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Once Upon a Pinotage

Once Upon a Pinotage

It was in 1925 that virtuoso of vino, Abraham Izak Perold, the very first professor of viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch, had a look at grape variants Pinot Noir and Cinsaut (which was known as Hermitage) and decided to apply unchartered innovation to viticulture by cultivating these two grapes together to see what would happen, and that’s how Pinotage came to be. That and the series of unbelievable coincidences and twists of fate and vine that also played an interestingly integral part in Pinotage’s past.

Pinotage on the vine

Pinotage on the vine

Perold had physically brushed a male Hermitage (Cinsaut) flower against a pollen donor Pinot Noir (also described as the Prince of French varietals.) This took place in the garden of his home at Welgevallen Experimental farm. The end result of this experiment saw the creation of four seeds that he then planted in the very same garden. There is still no real insight or answer as to why Perold thought he could create offspring from two seemingly incompatible parents. Leaving no notes or documentation of the experiment, we are still guessing to this day. The generally accepted story is that he was attempting to create a grape defined by the best characteristics of its origins – the classic Pinot taste of Burgundy with the easy-to-grow, disease-resistant quality of Cinsaut. After the experiment, Perold seems to have simply forgotten about it. Two years later he left to pursue a position with KWV in Paarl. His residence in Welgevallen was left empty and overtime the garden became overgrown to which the university administration sent a team to have it cleaned. This was a somewhat of a catalyst of coincidence which saved Pinotage from its near end.

The fateful romance further unfolds when a young lecturer, Dr Charlie Niehaus, who was aware of the four seedlings, happened to cycle past Perold’s former residence just as the clean-up team entered the garden. Fortunately he arrived just in time to save the seedlings. These were then re-established in the nursery at Elsenburg Agricultural College by Perold’s successor, CJ Theron.

The general consensus is that the seedlings then spent the next seven years pretty much ignored and unattended. In 1935, Theron sourced material from the seedlings on newly established Richter 99 and Richter 57 rootstock at Welgevallen. Once again sheer chance seemed to have played a part as most of the long-established rootstock at Welgevallen were soon thereafter found to be so severely infected with viral diseases that they had to be destroyed. It was Perold’s frequent visits to his old stamping grounds where Theron showed the four grafted vines to his predecessor. Perold rekindled the fervour of ten years prior, and proposed the new variety be propagated right away.

Legend has it that during that particular visit to the vineyards of Welgevallen the the name Pinotage was born. It had previously been known as Perold’s HermitagexPinot and according to other unfamiliar sources the name Herminoir had been considered as well. Accounts of early plantings are annoyingly vague and disjointed; it is however generally accepted that Elsenberg was the site for the first experimental vineyard of Pinotage. Lecturer CT de Waal is credited with being the man who made the first Pinotage wine in small casks at Elsenburg in the year 1941. The farm Myrtle Grove near Sir Lowry’s Pass will go down in history as the location seeing the first commercial planting of Pinotage.

Adventure and experimentation fermented with unbelievable timing saw the birth of South Africa’s signature grape, and of course the taste of tale and triumph, being the Pinotage blends we enjoy today.