How you can still taste SA’s first Pinotage
19 October 2016
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Welcome to Old Mutual Live Wine edition, on mobile, on digital, on demand. Thanks for listening, I’m Jenny Crwys–Williams . We’ve just celebrated Pinotage Day, a salute to a unique South African varietal. It seems as if Pinotage is back in the saddle again and nowhere more so than at Uiterwyk Estate outside Stellenbosch.
Back in 1941 CT de Waal was the very first person to make wine from Pinotage grapes. Today Uiterwyk is the home of the Top of the Hill Pinotage and that’s made from the oldest Pinotage vines in the world. I spoke to the owner of Uiterwyk and descendent of CT de Waal, Pieter de Waal. Pieter, thank you so much for joining me.
Pieter de Waal: Thank you, nice joining you.
JCW: Listen, tell me, this is the 66th vintage, it’s been in your family all those years, I’m right aren’t I?
PDW: That’s correct, yes.
JCW: It was planted by Danie and Koffie de Waal –
PDW: That’s my father and my uncle.
JCW: There you go! This is the oldest Pinotage vineyard in the world.
PDW: Actually in the universe!
JCW: I was going to say, where else do they grow it for goodness sake! I suppose they could grow it in Australia, yes?
PDW: Yes, I think they do a little bit and in California a bit, I think a bit in Zimbabwe as well.
JCW: And maybe South America, but not in huge amounts. It really is a South African, purely South African varietal.
PDW: That’s correct, yes.
Some of the oldest bush vine in South Africa
JCW: Tell me about these bush vines because apparently they are healthy, they’re strong. But they are 66 years old, which has got to make it some of the oldest bush vines in South Africa I would think?
PDW: You know, I think there’s a Chenin Blanc vineyard that’s actually older, also in Stellenbosch.
JCW: I wonder where that is? That is very old for a bush vine in SA. Tell me a little bit about these bush vines and the yield because the Pinotage yield, I understand, is 1 252 bottles. So this is as rare as hen’s teeth.
PDW: That’s really small, yes. You know, as a vineyard becomes older, it produces less. Normally in our region we get about 7-9 tons per hectare of grapes from a Pinotage vineyard. But as it becomes older, it goes down and this one is down at about 2.5-3 tons per hectare.
JCW: Do you irrigate? You hear about these old vines that you can get in the Swartland because everyone has forgotten them. But they don’t seem to irrigate, do you irrigate?
PDW: Yes, we do, it’s planted on top of this little hill and the soil there is very weak, it’s quite sandy. Then with a clay layer at the bottom. During summer there’s a stage where we see that the vines start to struggle and then we give them a little bit of water, just to carry them through until the rains come in autumn.
JCW: I’m assuming that Pinotage is hardy because it is South African, it’s used to tough conditions, I would have thought?
PDW: It is, I have a theory that Pinotage is not actually a cross pollination of Pinot Noir and Hermitage, but actually of Pinot Noir with Petit Sirah. Because it’s like the same conditions as Sirah, it likes to be in a hardy condition. It likes the same soil types and then if you’re a parent and you have children, then those children always have something, some characteristics of the parent. I find it difficult to find the characteristics of Pinot Noir and Cinsault, I don’t find really Cinsault in Pinotage. That’s why I have this theory of mine.
JCW: Can it be backed up? Are other people detecting the same kind of flavours?
PDW: I’m wondering…
JCW: Maybe after this they’ll pick up the phone and phone you!
PDW: Maybe I’ve started something now!
The history of Top of the Hill
JCW: Tell us about this very old vineyard, Top of the Hill. Obviously you’ve got a hill, I’ve seen the photographs of the estate. I haven’t been, unfortunately, but there’s always the future you know. Pieter, tell us a little bit about the Top of the Hill. Apparently the vineyard is north facing gravel and loam, and that’s perfect for Pinotage on your estate.
PDW: Yes, you want to know how it came about that it’s planted there?
JCW: Yes I do.
PDW: CT de Waal, Charl Theron de Wall was the first person ever to make Pinotage wine in 1941. He was at the University with Professor Perold who created Pinotage. It took them about 16 years to increase the vines from 1925 onwards so that they could have enough grapes to produce a barrel of wine. This was only done in 1941.
But CT de Waal came from this farm where I am and then he had some winemakers taste the wine and then he came to his family and said to them that they must plant Pinotage on this farm because this is where he comes from, he was actually born in the Manor House.
Then initially they weren’t too interested in Pinotage because this farm is known for Cabernet and Shiraz, so they didn’t want to take out a vineyard in the area where they planted, to plant something that’s un-proven. They weren’t that interested in doing it. But CT is a chap that once he put his mind to something, he gets it.
He then in the end got my father and my uncle to planu some and as they didn’t want to take out a vineyard, any vineyard, they found this open piece of land on top of the hill, which is relatively flat. You know the old people, how would I put it, they weren’t lazy, but they wanted to work in a comfortable area.
So they didn’t plant along the slopes, they planted down in the valleys, so nothing was growing on the slopes initially. Then they thought, okay, on top of this hill is relatively flat as well, so let’s plant it there. So that’s why they put that vineyard there. What they didn’t know is that that was exactly the right spot for it to be planted.
What to expect from this Pinotage
JCW: They did it by instinct and then discovered, it’s such a lovely story. Let’s talk about the vine itself, or the wine itself. Because it’s described as fulsome red berries and plums on the nose. Just take us through because I like to know what I’m nosing. I want to know what it’s going to taste like in the mouth.
PDW: Yes, you know Pinotage is a variety that, especially if it’s made in the style that we make it, it’s very intense wine, very concentrated, very dark in colour. If you make it like that, you pick up more black fruit flavours in the wine, like plums and berries. I would say more black plums and blackberries rather than red.
