A last anniversary for 2011 – and a curious, regrettable thing

The great South African man of wine Abraham Perold died 70 years ago, on 11 December 1941. Earlier in the year it seemed we might miss the 50th anniversary of the first label to carry the name of the grape he famously “invented” (that wine was, of course, the Lanzerac Pinotage 1959, released in 1961), and it would also be a pity to not note this associated round-number anniversary).

Not that Perold seemed, initially at least, to take pinotage all that seriously. The story has it that, after successfully crossing cinsaut (aka hermitage) and pinot noir, he planted four seeds in the University’s Welgevallen Experimental Farm and forgot about or lost interest in them. Two years later he left the University and a young lecturer rescued the young plants when the garden was being cleared. At Elsenburg Agricultural College Professor Theron grafted them onto rootstocks. He and Perold then selected the strongest of the young plants for propagation – and gave the new variety its name (for a while it looked as if it might be called “herminot” – just think!).

Perold, born in 1880, in fact started his academic life as a chemist (he had a PhD in Chemistry from Halle University in Gemany). But his early interest in wine is evident from a little pamphlet of 1906 titled “Di Wijnbouw in Frankrijk en hier” [sic].

Soon after, he made his second big trip to Europe, exploring grape varieties on behalf of the government. Later he was put in charge of the new Department of Viticulture and Oenology at Stellenbosch University, and then became Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture. In 1926 he published his great viticultural opus, Handboek oor Wynbou, which he himself translated into English as A Treatise on Viticulture (and did the translation very expertly: he was something of a linguist, fluent in a few European languages and pretty good in three or four others).

Then the KWV, in the early stages of its transformation as the overwhelmingly great power in South African wine, snaffled him as its chief wine expert in 1928. His early death, aged just 61, was undoubtedly a great loss to the wine industry.

All this and more (including a reputation for integrity and personal warmth) is well known. But I recently discovered something rather less trumpeted about the great man, and rather less attractive – an aspect of Perold the politician. There’s not much indication that Perold was particularly interested in politics as such, though always committed to the Afrikaans language and mainstream Afrikaner culture.

But at his death, two years into World War II, Perold was, in fact, a member of the Ossewa Brandwag, the anti-British and pro-Nazi organisation founded in 1939. Which is a little distressing to an admirer of the man like myself, even though Afrikaner anti-British sentiment is only too understandable, and Perold had particular links with Germany (his education, as well as his marriages to two German women, not to mention the support of Germans for the embattled Boer republics attacked by British imperialism erlier in the century).

But it’s regrettable that Perold was associated with support of the Nazis – he was not unsophisticated and ignorant and the victim of emotionalism, but a highly intelligent, educated and well-travelled man – who had even travelled in Germany in the mid 1930s, so that he should have had a reasonable idea of exactly what he was doing. Ah well.

Feet of clay are not uncommon. Let’s forget Perold’s nasty politics (not an uncommon requirement, of course) and remember and regret the early death of the fine viticulturist.

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