We all tried quite hard (well, most of us did) to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Cape wine. Whether or not it was all a bit forced and unethusiastic, even apart from a few unfortunate sneers, I’m not sure, so I’m a little nervous about mentioning a few other round-number anniversaries that fall this year. (There’s another one connected with phylloxera that I’m saving for later, but that’s a bit of a geeky one anyway.)
In fact it seems strange that there hasn’t been mention yet of the 50th anniversary of the world’s first commercial pinotage. (Perhaps there has been, and I’ve simply missed it.) It was, of course, the Lanzerac 1959, released in 1961 by Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery: the first label to carry the new variety’s name. The wine was in fact from Bellevue, and had been named best wine at the Cape Young Wine Show.
That’s worth celebrating, I think, whether or not one is a great fan of pinotage. A quick Google, to attempt to confirm the lack of celebration thus far, did reveal some curious references to “The Pinotage Wine Pressing Festival” at a restaurant in Gauteng on 14 March, when “One hundred guests will have the opportunity to press their own wine on 14 March 2009, coinciding with the anniversary of the first ever pressing of Pinotage wine in February 1659” – which is a splendidly confusing conflation of 1659 and 1959. Unless they really believe that it was good old Jan van R who created pinotage.
That 1959 wasn’t the the first pinotage, of course – that was apparently made in 1941, at Elsenburg (nice to know that not everyne was thinking only of the war!). And that was quite a while after Abraham Perold successfully crossed pinot noir and cinsaut. According to the Pinotage Association website Perold planted four seeds in the University’s Welgevallen Experimental Farm and, it seems, forgot about or lost interest in them. Two years later he left the University and a young lecturer was obliged to rescue the young plants from a team clearing the garden. They were taken to Elsenburg Agricultural College, where it was Professor C J Theron who grafted them onto rootstocks, and proceeded to evaluate the new variety. Together with Perold himself, he selected the strongest of the young plants for propagation – and they gave it its name.
Incidentally, it seems a pity that to the general wine-interested public Perold is known only for creating pinotage (which was clearly something he hadn’t taken wildly seriously, anyway). The more I find out about him, the more I realise what an extraordinarily interesting, alert and intelligent viticulturist – and man – he was.
I’ve been looking at some of Perold’s writings recently (including the substantial viticultural treatise he published in Afrikaans in 1926 and in English a year later), and also stumbled across, in the University of Cape Town Library, what must have been one of his earliest publications: a little pamphlet of 1906, extracted from a magazine called Ons Land. It is titled “Di Wijnbouw in Frankrijk en hier” – and that is the exact spelling: the whole thing is written, as far as I can judge, in recognisably modern Afrikaans grammar, but the spelling retains a good deal of Dutchness, as you can see from just the title. I hadn’t realised that modern Afrikaans orthography was not already firmly established at the outset of the twentieth century.
Another and closely related anniversary, though without the magic of invoking a multiple of 50, is the release of the first “Cape blend” – if, for the moment at least, we can accept that that means a red blend consciously using pinotage to create something distinctively South African. The wine was Welgemeend Amadé, which Billy Hofmeyr created from shiraz, grenache and pinotage as a deliberately local expression of a typical Côte-du-Rhône wine. (Sadly, the De Waal estate, formerly Uiterwyk, persist on their website in the untrue claim that “the 1993 Uiterwyk Estate Wine was the first Cape Blend to be made in South Africa”. And it’s not that they haven’t been told they’re wrong!)
The other anniversary of a Cape first is also Welgemeend’s: The 1979 Welgemeend was the Cape’s first Bordeaux-style blend. Hard to believe it’s as youthful an innovation as that.