Pinotage: Behind the Legends of South Africa's Own Wine
This review was first published in GrapesTALK Magazine Summer 2009
Peter F May, in PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa's Own Wine, has made a truly entertaining `detective' tale of his researches into Pinotage's origin.
May starts with the back story of how he became interested in Pinotage and why in 1997 he set up The Pinotage Club, a fan-club for the variety. He brings us up to speed with run through of 350 years of winemaking in South Africa and a brief bio of Professor Perold who created Pinotage in - well, when?
For such a young variety it seems that little is known about its early days. Even the year it was created depends on which source you read. May now starts the mystery section of his book by introducing four stories about the origin of the variety, which are the legends referred to in the title. These legends, un-official anecdotes argued about in South Africa's wine lands, are:
1) Pinotage was created by crossing Pinot Noir and Hermitage (as Cinsaut was known) because red Burgundy was Prof Perold's preferred wine while Tassenberg - a very cheap red wine brand made from Cinsaut- was favoured by his University students.
2) Perold created Pinotage because Pinot Noir wouldn't grow in the Cape and he wanted to get its nobility by crossing it with the sturdy Cinsaut.
3) Perold crossed Pinot Noir with Hermitage. But Hermitage wasn't Cinsaut, Hermitage was also a synonym for Shiraz so Pinotage is a Pinot Noir X Shiraz cross
4) Perold thought he'd crossed Pinot Noir with Hermitage but he was too late, the recipient flower had already been accidentally fertilised and the donor was an American hybrid vine called Jacquez being grown as a rootstock plant.
Peter F May then takes each legend and tracks down the truth behind them in turn until, in a surprising climax, he comes face to face with the truth. Along the way he uncovers new evidence about Jacquez which shows that experts, including Jancis Robinson, have got its origins wrong. He also uncovers what South Africa meant by Hermitage, which supplied the latter part of Pinotage's name.
He then looks at the mystery behind Pinotage's date of birth. But as May says "no-one has even broached the question of what is meant by `created'. Is it when the flower was first pollinated or when its seed was planted; when the vine's initial shoot emerged above ground, or when the future mother vine was selected? Or is it when the first experimental wine was made, or the first commercial vineyard planted or the first commercial Pinotage varietal wine was released?" May refers to sources which give dates between the17th Century and 1928, and official South African records which have Pinotage being grown in 1900, twenty-five years before its generally accepted creation.
Having satisfactorily investigated the various legends, May goes looking for the oldest living Pinotage vineyards and finds them.
May speaks with a leading viticulturist to discover why grape vines have to be propagated by taking cuttings rather than planting their seeds and learns that it is to do with vines having odd-number of chromosomes that makes breeding them like pulling the lever on a one-armed bandit. May visits a grape vine nursery to see how vines are produced and follows Pinotage as it is propagated, grown, harvested, made into wine and marketed, with case studies along the way including an organic vineyard, an old fashioned small owner/winemaker small winery and two major brand names. He tracks down the first man to sell Pinotage wine outside of South Africa and meets Graham Knox, the name behind the web-promoted Stormhoek brand.
The use of Pinotage in blends and the arguments still raging in South Africa about the usage of the term `Cape Blend' on a Pinotage based blend are discussed. In a chapter jokingly titled `Isn't it Rubbery' May looks at complaints of Pinotage tasting like burned rubber and the issue of why the variety attracts such hostility in some quarters.
Usually when Pinotage is profiled its existence in other countries is a footnote, if mentioned at all, but May devotes a lot of space to the subject. I was surprised to learn that New Zealand has been making Pinotage for nearly as long as South Africa. The first commercial varietal New Zealand Pinotage vintage was just five years after South Africa's first. May travels around New Zealand, from the tip of the North Island down to Otago at the bottom of the South Island where he finds the southern-most Pinotage, New Zealand's oldest vines, the worlds only ungrafted vines, and even a Kiwi `cape blend'. He harvests the first Pinotage grapes grown in Ontario, Canada and travels through the USA visiting Pinotage wineries in California and Virginia.
1959 was the vintage year of the first commercial South African Pinotage which means that this is the 50th anniversary of the wine, as well as the 350th anniversary of winemaking in South Africa, so May has chosen an opportune time to publish his book.
I could have done with more photographs to remind me of my wonderful year in South Africa just after Mandela was released, but I applaud the comprehensive end-notes and a good index which is all too often missing from books these days. '