Yes, that’s the characteristic of the flavours that you get and combined with the wood flavour of the new French oak we use. That creates a whole, that when it matures, it comes out with all layers of different fruits and flavours that are just amazing.
JCW: In the old days, before Pinotage became a little bit more sophisticated, it had a distinctive, like taking off your nail varnish kind of smell to it. It was that acetone, almost petrol smell to it, but that doesn’t feature anymore does it?
PDW: No it doesn’t. I tell you what I think, we went through, in my dad’s time, when he was making wine. They were making it in an old traditional style. Then here in the 80’s and 90’s when a new generation of winemakers came in, they changed the style of our red wines. They made wines with more acidity and they were more harsh as well. You had to keep these wines for a long time before you could actually drink them.
Then came the late 90’s, mid 90’s onwards, people went back again to a style that is drinkable earlier. That’s got a lot to do with picking the grapes when the tannins are riper. I think there was a time when they didn’t do that and that created the different style of Pinotage that I think nobody liked.
Making the most of a small vintage
JCW: I certainly didn’t and I don’t know if any of my friends did, but the new Pinotage’s are selling like mad. You’re making a real fuss, aren’t you, of this particular vintage and this particular Pinotage, the de Wall Top of the Hill Pinotage. Because you hand number every single bottle. Just take us through that and why it’s so special.
PDW: Normally we get about 3 000 bottles for a vintage from the Top of the Hill vineyard. Then in 2014 the vintage was light, from that vineyard and the maximum number of bottles we could make was 1 252. Because that’s so few, we decided, okay, let’s do something special with this and let’s number them.
Everybody is numbering them if the bottles are a few, so we thought, okay, let’s do something a little bit different and we started with an idea of putting a neck tag onto the bottle, a little sticker that sticks around the neck and forms a sort of flag standing to the side, if you can imagine that.
PDW: On this we then wrote a little bit about the wine and why it’s numbered and also the number of the bottle. Then we said that people might take this little flag off and then there’s nothing on the bottle, so we put a little sticker on the bottle as well, just to coincide with the same number on the flag.
Then, as things go, designers come up with things and they never test them in practice and then when we had to stick the stickers around the neck, forming this flag. It was so difficult, we couldn’t really, we did a few and then thought, this is going to take ages. My wife Janine came out with this idea, let’s put the sticker on a long, little card and then tie it around the neck of the bottle and that actually makes it look very nice.
JCW: That’s what you do. I know then whether I’ve got bottle 52 of 1 252 bottles for instance. I think it sounds absolutely lovely, because of its rarity value. You’re selling it around R550, which actually, because of that rarity value, I think is incredibly reasonable.
PDW: Yes, I’m not a person that wants to over-price wines just because of something. So I’m keeping the wine, okay, it is a little bit more expensive than usual, but I’m not ripping the price up, just because of the rarity value.
JCW: At Eikendal in general, people are talking about –
PDW: You must be at Uiterwyk.
A blast from the past
JCW: I beg your pardon, I’m looking at the farm house, at Uiterwyk, the Old Manor House, it is one of the oldest wine farms in the country. Certainly one of the oldest Manor Houses.
PDW: Yes, it is old, the farm started in 1682, when the name Uiterwyk was mentioned the first time. It was then owned by a guy called Dirk Coetzee from Holland and he had cattle grazing on this open land. That Coetzee, for interests sake, he’s a person, he actually stayed in Stellenbosch and he’s the person after which the Stellenbosch Athletics Stadium, Coetzenburg, is named after him.
JCW: That’s lovely, I love my history, but also just tell us about the de Wall Manor House experience because it sounds absolutely gorgeous.
PDW: Okay, we’ve had some people visiting us over the years, agents from overseas and so forth and you always want to do something special for them. I’ve been travelling around the world and people don’t really welcome you into their private house, or even if you want to see this magnificent castle or mansion or chateau in France, they don’t do that.
Not even if they know you’re in the same trade as you are and you become friends, they keep their privacy. Our whole approach here at de Waal Wines are that we are hands-on and we want to be authentic. To be able to do that, you will always see me in the tasting area, meeting people. People want to meet the owner and that’s what we do.
Then we thought, people enjoy, the times we’ve done it, they really enjoyed it to see the inside of the house and we did that when my father was still alive. But things go missing in the house like ashtrays and things like that, that’s what happens. So then we thought, okay, if we have smaller groups and we invite them in, we could have a nice luncheon with them and that’s the Manor House experience.
JCW: So they come into your private home and they drink your wine and they have a wonderful intimate experience?
PDW: That’s right, that’s the whole idea.
JCW: I’m sure that people absolutely love it, you must know by the time they go that they’ve loved it or not.
PDW: Yes, people enjoy it a lot.
JCW: Pieter, what a lovely story and thank you very much for chatting to me. You are in that golden triangle, aren’t you? In Stellenbosch?
PDW: Yes, we’re actually, not in that area, we’re on the way to Kuils River, that’s in the area of the Stellenbosch Hills. It’s on the opposite side of the Bottelary Hills, it’s called the Stellenbosch Hills and you have the Stellenbosch Kloof and then Devon Valley. If you know the Stellenbosch area, and if you come up Stellenbosch Kloof, the road that you drive up is actually, it was the old main highway to Cape Town. So that’s another experience if you do that.
JCW: I love the thought of doing that. Pieter de Waal, thank you so much for chatting to us.
PDW: Thank you.
JCW: Thanks Pieter and while we’re talking about Pinotage, you may be interested in the news that Neethlingshof, Lord Neethling Pinotage Limited Release 1999 received a rare Double Gold at the recent Veritas Awards, so maybe go shopping. Join us again for another episode of Old Mutual Live Wine edition and subscribe to this show on iTunes, just search ‘Old Mutual.’