The Vine that Almost Vanished
Abraham Izak Perold was a dashing young Professor of Viniculture and Oenology at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. He wore a stiff white shirt and perfect tie and kept a pen clipped to the breast pocket of his jacket.
Of the many grape varietals that Perold crossed, one combination happened to be Pinot Noir and Cinsaut. It turned out that the new grape he produced was able to withstand the climate of South Africa, was stable, and cost effective to grow. It also ripened earlier than many other grapes, reducing time pressures when harvest arrived. Unfortunately, Perold died of a heart attack in December, 1941, never having tasted the wine produced from the grape he created – Pinotage.
Today, Pinotage is South Africa’s flagship varietal. Yet when South Africa gained a majority rule government in the mid 1990’s, the grape was fading in popularity. Winemakers focused on more popular varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon.
To learn more, I spend two afternoons near Stellenbosch with Peter May, the author of a book about Pinotage. We meet in a tiled inner courtyard in the Stellenbosch Hotel, at the corner of Dorp and Andinger streets. We sit in the shade of a red umbrella. Vegetation grows in deep ceramic planters around us.
Peter has bright eyes and a full smile. His easygoing attitude shows that he enjoys retirement. Within minutes of speaking I learn that Peter is an admirer of underdogs, a technical man intent on demystifying myths about the Pinotage grape he loves.
“What brought me here was work. I used to work for IBM. Came down to Cape Town and stayed at a hotel recommended by the company. Saw the sign for Stellenbosch. Thought this must be wine. But there are so many wineries in the Stellenbosch region. I thought – what should I concentrate on? Pinotage was the one I didn’t know. It was local to the area. It was – yeah – nice. Spicy.
“When I went to wineries they were not so keen on showing the Pinotage. ‘Oh no,’ they said. ‘That’s a local wine for local people. You must really taste our Bordeaux blend.’ I said no. ‘No. In England, Bordeaux and Burgundy are our local wines. I can have Bordeaux wines anytime I want. Let me taste the Pinotage.’
“I was thinking that in 20, 30 years time, Pinotage may not survive. When I went to the wineries to ask to taste the wine, they didn’t seem interested. ‘Oh no. We’re phasing that out. We’ve got some Shiraz now.’
“Cabernet, Merlot, and Chardonnay were being planted in every wine country in the world. I could see we’d end up with about ten grape varieties worldwide. I want some variety. I want my Montepulciano. I want Sangiovese. And I would like to have some Pinotage.”
“The idea came to start a fan club. That’s what I did. I thought I’d call it the Pinotage Club. I do it because I like it. I get pleasure from it. I started off with an ordinary website. As time went on, there became more and more wineries. There have been 50 new wineries opening here every year since ’96. There’s amazing growth here.
“There’s been a sea change. What I feared is that we would have a monoculture, ten or so major grape varieties. Wine drinkers are now maturing. They’re experimenting. At the moment people seem to be interested in and willing to buy, to drink, the less usual, off the beaten track varieties. It’s true with Pinotage.”
Peter suggests that we have lunch together and explore the local region later in the week. Two days later we meet again with his wife, Joan, and visit Kanonkop winery (meaning Canon Mountain, from where early settlers fired cannons to alert residents that ships were coming into port, inciting them to hurry down to sell their fruits and wine). We also visit Fairview winery, with its outside tower where goats live, ascending and descending via an outer spiral staircase. Frustrated at not being able to use the French Cotes du Rhone appellation for his wine, the owner named his wine ‘Goats do Roam’ instead – which is now an international hit. We enjoy Pinotage at both wineries, then drive to Delheim winery and restaurant for lunch. There, weaver birds live in a huge oak tree on acres of land coated by pine trees and fynbos vegetation. We sit on a porch overlooking lush greenery with a view of distant Table Mountain. While drinking a glass of Pinotage I eat ostrich meatballs with organic cabbage, then follow that with a dessert of Pinotage ice cream – the color of blue berries.
We order what Peter recommends from the wine list. We soon pour ruby red streams into our glasses and toast – to variety.
Interested in Peter’s book on Pinotage? Check out: