as well as in Champagne – that dates as far back as 400 AD, at least.


Notwithstanding the biological parents of pinotage, the person credited as its founding father was Abraham Perold, the first Professor of Viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch and later a Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture. It was Perold who was responsible for the crossing of pinot noir and hermitage that spawned a new variety, the first seeds of which were planted in the garden outside his residence at Stellenbosch University’s farm Welgevallen in 1925.


Born in the Cape on 20 October 1880, Perold was schooled in Wellington before obtaining a BA degree in maths, physics and chemistry in 1901, and a PhD in chemistry from the German University of Halle an der Saale in 1904. He was a respected academic who did much for the advancement of the SA wine industry, but it is his role in the pinotage story for which he will be most remembered. He’d been charged by the government of the day to expand the range of grape varieties in the Cape, and after bringing back 177 cultivars from a scouting mission overseas it was only logical that his work might extend to the establishment of brand new varieties. Most if not all grape varieties are crosses, and pinotage combines the classic taste of pinot noir with the easy-to-grow, disease-resistant quality of cinsaut.


British wine writer and historian Peter F May did much to sort fact from fiction when it came to industry tales based on scanty documentation. Not much detail was known about exactly how pinot noir was crossed with cinsaut until May published his book PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine. His work for the SA wine industry is ongoing, managing an online fan club and having recently reprinted A Year in Paarl with AI Perold – Vine & Wine Experiments 1916.


To think that the first four vines grown from the first pinotage seeds might have been grubbed up in the late 1920s by well-meaning workers who were instructed to clear the garden in which the seedlings were growing! That the seedlings were rescued was thanks to then lecturer Charlie Niehaus, who at the time of the clear-up just happened to be cycling past the garden which Perold had been tending until the end of 1927 when he took up a position at the Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging (KWV) in Paarl.


Picking up where Perold left off, it was Prof CJ Theron who propagated the four young pinotage vines at the nursery of the Welgevallen experimental farm in Stellenbosch. And it was at Elsenburg that in 1941 the very first pinotage wine was made in small casks by one of the lecturers, CT de Waal, who was related to the De Waal family at Uiterwyk in Stellenboschkloof. After a distinguished career as KWV’s chief oenologist from 1928 to 1941, Perold died without having a chance to taste the wine. However, PK Morkel of Bellevue in Bottelary and Paul Sauer of Kanonkop on the slopes of the Simonsberg were more fortunate – as rugby team-mates of De Waal, they were treated to the experimental bottlings and were impressed enough to become among the first farmers to plant pinotage on a commercial scale.


The very first commercial plantings of pinotage were at Myrtle Grove near Sir Lowry’s Pass in 1943, followed by those at the De Waal’s Uiterwyk farm in 1950, and then, in 1953, those at Bellevue and Kanonkop in Stellenbosch as well as at Meerendal in Durbanville. Within a decade thereafter, Bellevue and Kanonkop each won the General Smuts Trophy with their pinotage wine judged the overall champion ahead of any other variety at the National Young Wine Show in 1959 and 1961 respectively.


As it happened, 1959 and 1961 were particularly noteworthy, with Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery (now Distell) combining quantities of the 1959 vintage of Bellevue and Kanonkop pinotages to produce a blend marketed as Lanzerac Pinotage 1959, which was released in 1961 as the first wine to be sold to the public with the name pinotage on the label. It wasn’t until 1973 that Kanonkop bottled and sold pinotage to the public under the Kanonkop label, and Bellevue were even later, with 1999 being the first vintage of pinotage sold under their own label.


Prior to 1961, pinotage was being used in blends with other varieties and with no mention of pinotage on the packaging. The reluctance on the part of some wine producers to market pinotage was frustrating for those who were more fully committed, but selling something new to consumers was very challenging in the face of varieties they were more familiar with.


The boldest among the pinotage protagonists and ambassadors refused to relent, pioneering ahead despite occasional stumbling blocks... such as in the late ’70s when a group of visiting British Masters of Wine pronounced “nail varnish, rusty nails” and declared that the variety had no future... such as when subsequently various South African and foreign wine critics denounced the category...


Groot Constantia’s, Meerendal’s and Simonsig’s were among the first pinotage wines on the market after SFW’s Lanzerac, and by the mid-1970s pinotage producers also included Audacia, Bertrams, Delheim, Fleur du Cap (Bergkelder), Kanonkop, Koopmanskloof, KWV, Landskroon, Zonnebloem (SFW), Middelvlei, Oude Libertas (SFW), Simonsvlei, Spier, Stellenryck (Bergkelder) and Swartland Winery.


Left: Beyers Truter of Beyerskloof, Mr Pinotage and a former International Winemaker of the Year.


One of the achievements of pinotage that grabbed headlines around the world took place in 1991 at the International Wine & Spirit Competition, London, when the Kanonkop Pinotage 1989 was judged to be the world’s Best Red Wine and Beyers Truter was named International Winemaker of the Year. Thirteen years later, in 2004, the trophy for the world’s Best Blended Red Wine at the competition was won by Kaapzicht’s Steytler Vision Cape Blend 2001, made from cabernet sauvignon, pinotage (40%) and merlot.


And one of the biggest milestones in the history of the variety, subsequent to the “birth” of pinotage in 1925 and the making of the first wine from the variety in 1941, was reached in 1995 with the founding of the Pinotage Association, its objective being “the development and advancement of wine made from the pinotage grape variety”. Beyers Truter (then cellarmaster at Kanonkop) managed single-handedly to get some 120 pinotage enthusiasts to attend the inaugural meeting of the Pinotage Association. That so many showed such commitment was a tremendously promising start, and it wasn’t long before the organisation expanded its brief to encompass concerted promotion of the pinotage brand and fostering research in the interests of ever-improving quality standards.


It was another major milestone when Absa Bank became the sponsor of the first annual Absa Top 10 Pinotage competition in 1997. Fourteen years later, there was an excited response to Absa’s announcement that in 2011 it would be stepping up its sponsorship to fund an additional competition for Cape Blends – the entry criteria to include a minimum of 30% pinotage in the mix.


Today there are several established styles of pinotage, and very good examples of the variety are regularly applauded by the public and cognoscenti locally and overseas on both sides of the Atlantic, including France!


Undoubtedly, without fear or favour, South Africa’s finest pinotages and Cape Blends incorporating pinotage can stand shoulder to shoulder with the other great wines of the country and the world. As the Masters of Wine visiting South Africa in the ’90s sang out in praise after tasting pinotage from different areas and price categories: “Red Gold” is what it is!


The work done by the Pinotage Association through its involvement in research/experimentation and technology transfer was crucial in pioneering the now widely accepted methods of top quality pinotage winemaking. No doubt without Truter’s driving force in the founding of the Pinotage Association and in steering its activities over the years, local winemakers would have taken longer to be convinced about their role in the future of the variety and pinotage might never have become quite so special.


Slowly but surely, pinotage is becoming a world player as wine producers elsewhere in the world warm to the variety and want to try making their own. New Zealanders were the first to plant pinotage beyond the borders of South Africa and they were followed by Californian growers in the late 1970s, the Canadians in the late ’90s, with pinotage plantings in Israel also dating back to the last century.


In his book on pinotage published in 2009, wine writer Peter May goes into some detail about “The Away Team”, which also fields players from Virginia, Oregon, Australia, Brazil and Cyprus.


But the variety will always remain South African in origin, one of its trump cards.


(Mike Froud is a freelance writer and editor of South Africa’s Pinotage Wine Guide 1995 – 2011.)




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