It’s not often that you walk away from an event, or more specifically a braai, and realise you were a part of wine history. It started off with no real expectations, although great excitement. Arriving at Leonardslee Gardens on 26 April, we were strangely unaware of exactly what awaited us. To taste the first UK Pinotage with the great-grandson of the man who created it and the people that made it.
Gerhard and I got there a little early as we were so looking forward to it all. After quick introductions to Emma Hodges (Wine Experience and Sales Manage), Barry Anderson (Managing Director at Mannings Heath Golf & Wine Estate) and Johann Fourie (head winemaker at Benguela Cove), we headed straight to the Pinotage vineyard. It is a bit surreal walking around this very unique vineyard with the great-grandson of the creator of this grape variety, Abraham Izak Perold. The first commercial Pinotage vineyard ever planted in the UK. Gerhard was there in 2018 with the planting of this very special vineyard. He planted two vines, one for him and one for his great grandfather,
As the Time to Wine Down team, we were so excited and honoured to get an invitation to meet with the Benguela Cove winemaker, Johann Fourie on his recent visit to the UK. Of course, we couldn’t wait to see the estate and most importantly the Pinotage vineyard. We had no idea exactly what awaited us.
It was more than we could have ever expected.
The vineyard was planted in 2018 and the first harvest was in 2020. Visiting the vineyard with Gerhard definitely highlighted the absolute magic of this place and what is happening here for me.
However, it turned out to be more than just a mere visit. After a wine tasting and a walk around just a bit of this magnificent 240-acre estate, with more than 80 sculptures by an amazing South African artist, Anton Smit. Not to mention wild and breeding pairs of Wallabees, exotic plants and so much more.
We were whisked off to our accommodation at Mannings Heath Golf and Wine Estate, also part of this wonderful group.
In fact, Mannings Heath Golf and Wine Estate is the first of their kind in the UK. They have been open since 2017 and we were lucky enough to have Emma Hodges take us around the vineyards. There we were, Andy Copps had joined us by now and we had our new friend Reynard van As with us. Two by two in the golf buggies we were off on our adventure to the vineyards. Well, only after I got to figure out that there wasn’t too much vooma in this machine I was driving.
There are 30 hectares of vineyards with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier on the protected south-facing slopes of Mannings Heath. The soil of these vineyards is quite unique as it lies on the same line as the slopes northeast of Paris where Champagne is grown and consists mainly of chalk. The perfect growing conditions for an exceptional sparkling wine. We’ll have to wait for the 2023 release of the first vintage of Estate English Sparkling wine.
Pinotage and its story
It was in 1924 (or some might say 1925) that his great grandfather, at the age of 44 crossed two grape varieties, Pinot Noir and Hermitage as it was known back then. He wanted to create a strong growing vine with the delicate flavour profiles of the Pinot Noir. The Hermitage was the perfect candidate, a strong growing vine that was resistant to disease. Some even mentioned it as a cross between a peasant and royal varietal.
There were only 4 seedlings from this original crossing and they almost ended up in the garden waste as Prof Perold forgot about them when he left his home at Welgevallen Experimental Farm in Stellenbosch to join the KWV in 1928. Luckily and as the wine gods would have it, Dr Charles Niehaus cycled past just at the right time and saved these 4 seedlings to move them to Elsenburg. In 1935 Professor Perold’s successor, Professor CJ Theron grafted them to rootstock. Just in time to name it Pinot(Noir) (Hermit)age.
It was only after the name Pinotage was decided on by both Prof Perold and Prof Theron that the Crayfish agreement was signed. This meant that French regional names like Hermitage, Bourdeaux etc could no longer be used. In exchange, France agreed to import crayfish from South Africa.
What would Pinotage be by any other name…
The first UK Pinotage
It was almost exactly 80 years ago that the first barrel of Pinotage was made by Charl Theron de Waal in Stellenbosch. It is believed that Prof Perold never got to taste it. He died on 11 December 1941. I do suspect that that barrel looked very much like this one. Perhaps even using a similar process. However, the first time Pinotage was ever printed on a label was only on the Lanzerac label in 1961. The 1959 Lanzerac Pinotage was really the start of it all.
What a privilege to see, touch and smell the first barrel of Pinotage ever made commercially in the UK.
The process of making those first bottles must have been quite an experience. The Leanordslee team told us all about the challenges of unpicking stalks by hand. Crushing and pressing the grapes and making sure all runs smoothly. Of course, Johann Fourie provided telephonic support and sent supplies when he could. Emma made sure to feed the barrel regularly in those important weeks and luckily Barry could find things like a small rake from the garden centre to assist in the process. The Leonardslee/Benguela Cove team definitely had some very interesting stories and we had a good laugh as Emma showed us some of the pictures and recollected the steps in the process.
