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Delhi Wine Club

Posted: Tuesday, June 23 2009. 12:02

Book Review : Uniquely PINOTAGE- by Peter F May

PINOTAGE, The first-ever book released on the signature grape of South Africa, completing 50 years of its commercial success earlier this year, is the work of an avid English fan who started exploring the varietal over 10 years ago, writes Subhash Arora, reviewing the book.

Published by Inform and Enlighten Ltd. in Britain, ‘Pinotage’ is a comprehensive book written in an easy to read style and is obviously about the namesake grape of South Africa.

The author starts with a brief history of wines in South Africa, beginning February 2, 1659 (350 years ago), when Jan Van Riebeek of the Dutch East India  Company made wine for the first time from grapes grown from the vines imported a few years earlier.

The reader may know that Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir and Hermitage grape Cinsault (or was it Shiraz, also a Hermitage grape-considers the author after talking to several people).  The reader may perhaps also know that it was originally developed by Prof. Abraham Izak Perold of the University of Stellenbosch; details about his works have been adequately provided. But the book reveals that he was known more for developing the eating variety Barlinka which is a reliable and still very popular variety in S. Africa. A lot of work was also done later by Prof. Chris Theron who took over his position. One perhaps does not know that together they had debated calling it Herminot before settling on the current name.

The author has attempted to shatter a few myths about Pinotage, like it does not age well or that it is made only in South Africa. Categorising as Myths, Legends and Unknown, he has studied and discussed various aspects quite lucidly with interesting anecdotes in a full chapter. 

The author also went through the trouble of tracing the documentation done by the professor regarding the crossings and publishes the results in the Chapter- the French Detective’s Report which should fascinate anyone interested in the history and parentage of the grape. He has also taken pains to debunk the theory put forward by many, including a few South Africans that this is a hybrid variety. In fact, he has delved in detail about the ampelography (botanical study of grapes) and cross-fertilisation in his book before concluding that it is in fact a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault. He has enumerated various discussions with people in Europe, Canada, USA and South Africa to confirm his investigative work.

The author pooh-poohs the theory propagated by many writers that Prof Perold who had also encouraged growing Pinotage in order to get the Pinot quality and Cinsault high yields. He had in fact developed many other crosses while at the university and before he could evaluate the results of his crossing, he took up a job with KWV and forgot about this cross-taken up later by Prof. Theron. If he had thought that the results were so important for the industry, he would have followed up on the results, but he didn’t.

The Pinotage Association, official body of producers of this grape, which has also made the author an honourary member for the work he has done to promote the varietal, puts the date of birth as 1925, despite many accounts that claim different dateline. The grape achieved its first commercial success in 1959 details of which are in the book

A chapter gives credit to the oldest vine growers of Pinotage- Kanonkop (Indian Wine Academy had presented their wine in the seminar on South African wines at IFE-India), Bellevue, Meerendal and Uiterwyk. Beyerskloof (exhibitor in IFE-India and at the same conference) and L’Avenir are also mentioned for their pioneering role.

Growing Pinotage, essentially a bush vine, would be a very useful chapter for those planning to grow the varietal or who want to take a tip or two about how the pioneers are doing the work. Bon Cap-a winery dedicated to the organic farming of the varietal gives insight into organic viticulture as well-so is the chapter on Making Pinotage. There is also an interesting account of a traditional and controversial small producer, Jacobsdal, who planted Pinotage vines only, in 1965 and till 2001 planted no other variety.

Then there is Stormhoek who has been successfully marketing Pinotage in the UK-but only during the last 5-6 years. Selling Pinotage-gives an interesting marketing insight into how the wine has been promoted to reach the today’s level. In fact, the details about how tie company went from 50,000 cases in 2004 to 300,000 cases in mid 2007 using blogs as the marketing tool would interest anyone who is neither into Pinotage, nor South African wines; and also equally applicable to a non- wine marketing company.

You also meet Beyers Truter, of Beyerskloof, pronounced as the prince, king and an ambassador of Pinotage-all in one, also the President of the Pinotage Association by the author in yet another chapter exclusively focussed on him.

Pinotage is generally known to be a red wine, in light or full-bodied style made in oak. But little is known of the Rosé, Sparkling or even Grappa and Amarone style Pinotage, blend with Viognier or even Chenin Blanc which are being made from the varietal. Several illustrations about the current producers exist in the book to make you salivate. There is even a white Pinotage now from Mellasat winery in Paarl, that uses a 15% blend with Chenin-such is the versality of the grape, explains the author!

Similarly there is a whole chapter on the Cape blend which is a red blend, but invariably-though not by definition includes 30-70% of Pinotage, with certain other conditions mentioned in the book. The hot debate raging on the subject as late as last year makes the book really current on this issue and many others topics related to the grape.

The author has also taken up the sensitive subject of several complaints about acetone and rubbery-off flavours foreign tasters generally complain about. Whereas the acetone problem seems to have been sorted out with the technology improvements, rubbery off flavours are not necessarily due to the grape varietal, says the author with convincing explanations.

The author has also given examples of the grape growing successfully in New Zealand, California, Canada, Virginia, Israel, and Zimbabwe with efforts going on in Australia, Brazil, Cyprus, Montana, New York, Oregon and North Carolina in the US.

There is a passing mention of India when he writes,’ I have had reports that Château Indage in India is growing Pinotage on a trial basis but they have not replied to requests for information.’ Perhaps they (known as Indage Vintners now) are busy fighting fires due to financial constraints due to the recession. They are supposedly growing over a 100 experimental varieties but no-one has seen the results so far and Pinotage is not a varietal used by them so far in any of their labels. 

Not being a South African, he is not a dogmatic fan of Pinotage from South Africa but the varietal and is not bothered by the fact that everyone does not like the grape.
The fact that the share of the grape in South Africa has grown to 6% from 2% about 10 years ago- the period most of his work has been carried out is an ample proof that the grape is here to stay. Just like fashion, it is possible that the grape may shine in future.

But the answer to the Pinotage quality, niche status and its future may well be in what Anthony Hamilton Russell, owner of Hamilton Russell who made a 100% Pinotage under the Ashbourne label. He is a well-known producer of Pinot Noir, the rising star in the Walker Bay District. Talking of Pinotage ,he says, ‘there is so much  potential of this variety that I just wish people would put more effort into making Pinotage. It is unique to our country and adds to the world of wine.’

The author feels that countries like New Zealand who has already won awards during blind tastings against the South African counterparts shall one day soon the top awards in the Pinotage Top 10 competition being held since 2001 and opened to foreign participants recently. 

The book is an easy read and can be used as a reference book not only by Pinotage lovers but also someone interested in South African wines and even wines in general – as a consumer, viticulturist, oenologist or wine marketer. The author is, no doubt, a hard core fan of Pinotage and has spent over 10 years on researching about the topic, making this book current even for the wineries that are growing Pinotage grapes.

The author may be too ambitious in visualising that the grape variety can yield wines as great as its parent Pinot Noir-but he does defend his hypotheses by claiming that Burgundy has had experience of centuries behind it.

This special interest book may be ordered from for a copy signed by the author. Alternatively try and of course, Amazon, Borders and Barnes & Noble online stores.

Peter F May is a founder of the Pinotage Club. He has judged Pinotage Top 10 and Veritas South African wine competitions and other international competitions like IWC at London. He is like a modern day Indian Jones who tracked down long-lost journals, long forgotten books and analysing the data received during his travels to Cape wine lands, California, Canada, France, New Zealand, Texas, London and Virginia to unravel the mystery about a grape which may be slightly controversial in quality acceptance but is gaining popularity. He lives in St. Albans, England.


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