Pinotage: A story of coincidences

The story of the Pinotage began in 1906, when the Cape government wanted to extend the range of grapes planted in the region.

port wine 88 298 (photo credit: )
port wine 88 298
(photo credit: )
Pinotage is a uniquely South African grape varietal that came into being in 1925 through the crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, then locally known as Hermitage. The story of the Pinotage began in 1906, when the Cape government wanted to extend the range of grapes planted in the region. They sent Abraham Izak Perold, a professor at the University of Stellenbosch, on a scouting mission. He eventually returned with 177 varietals which formed the core of a collection that still exists at the Welgevallen Experimental Farm of the University of Stellenbosch. Prof. Perold was trying to create a baby with the best characteristics of mom and dad - the prince of French red grape varieties, Pinot, and the easy-to-grow Cinsaut (Hermitage). The cross produced only four seeds instead of the thousands common in modern-day breeding, and Perold planted them in the garden of his official residence at Welgevallen during 1925 and not in the university's nursery. After having conducted the experiment, it seemed that Perold forgot about it. He left the university two years later to take up another position in Paarl, and his residence stood empty until the university sent in a team to clean up the overgrown garden. That could have been the end of Pinotage but for an incredible coincidence. Dr. Niehaus, a young lecturer, cycled past Perold's former residence one day as the gardeners were cleaning up. He knew about the four seedlings and was just able to save them. These were then re-established in the nursery at Elsenburg Agricultural College by Perold's successor, C.J. Theron. The seedlings were largely ignored until 1935, when Theron grafted material from the seedlings on newly established rootstocks at Welgevallen. Prof. Theron showed the four grafted vines to Perold during one of his visits to Welgevallen and reminded him of the relevant crossing. Very enthusiastic about possibilities for the new variety, Perold wanted to have it propagated immediately. According to legend, it was during that visit to the vineyards of Welgevallen that the name Pinotage was born. Though the hope was that this new variety would contain the best qualities of both parents, the initial tasting did not sufficiently impress. There was no old-world style to copy for the making of Pinotage, so it was very much an adventure for the few producers who kept the faith and continued to look for ways to improve the quality of the grape. They concentrated their efforts in the cellar and remained convinced that Pinotage would take its place in the front ranks of the great varietal wines of the world. The first wines that were made with normal wine-making procedures from vines in full bearing had an attractive and more intense color than those of both parents, frequently displaying somewhat acetone-like aromas, which were pleasing and intriguing for some but less appealing to others. The peculiar aroma disappeared after about two years' maturation, resulting in a more fruity and well-balanced wine, generally tending to be soft and ranging from medium to well-bodied. A wine competition held in South Africa in 1987 was dedicated to Pinotage and re-energized the industry. Wine lovers went back to their cellars and opened the old bottles of Pinotage that were stored all the way in the back. They were very pleasantly surprised at how well the wine had aged. Pleasant berry, banana and chocolate flavors had developed. Pinotage has a good depth of flavor and is a unique and individual, fruity, refreshing wine. It is a dinner wine, with good levels of alcohol providing depth, structure and keeping ability. The best examples of Pinotage wines are medium-bodied and flavored slightly better than most Cinsaut wines, but not quite as good as Pinot Noir. At their experimental vineyard in Tel Tzafit located by the slopes of the Judean Hills, the Barkan winery planted a few rows of Pinotage vines. Since 1995 the winery has been expanding its experiments on this unusual varietal and in 2001, a few barrels were produced. The wine made of the fruit harvested in 2001 has joined the winery's Reserve series, and won Barkan international awards and the appreciation of many wine critics. It was only then that the winemakers at Barkan realized the great matching potential of this varietal with the terroir of the vineyard at Tel Tzafit. By the harvest of 2002, the vintners managed to achieve higher quality grapes by closely monitoring the vines. When the rich and concentrated fruit was first tasted by Barkan's winemaking team, they wisely chose to age the wine in new oak barrels to complement the smoked and sweet flavors. After 14 months of cellaring, the wine reached an optimal balance of fruit aromas and oak flavors. The Barkan Pinotage superieur 2002 has a deep red color with classic Pinotage characteristics. It features complex aromas of blackberries, ripe cherries, cardamom and cloves and has a hint of dark chocolate on a long rich finish. The wine has a great cellaring potential if you have the patience; it will gain complexity in the next five years. NIS 180. The winery offers other Pinotage series produced from the grapes of the same vineyard at Tel Tzafit: Pinotage reserve 2002: Well-structured, smooth and fruity, presenting lovely aromas of black fruit and cassis, with notes of coffee and pepper. It is very fresh and inviting, a great food wine but interesting enough to stand on its own. NIS 79. Pinotage reserve 2001: An intense wine with the aroma of ripe berries centered on black cherries with a touch of sweet spices and tobacco. Stylish and elegant, this wine tastes like it costs a lot more. NIS 80. Pinotage classic 2004: Made of 92% Pinotage and 8% Syrah grapes. Dark red and nearly purple in color, this medium-bodied wine features fruity aromas of cassis, banana and red berries with a touch of vanilla and cinnamon. NIS 42.