Pinotage Heritage

Whenever the topic of Pinotage comes up among wine lovers, there is much to talk about. The conversation may turn to the historic tales of its creation, when Prof Perold merged Pinot Noir and Hermitage. It may speak of the modern legends who continue to craft delectable and prestigious Pinotage and Pinotage blends. However the story goes, it should always be accompanied by a full glass, good food and great company.

French prince meets humble peasant

In November 1924 Perold recorded seven crossings. On 17 November 1924 entry 2 read “Pino Fin (pa) x Hermitage 10e stok van bo self” .  In 1925, the first evidence of success from the cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, known then as Hermitage. From here the name Pino – tage, is birthed. Prof CJ Theron succeeded in rescuing and producing original seedlings, of which there were only four, and undertook the considerable task of evaluation.

Sixteen years later in 1941, Charl Theron de Waal produced the first barrel of Pinotage wine, in Stellenbosch. The name appeared on a wine label for the first time in 1961 as the SFWs 1959 Lanzerac Pinotage.

The Father of Pinotage


The story of Pinotage starts with its creator, Prof Abraham Izak Perold. His academic achievements included a B.A. in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry, a PhD in Chemistry, and a temporary professorship in Chemistry at the University of Cape Town. This background equipped him with a unique skill set, and after a professional stint in Cape government, he decided to extend the range of grapes planted in the region. This sent Perold on a grape varietal scouting mission.

He returned with 177 varietals and became the first professor of Viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch, later advancing to Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture. He joined KWV in 1927 and made a major contribution to the wine industry during his time there. To this day, the 177 varietals still form part of a collection at the Welgevallen Experimental Farm of the University of Stellenbosch.

Why did Perold decide to cross Pinot Noir, the prince of French red grape varieties, with the humble Hermitage? He left no notes explaining his choice. But there was general excitement at the results of the early commercial plantings of Pinotage vines. The grapes ripened early, high sugar levels were easily achieved, and the vines stayed healthy and vigorous. The early wines also showed a deeper, more intense ruby colour than either parent varietal.

Some tasters liked the vinosity of the newcomer. Others, however, were deterred by the acetone-like quality and this would bedevil the development of Pinotage for many decades.

Local is lekker,
for everyone!

Each year, the Diner’s Club Winemaker of the Year focuses on a specific varietal or wine category. In 1987, the competition was dedicated to Pinotage and the winning wine was made by Beyers Truter at Kanonkop. Suddenly, wine lovers went back to their cellars and opened those old bottles of Pinotage they had stored right at the back. They were pleasantly surprised by how well the wines had aged, delivering flavours of berry, banana, and chocolate.

Preceding this moment was the sensation caused by the Morkels from Bellevue in 1959, when they won the prize for best wine at the Cape Young Wine Show with this virtually unknown cultivar. Another key role player in the success story was the late Senator Paul Sauer from Kanonkop, who did a great deal to improve the popularity of Pinotage.

At one stage, Pinotage had lost all of its traction in South Africa, and in 1979, the plantings comprised of only 66 639 vines. From 1990 onwards, there was a renewed interest in the cultivar, fueled by the lifting of sanctions. Since then, there has been continual plant improvement and clone evaluation, and plantings have increased considerably.

History was made at the 1991 International Wine and Spirits Competition in London when the Kanonkop Pinotage received the Robert Mondavi Trophy as the Best Red Wine and Beyers Truter, then winemaker at Kanonkop, was nominated as International Winemaker of the Year.

The judges praised Pinotage as an “excellent wine and grape variety with tremendous potential”, with promise to be the “future of South Africa”, urging that “Pinotage should be taken seriously”. Since then, a separate category was created for Pinotage, putting it on the same level as the traditional European varieties. Now that’s a lekker local story.