Suipie had thought he just about knew all that there was to know about South African varietals. Oh dear.
Pontac. Pontac? Yes, well, it was French in origin, but none exists there anymore. It can still be found here, however, in Swartland (850 vines), Robertson (700) and Stellenbosch (500).
Here’s the thing though: back in 1885 the Cape Government Viticulturist described it as “the most valuable of the country’s red grapes” and said that it made a very good dark wine which in his view “equals Bordeaux and will always find a market in Europe”.
Earlier than that, in a census published in 1822, it was recorded that in the Cape there were planted 180 000 Steen Vines, 270 000 Pontac, 275 000 Hanepoot, 525 0000 Muscadel, and a quite astonishing 21 million Green Grape (Semillon). So, Pontac seems to have been the only red back then!
The grape itself is red fleshed, has high tannins, can produce high sugars, and is a shy bearer. The famous and legendary Sweet Constantia was made in both white and red styles. The latter (which was more expensive) had some Pontac along with the Red Muscudel.
It probably came here from Mauritius, and first plantings may even have happened as far back as van Riebeeck’s time.
In the mid-1940’s C Louis Leipoldt wrote, in his 300 Years of Cape Wine:
Pontak stands in another class altogether. It is a remarkable grape, whose juice is dark red, staining blotting paper, and of a particular sub- acid sweetness when fully ripe ….its presence in the vineyard can always be known by the intense copper red colourisation of the leaves; a patch of Pontak vines between the acres of Hermitage shows like an island of autumn set in the green of summer. It is one of the oldest of our wine grapes, and its must contains unusually high amounts of tannins,fruit acids, and for such a sub-acid berry, sugar which some times reaches 30 per cent”.
By “Hermitage” he meant Cinsault.
So what happened to it? Nobody seems to know. Perhaps the trend away from sweeter wines had something to do with it, maybe the low yields. There is evidence that it is susceptible to virus and pests. Those who have tasted it, however, are full of praise. That’s another thing: Suipie had never before heard of Red Sweet Constantia.
Suipie understands that Hartenberg are looking to plant some, as is none other than Eben Sadie, who is said to have described it as “an old South African hero that has been all but forgotten”.
Grateful acknowledgment for all of this to Joanne Gibson, who writes for WineMag. Look out for her articles, they are splendid.
Suipie saw a rather frothy film on Hallmark called “Paris Wine and Romance”. It was quite fun. An American lady winemaker from Oregon enters her Pinot Noir into the World Wine Challenge in Paris, meets a famous winemaker from Burgundy, and well, the rest you can guess. Anyway, some of the “Pinots” they were drinking did look rather too dark, but that aside, it set Suipie off again. It takes far less than a light movie to get Suipie going on Pinot.
What was in fact rather interesting about it however was the gentle raising of the dispute about old vs new. French traditional wine making is very conservative. We out here, Suipie reckons, tend to follow them, but in the New World (Australia and America) they seem very much prefer to do their own thing.
Suipie has a theory about that. It’s to do with the fact that our wine tradition goes back 400 years, much longer than that of the other New World Countries. Also, we were influenced by the French in the form of the Huguenot immigrants which they were not.
Suipie thinks that we still tend to look to France as our role model, but, whatever, it pleases Suipie to hold that opinion however valid it may or may not be!
Pinot is a different story though, because it is so difficult to compete. Burgundy seems to have the best balance, but even there, they do not always get it right, largely because of climatic problems. When they do, however, well, the price speaks for itself, perhaps $20 000 for a Romanée- Conti Grand Cru.
The tight grape bunches promote disease, weather conditions are vital to proper growth, aging is erratic; basically its hands-on and deep prayers to the Weather-Gods!
When you think that this is mostly all based on or around the village of Gevrey, often called Gevrey-Chambertin, and only about 37 hectares of vineyards, it really is extraordinary. Why change when you got it right asks Suipie. Why indeed? But the fact remains that even if “New World” Pinot does not measure up to the “Old”, and probably never can, the wines that we new-comers make are all still pretty awesome!
Back to the film. It was American, the lady was pretty, the Frenchman handsome, she went back to Oregon and after a bit of moping about, he followed her, to import old European skills to these upstart (if pretty) Americans. The movie ended before you were told if it all worked out or not!
In closing, Suipie was rather amused by a piece he saw on the net which pointed out that in World War 2, the leaders of the victorious nations all were drinkers. Churchill of course lead by sheer example, but neither Rooseveldt nor Stalin were shy. On the other hand, Mussolini once used to drink wine but later took nothing stronger than milk, while both Hitler and Japanese leader Hideki Tojo were complete teetotallers.
Make of that what you will.
Interestingly enough, however, recent research suggests that one of the greatest warriors of all time, Alexander the Great, may have been a full-on alcoholic. It is even said that during the fever that lead to his death, at age 32, he insisted on drinking vast quantities of wine as opposed to water, to quench his thirst. The same article said Alexander’s father, Philip ii of Macedonia, drank so much that he was called “the human sponge”.
Suipie doesn’t know anything about that one, but would have thought that the hangovers produced by drinking the sort of wines that they were making back then (about 330 years BC) must have produced some crippling ones. Perhaps those people were tougher than we are! Perhaps it also explains why both Philip and Alexander died in their early 30’s.
Suipie is creeping disturbingly close to Three Score Years and Ten, and, like Pontac, there is an awful lot still to be tried. Mind you, all you can do is your best. Let it never be said that Suipie did not try!