The fermentation process was completely different to what it would have been in South African conditions. The low temperatures delayed the second fermentation significantly. Subsequently changing the structure and taste profile significantly.
Interestingly though, as Gerhard so kindly explained, when AI Perold crossed these two grapes, his intention was simple. To create a hardier, disease-resistant plant with lighter undertones.
The UK version of this wine definitely seems to have moved more towards the taste profiles of the more delicate Pinot Noir. I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.
The lead up to the braai
After a pretty wonderful day, it was time to get ready for a braai in the Pinotage vineyard. Arriving at the vineyard we were greeted with our perfect setting. Wine, snacks and fire. Perfection. The glasses were ready for us to taste this amazing juice from the vineyard. A quick change of plans as we were waiting and Johann ran off to get a bottle of his award-winning Joie de Vivre 2017 Brut MCC sparkling wine to kick things off.
Now it was the three of us with Reynard, Emma, Barry and Johann. We were also introduced to Jean Delport who is the chef at the Interlude restaurant. Jean received his first Michelin star only 8 months after they opened the restaurant at Leonardslee in 2018 and his second one in 2020. Shortly after that, we were joined by the lovely Claudia Pritchard for Wines of SA. There we were a bunch of South Africans (and some honorary ones) in a vineyard around a fire. The Best Cap Classique in South Africa 2020 was in hand and the excitement was building for this wine we were about to taste.
Of course, the wine did not disappoint. Even amidst Johann’s reservations. As I said above, the flavour profile of the Pinot Noir was definitely much bigger than what South African Pinotage usually demonstrate. I really can’t wait to see how this will age and develop.
Perfect Braai in a Pinotage Vineyard
While enjoying this fabulous taster, we loved all the stories around the creation of this wonderful elixir. Stories about daily feed to the barrel. Trips to the garden centre to get tools for the process and phone calls to Johann for guidance. However, the best one was definitely the Chilly’s insulated water bottle with a sample of the first UK pinotage that happened to get lost with Barry’s luggage on his trip to South Africa. He got reunited with the lost luggage the day before his return to the Uk. Of course, there was no time to get it over to Johann, so he popped it in the mail. However, with no note, label or identification, Johann was extremely suspicious of this random bottle in the mail. It was only a few weeks later that the dots were connected and the contents were probably no longer intact.
As the temperatures were slowly dropping there was an instinctive move towards the glorious fire and subsequent warmth. Fire and wine surely go together pretty well. It just seems like the right combination. The only thing missing was a little music. However, the circle formation that comes so naturally to us creates a safe place. We got to learn about Barry’s father who used to play the guitar around the fire and it made us all reminisce a little.
Also, how Johann sees everyone in his team as equally important and we loved the fact that the children are so involved when their parents have to work over the weekends…
We chatted about sustainable wine farming and what that actually means. The challenges in finding the perfect balance between nature in all its aspects. By this time the fire was ready for cooking. Jean’s authentic style of cooking locally sourced produce is truly inspirational. We had a good chat about his chickens and the effect of the avian flu ‘lockdown’ on their wellbeing. I must say his hunter-gatherer approach to cooking is right up my alley.
Some amazing conversations. It felt like home. Learning about Claudia’s interesting life, filled with travel and amazing adventures. All this while clearly noticing the awesomeness of it all. With Johann pouring us the amazing wines he made and Jean cooking and engaging with us all. The experience was absolutely gorgeous!!
Fire and wine
Jean’s version of ‘something simple’ looked amazing! Various cuts of steak on the fire formed part of the steak roll and salad dinner. ‘Slap haksteentjies’ (Afrikaans onion salad), Chimchuri sauce and rolls. Even though I don’t eat meat, the smells and flavours were absolutely gorgeous and I couldn’t have wished for anything better.
As Claudia described this night so brilliantly in Can we Talk about The Other night? Waking up the next morning with the smell of fire in your hair and memories like these are quite amazing, to say the least.
Thank you to every single person involved in this magical experience. That includes the weather gods and the wild albino wallaby that hopped up to the magnificent ‘Faith’ statue on the other side of the white picket fence while we were around the fire. I can’t wait for our next visit and uncovering more about the dragon of Leonardslee. Apparently the flower, the Lily of the Valley came up everywhere in the gardens where the knight shed his blood.
This is our Time to Wine Down chat shortly after this wonderful experience. We obviously had to reference it and pop a question into our repertoire: