Pinotage Part 2 – Kanonkop Pioneers Pinotage

Part 2 – Kanonkop Pioneers
Peter F May

Pinotage had been developed in South Africa in the 1920’s and the first experimental wines had been made by C T De Waal who played rugby football for the Western Province team. His team mates, P K Morkel and Paul Sauer, decided to plant Pinotage vines on their farms – Bellevue and Kanonkop and a few years later Bellevue and Kanonkop Pinotages were the Grand Champions at the Cape Wine Shows of 1959 and 1961. As can be imagined, a new wine beating all the classic varieties at one show was amazing, but then doing so again caused a sensation and encouraged many wine farmers to plant Pinotage.

But it turned out that the variety tests a winemaker’s skill to the ultimate. Bruce Jack of Flagstone Winery says ‘Pinotage is the unpredictable, dangerous ride of your life’s work as a winemaker. It can smell fear on a winemaker at 20 paces. But if wine pushes your button, making a good wine from a difficult grape is like pushing ten. It’s an awesome sense of achievement! I am biased, however. I have tasted and drunk wonderful, emotionally rallying small scale, hand-made Pinotage. For those moments of beauty, it’s more than worth the wild ride.’

Unfortunately many winemakers were not up to the challenge and poor, and badly made wines tarnished the early reputation of Pinotage, causing a vicious circle in which little attention was paid to winemaking and vines were over-cropped to produce vast quantities of poor quality wines to go into blends.

beyers.jpg At Kanonkop another rugby player, Beyers Truter, had been appointed winemaker. He took a different approach by treating Pinotage with all the care and respect needed, and – almost unheard of at the time — aged it in small oak barrels. The resulting wines again stunned critics. Truter won the Robert Mondavi Trophy for his 1989 Kanonkop Pinotage and the title Winemaker of the Year at the 1991 International Wine and Spirit Competition in London.

But there was another obstacle to wide recognition for the variety. South Africa’s government policy of apartheid had resulted in political and economic isolation from the rest of the world. Although a few Pinotage vines had been exported to New Zealand in the 1960’s and were growing with some success there, no-one else outside Africa could grow Pinotage and the variety became completely associated with South Africa.

Peter F May is the founder of The Pinotage Club – – an international cyber-based fan club for wines made from the Pinotage variety. Peter was awarded Honorary Membership of the producers Pinotage Association in 2004 and was a judge at the annual Pinotage Top 10 Competition in 2004 and 2005. Peter is a wine writer, educator and author. His book ‘Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape – odd wines from around the worrld ‘ was published in summer 2006.

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