I’m not sure if Peter May, the English pinotage lover, goes as far as people like Beyers Truter and Dave Hughes in apparently regarding pinotage as God’s chosen grape. But who better than the ardent Peter to write a book on this controversial variety?The book has recently come out in England (self-published by the author, it appears), and with any luck will become more easily available here, for it is informative as well as engagingly written. Peter has approached the subject partly as a sort of wine detective, questioning the stories and legends behind the origins of pinotage. Even if he doesn’t come up with much that is startlingly new, it is pleasant and instructive to follow him on his energetic and honest quest to find the answers to such matters as whether pinotage is really a cross of pinot noir and shiraz (rather than cinsaut) or possibly even a descendant of a non-vinifera variety. And what role did chance play in saving those early seedlings?
Peter May works hard at finding out what there is to be found out about the origins of pinotage, and also looks in some detail at some emblematic producers of wine from the grape he loves so much (it is part of the charm of this book that it is no mere professional bit of research, but that the author is deeply and personally committed to his not-always-admired subject): wineries like Bellevue, Kanonkop, Meerendal and Uiterwyk (now De Waal) which were early involved in growing pinotage, and others like Bon Cap, Jacobsdal and Beyerskloof, which have made signal new contributions to the wine.
Pinotage is no longer (even if it remains overwhelmingly) a South African wine. Peter talks about the international dimension – and, gratifyingly for us, points out that the first ever comparative international tasting of pinotage was organised by Angela Lloyd and reported in Grape. Peter was one of the tasters involved, and there were wines from California, New Zealand, Brazil and Zimbabwe, as well as the Cape team. Since then, Virginia, Israel and Canada – and KwaZulu-Natal – would have to be added to the list of regions with commercial producers of pinotage. It is also apparently growing in other parts of America, in Cyprus – even, reportedly, in India.
And the standard of pinotage has surely risen overall. Peter is straightforward about admitting (though generally disagreeing with) the negative views that the grape has attracted – and in fact it is in connection with this, and with the progress made, that I find a hole in the book. One of the real problems that pinotage has presented over the years (though not, interestingly, the earlier years) has been a bitterness on the finish – sometimes extreme, sometimes a pleasant enough hint. I know a good deal of research has gone into this (as well as into the essentially defeated acetone character), and would have welcomed a report on it – as it seems to me that the problem has been substantially addressed. But this is one of the few issues skated over. The debate over the “Cape Blend” is, however, well and intelligently dealt with (and, I’m pleased to say, the misinformation given out by De Waal about their pioneering role in this regard, which I’ve reported on before, is gently corrected).
All in all, a book to be welcomed by those interested in South African wine and wanting to know more about a grape that is, whether you like it or not, an important one. It must be said that it is not a physically beautiful book., There are some monochrome photographs – mostly fairly murky and dull and amateurish-looking ones, taken by the author – which actually the book would look better without. And it is pretty obviously laid out in an equally amateurish way. But looks don’t really matter, do they, when the heart is in the right place?
Though a good read, it is also not exactly modestly priced for a shortish book with low production values – 235 pages of large-ish print and widely spaced text, for £14.99. But as it is not available on local bookshelves, Peter is offering to airmail it to Grape readers (with a signature and dedication if desired!) at a special reduced inclusive price of £16.99. The paypal link is given at the end of this blog. Any problems or questions or special requests, you can email Peter directly. As to buying it locally online, if you feel like making a sizeable donation to Exclusive Books, you can pay them an amazing R602.12 (how do they get there one wonders); much more reasonably you could get it from Loot for R260.
Pinotage. Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine, by Peter F May, published by Inform and Enlighten.