Pinotage, oh Pinotage! This vibrant and robust grape variety has quite the tale to tell. It’s a symbol of a country’s resilience, the impact of experimentation, and a touch of serendipity. Join me on a journey into the world of Pinotage, where we’ll uncover the fascinating tale of its accidental creation and the remarkable individuals who have brought it to life and withstood the adversity to see this grape variety grow to its current stature. Let’s delve into the story of Abraham Izak Perold and his great-grandson, Gerhard Perold.
Picture this: a brilliant mind, a twinkle in the eye, and a vineyard where innovation runs wild. Abraham Izak Perold, a renowned viticulturist, embarked on a daring quest to combine the elegance of Pinot Noir with the resilience of Cinsaut (then locally known as Hermitage). Little did he know that this bold experiment would yield a grape variety that would forever mark the landscape of South African viticulture.
If it wasn’t for a man on a bicycle to stop the cleaning crew, those original 4 seedlings would not have made it out of the Welgevallen gardens. Similarly, the visions of people like Paul Sauer, Beyers Truter and Gerhard Perold for this remarkable grape variety and its origin has been the fuel behind it now being grown in various countries, including the UK.
Abraham Izak Perold the man
Abraham Izak Perold was the mastermind behind the creation of Pinotage. He led a fascinating and impactful life dedicated to the fields of viticulture, agriculture, and academia. Not only that, he also spoke 7 languages. These included English, Afrikaans, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and French. Long before he married the Cinsaut and Pinot Noir grapes, to create the Pinotage varietal, he also found the Barlinka grape in Algeria. He brought it back to his homeland, South Africa. The Barlinka varietal became one of South Africa’s top export table grapes.
Abraham Izak Perold was born on October 20, 1880, in Cape Town, South Africa. From an early age, he exhibited a deep interest in the natural world and a passion for plants. This love for nature laid the foundation for his future career in agriculture.
Prof Perold pursued his education at Victoria College, Stellenbosch, where he obtained a degree in Natural Sciences. Fuelled by his thirst for knowledge, he embarked on further studies in Europe. He honed his expertise in viticulture and oenology at renowned institutions.
He obtained a PhD in Halle, Germany (Dr rer nat in Chemistry, summa cum laude, 1904). After that, he went off to France as his father was adamant that he learn from the French.
After completing his studies abroad, Perold returned to South Africa. In 1906 he became a lecturer in Chemistry at the South African College in Cape Town. In 1907 he starts working for the South African government to ensue an intense study and travel into viticulture. His association with the University of Stellenbosch proved instrumental in advancing viticulture and oenology in the country.
Prof Perold played a crucial role in establishing the Department of Viticulture and Enology at Stellenbosch University and became head of Elsenburg Agricultural College in 1912. He becomes a Professor in Viticulture & Oenology and The First Dean of Agriculture at the University of Stellenbosch in 1912. He dedicated himself to research, teaching, and practical experimentation. All this to elevate the quality and reputation of South African wines and people
The Creation of Pinotage:
Perold’s most famous contribution to the world of wine was his accidental creation of Pinotage. In 1924, he embarked on an experiment to cross-pollinate Pinot Noir, a delicate and esteemed grape variety, with Cinsaut (Hermitage), a robust and widely cultivated grape in South Africa.
The goal of this cross-pollination was to combine the fruit-forward pinot noir (which was difficult to grow) with the hardy and disease-resistant hermitage (cinsault).
Perold initially forgot about the hybrid vines. If it wasn’t for a young lecturer, Danie Niehaus, that happened to know about the experiment and cycle past Welgevallen at the right moment to stop the clean-up team, this grape variety might have never existed.
The stock was moved to Elsenburg.
Why is it called Pinotage?
Back in those days, the Cinsaut grape was also called the Cape Hermitage. This was heavily contested by the French as it is mostly Syrah grapes that grow in this region of France. However, Abraham Izak Perold and CJ Theron (his successor at Stellenbosch University) used it in naming this new wine varietal. Subsequently Pinot (from Pinot Noir) and ‘age’ (from Hermitage). However, in 1935, South Africa and France signed the Crayfish Agreement. In this agreement, France agreed to import South African crayfish. In return, South Africa agreed not to use French geographical names (like Hermitage).
Perold’s work extended beyond the creation of Pinotage. He made significant contributions to the study of viticulture, oenology, and agricultural practices in South Africa. His research focused on various aspects, including grapevine rootstocks, vineyard management, and winemaking techniques.
Perold’s visionary approach combined traditional winemaking methods with innovative ideas from around the world. His expertise and dedication helped elevate the South African wine industry to international recognition. This lay the foundation for future generations of winemakers.
Sadly Abraham Izak Perold passed away on 11 December 1941 and never got to taste the fruits of his creation. Although the first barrel was made in 1941. It only really entered the world of wine in 1959.
A rocky road for Pinotage
Its first real recognition was however only when a Pinotage from the Bellevue Estate in Stellenbosch became the champion wine at the Cape Wine Show of 1959, under the Lanzerac label.
Sadly the international wine community was not overly excited about Pinotage. In 1976 a group of British Wine Masters described it as ‘hot and horrible’ and compared it to ‘rusty nails’ This caused many South African winemakers to uproot most of the Pinotage vines and replaced them with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It was really only in 1991 when Beyers Truter won the Robert Mondavi Trophy at the International Wine and Spirit Competition that Pinotage got the right kind of attention.
He is often referred to as Mr Pinotage and has been instrumental in promoting Pinotage ever since. He also started the Pinotage Association.
Towards the end of the 20th century, the grape’s fortunes began to turn. By 1997 it commanded higher prices than any other South African grape.
Today all ‘Cape blends’ of wine from deep coloured fruity wines, easy-drinking ‘quaffing’ wine, rosé, barrel-aged (intended for cellaring) as well as fortified ‘port’ style and even red sparkling wine, are now all made up of a required 30 – 70% Pinotage component.
Gerhard Perold and Continuing the Legacy:
Gerhard Perold, the great-grandson of Abraham Izak Perold, carries forward the family legacy today. Born a century after his famous ancestor, Gerhard is passionate about sharing not only the story but also the culture and narrative behind South African wine.
Through his business, Perold Wine Cellar, based in England, Gerhard promotes South African wines, including Pinotage, to a global audience. He seeks to honour his great-grandfather’s pioneering spirit by sharing the rich heritage and flavours of South African viticulture with wine enthusiasts worldwide.
Abraham Izak Perold’s life was marked by his profound impact on South African viticulture and his accidental creation of Pinotage. His dedication, expertise, and vision continue to inspire the wine industry, and his legacy lives on through the passion and endeavours of his descendants, like Gerhard Perold.