Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Ugly Duckling

Two weeks ago I wrote about an iconic South African wine of the eighteenth century that was reborn in the twentieth and is becoming iconic again.  This post is about a wine that has never received much recognition outside South Africa, but that does have some rather intriguing features and quite an enthusiastic local following – Pinotage.  Like many cultivars it doesn’t occur naturally, but has been created as a new variety.  Genetic engineering if you will, but not the type involving splicing genes that gets all the bad press.

The story starts in 1925 with the first professor of viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch – Abraham Perold – who was trying out ideas to improve the success of growing pinot noir in the Cape.  As you know, pinot noir is the great red cultivar of Burgundy with various delicious new world styles from the cooler parts of the US, Australia, and especially New Zealand.  To this day it's a big problem to grow in the Cape.  Except for a few special locations, it is simply too warm here for this cool-climate grape to do well.  And it’s finicky in any case – low yields and sensitivity to pests and damp make it a winery nightmare.  So Perold was looking for some way to toughen up the cultivar and tried crossing it with cinsaut – called hermitage here at the time.  Cinsaut is a rough and ready sort of grape making big tannic wines in South Africa that are usually best drunk in the form of brandy.

Anyway, Perold obtained four seeds from his cross, and planted them in the garden at his official residence at the experimental farm – Welgevallen.  Apparently he forgot about them and a few years later he left the university for a position elsewhere.  However, his successor knew about the plants and rescued them obscurity.  In 1935 he grafted them onto healthy root stock and sat back to see what would happen.  What happened was that they made the first wine from these vines a few years later and named it Pinotage.  Kanonkop – now one of South Africa’s top wine estates has been producing pinotage wines since the forties.

At its best pinotage can exhibit rich berry fruit characters and elegance.  But it has its own problems.  In the past the wine often had a banana aroma which many people (including me) found highly unattractive. (“Tropical fruit” is supposed to mean things like grapefruit, peaches and melons not bananas!)  At its worst, as the wine aged, it could produce a smell of acetone.  A group of visiting wine masters in the seventies thought the wines were awful – and said so – and it started to look as though pinotage would never amount to much more than a local curiosity.

Probably pinotage’s fortunes changed because of two different reasons.  The one had to do with wine making, the other with politics.  More care at the winery produced much better wines.  It turned out that while pinotage had inherited the robust nature of its cinsault parent in the vineyard, it had the delicacy of its pinot parent in the cellar.  The banana and acetone aromas were often due to impurities in the wine – they were flaws not characteristics (like the prized asparagus aromas in some sauvignon blancs) – and they could be avoided.  Also when Neslon Mandela became president, South Africa was the flavor of the month in many areas including wine.  So more people tried – and liked – the by then much improved wines.  There is now even a category called “Cape Blend” – any blend of cultivars that includes pinotage.  Several of them are very good.

Personally I don’t think pinotage will knock the heavyweights off their pedestals.  But it’s now grown in a variety of countries – including the US and New Zealand – and well supported at home.  So the ugly duckling has turned into - if not exactly a swan – at least a reasonably presentable duck.

Michael – Thursday.


  1. Why do I always pick the wrong time to mend my ways? No more wine for me, except for this whine.

  2. I've always been awed by those who can recognize what has gone into a wine. I either liked it or didn't. But like Jeff, I don't (can't, doctor's orders) drink anymore so I will add my whine to his.

    1. Barbara, you and Jeff challenge my total disdain of whiners. I shall have to recalibrate!