How A Man On A Bicycle Saved Pinotage

The culinary world abounds with chance discoveries, as does the world of wine. Chance also played a role in the development of South Africa’s own hybrid cultivar, pinotage, a cross between the voluminous hermitage and the flavourful prince of red wines, pinot noir.



On a mild spring day, a young lecturer, early in the previous century, cycled past an overgrown garden being cleared by workers. He remembered that some year earlier his mentor, Prof Peroldt had planted a few tiny vines in the garden as part of an experiment to develop a cross that he called ‘pinotage’. “What had happened to the vines?” he wondered. He got off his bicycle and hurried through the gate and was only just able to save the tiny vines from the assault of spade and pick-axe.

He removed the precious plants and replanted them at Elsenburg Agricultural College and the rest, as they say, is a history. But it is a history wrought with adverse criticism and some really poorly made pinotage wines, with some wine critics even complaining of a ‘paraffin-like taste’.

But the quality of SA wines has improved with ‘leaps and bounds’, and perhaps none more so than Pinotage. While the scientist is able to perform miracles in the vineyard, it will be up to the artist to produce a truly great wine. Such a man is Beyers Truter, the then winemaker at Kanonkop. At the International Wine and Spirits Competition in 1991 he was crowned best international winemaker of the year. And the wine? Pinotage, of course. What a success story! But then all big schemes and enterprise start in a modest way. With the advent of the ABSA Top Pinotage Competition, the Cape has produced truly memorable pinotage wines. Fort Simon makes a fine pinotage. Those I tasted reminded me very strongly of Pinot Noir. Then there’s Simonsig’s Redhill Pinotage 2007, awarded 4.5 stars in John Platter’s Wine Guide and which sells for a whopping R249.40 per bottle!

Well, quality rarely comes cheap.

  • Linda Schwartz

    Fort Ross Vineyard is growing Pinotage in the steep ridges overlooking the Sonoma Coast in California. Many wine drinkers have had bad experiences with Pinotage complaining of similarites to nail polish remover & rusty metal. While we were waiting for the Pinotage budwood to be released from quarantine from UC Davis, we tried many bottles of Pinotage & were most disheartened. We must have found the perfect cool spot to grow this variety as many wine reviewers – with a poor opinion of Pinotage -have since said that the Fort Ross Pinotage was a revelation to them. Another twist to this story is that I went to my Senior Prom with the son of the same Priofessor Perold from the University of Stellenbosch!

  • Ewald

    Another name worth mentioning when it comes to Pinotage is Bellevue Wine Estate, who sell their wines under the Morkel label. Bellevue is home to the first commercially produced pinotage, by P.K Morkel in 1953, and have since received many awards including a double gold Veritas. They are situated just down the road from the above mentioned farms, in the cape winelands, with awesome views and a rustic tasting room that was once the original cellar.