Soon after arriving in the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck set about the task of making wine. On February 2, 1659 he wrote in his diary: ‘Today, praise be to God, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes.” Perhaps the process of making wine in the Cape could be seen as an act of colonialism.
The European settlers brought with them their foreign culture, and part of this was wine made from European grape varieties. Since those distant times our viticultural attention became directed at mass plantings of high yielding, workhorse grape varieties.
But in the current rush for global recognition the South African wine industry has latched on to the notion of ‘noble” grape varieties, the idea being that by planting aristocratic varieties such as Cabernet and Chardonnay, they will be promoting quality.
Although this approach has its merits, to my mind it is also flawed in assuming that a noble grape variety will automatically produce fine wine. More important is that we plant cultivars suited to our warm, Mediterranean climate.
Perhaps Stellenbosch University professor Abraham Perold was thinking of this when in 1925 he crossed Pinot Noir with Cinsaut. Cinsaut was then commonly referred to in South Africa as Hermitage; hence the resulting marriage came to be known as Pinotage. Cinsaut, stemming from the hot conditions of the Languedoc in southern France, must have seemed to Perold a clever union with the more refined Pinot Noir, at its best in the cold areas of Burgundy.
The notion of combining cultivars with elegant, cool climate characteristics with those suited to hot climates is not restricted to Pinotage alone. California’s Dr Harold Olmo developed both the Emerald Riesling and the Ruby Cabernet for the same reason. Both were varietal crossings aimed at hot climates. Perold’s work was continued by Stellenbosch professor CJ Theron and in 1961 the first Pinotage was released under the Lanzerac label. It remains a tradition at the annual Nederburg Auction to sell at the opening and closing lots a case of 1960s Lanzerac Pinotage.
Since the 1960s Pinotage has had its ups and downs but is currently on the ascent, being more widely planted now than its Cinsaut sire, once the most planted red grape variety in the Cape. Pinotage’s popularity is not simply due to its status as an ethnic curiosity. Of all the grape varieties planted in the Cape, it is perhaps the one that most clearly expresses the South African terroir. Some experts criticise it for possessing a frequent bitterness and pronounced acid, nail varnish quality.
But they seem to be of the school that wine should have no flaws. Its frequent rustic quality is part of its charm and it retains both the hot, country wine character of the Cinsaut with sometimes the delicacy of the Pinot Noir peering through.
In the rush to plant ‘noble” varieties, many local producers seem to forget that such varieties only attained their status through being planted in their optimum environment. At the same time, while nobility is not automatically a guarantee of quality, many of the varietal crossings developed have failed to produce quality offspring.
This is partly because many crossings were developed for purely commercial reasons, namely productivity. Another key reason is that while many crossings set out to combine the best of both grape varieties, a single, integrated identity is not always achieved.
And of the half-caste Pinotage? It is gradually becoming one of South Africa’s home grown viticultural success stories. This once ugly-duckling- turned-swan is beginning to find its place in the sun.
Attend the annual auction of the Cape Wine Makers Guild, which celebrates its 21st birthday this year at the conference centre of the Spier Estate in Stellenbosch on October 11 at 9am. For details call Tel: (021) 883 8625.
Enjoy the good life
This week sees the launch of the Good Food & Wine Show 2003, set to take place at Gallagher Estate in Gauteng from October 16 to 19.
Highlights of this year’s event include a Chefs in Action Theatre; a celebrity chefs hands-on workshop; a celebrity book signing; an oyster and prawn bar; an Italian kitchen; a brandy-tasting theatre; an African bush banquet; a focus on Scottish cuisine; a cheese emporium; a beer pavilion; a home industries expo; a Wine Walk; a fine dining workshop; an appliance expo; and a children’s cookery workshop.