Pinotage must be the most controversial grape variety in South Africa. If you are a keen South African red wine drinker, you’ll either love Pinotage or passionately hate the variety. But preferences aside, the most popular South African variety has a very interesting history. Oh, and while we’re on the topic: What’s up with the new wave of coffee Pinotage on the market?
The father of Pinotage, Abraham Izak Perold, was quite a remarkable man. Perold matriculated in 1898 and got his degree in science in 1901. He got a bursary to further his studies in Europe and obtained his Ph.D in Chemistry (cum laude) in Germany. Pretty impressive! Upon returning to South Africa, Perold was appointed as temporary professor in chemistry at UCT. He was later appointed as the first professor in Viticulture at Stellenbosch and also became Dean of the Agricultural Faculty at Stellenbosch University. Clearly not just an old hack who concocted something by accident!
Perold’s cross of Pinot Noir and Hermitage produced only four seedlings in 1925, which for some inexplicable reason he planted in his back yard at the Welgevallen Experimental Farm and not at the University’s nursery. Even though Perold was a very knowledgeable and respected viticulturist, his selection of breeding parents for Pinotage is very odd: why would anyone want to cross the very noble and delicate Pinot Noir with an insipid variety such as Cinsaut (also known as “Hermitage”)? Sounds like something out of “My Fair Lady”. Only Perold knew the logic behind this but unfortunately he didn’t stick around to explain.
Perold left the University at the end of 1927 to move to KWV in Paarl and his residence at Welgevallen stood unoccupied for some time. As luck would have it a young lecturer at the University, Dr Charles Niehaus, just so happened to cycle past Perold’s former residence while a team was busy cleaning up the overgrown garden, just in time to save the four young vines from the axe. The plants were removed and re-established at Elsenburg Agricultural College’s nursery by Prof CJ Theron. For those who thought that things got mixed up at some point in the old professor’s garden, DNA fingerprinting recently showed that the parents of Pinotage really are Pinot Noir and Cinsaut.
The first Pinotage vineyard was established at Elsenburg and the first experimental wines were made there in 1941. Since Stellenbosch Farmer’s Winery marketed the first Pinotage (Lanzerac Pinotage 1959) in 1961 the variety has grown remarkably. In 1991 Beyers Truter, then at Kanonkop, won the Robert Mondavi Trophy for the best red wine and was also award International Winemaker of the Year at the International Wine and Spirits Competition with his Kanonkop Pinotage. More recently Danie Steytler of Kaapzicht was awarded the Pichon Lalande Trophy, also at the IWSC, for Best International Red Blend with his Pinotage based blend: Steytler Vision. Not bad for a variety that had a humble start in an old professor’s back garden!
The wine on everyone’s lips lately is the new wave of coffee Pinotage. What’s up with the coffee flavour? Is it natural and is it legal? The man behind the wine is a bright oenology graduate from Stellenbosch University Bertus “Starbucks” Fourie. Bertus did his masters degree in wine chemistry, specializing in the effect of different wood treatment on the quality and style of wine. He did his research in conjunction with Sequin Moreau, widely regarded as the Rolls Royce of barrel manufacturers in France. After his studies Fourie went to Diemersfontein to apply his new found knowledge and by combining very specific barrel toasting levels with fully ripe grapes he created the hugely successful Diemersfontein Pinotage. He left Diemersfontein to join KWV, copy and pasted the recipe there to make KWV Café Pinotage, and is currently at La Vie, where they make Barista Pinotage. Whether the new coffee style is good expression of the variety is open for discussion. Fact is that the new style has made Pinotage a lot more accessible to the average wine drinker and has sparked a revival of South Africa’s unique variety.