Melvyn Minnaar: Jungle grapes and Chinese celebration

By , 3 June 2020

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In the chapter ‘Wine Grapes of the Cape’ of the wonderfully readable 300 Years of Cape Wine, first published after his death in 1952, C. Louis Leipoldt writes:

 “In the Zitzikamma (sic) forest grows one of our own wild grapes, with berries that sometimes exceed an inch in diameter. There is no reason why this wild grape should not make a good wine, but I have only once drunk a ‘home-made’ wine prepared from it. This proved to be a thin, very tart wine, but it had a very pleasantly surprising fragrance, quite unlike that of any other South African wine.”  

Leipoldt had a real poet’s enthusiasm for invention, adventure and wine which sometimes pushed beyond reality, but one catches the drift of his keenness of the romantic notion that a sweet-scented wine could be made from grapes harvested in the jungle.

Some of that romance lingers to this day, and that dense forest region with its large, very green trees and sometimes elephant droppings seemed to operate, until some decades ago, according to its own eco-, agri- and social systems. Lumberjacks and smallholdings shaped own communities, and one could well imagine that the fertile soils delivered some form of Vitis vinifera susp Africanus. It remains one of the fine mysteries of that hazy woodland.

Leipoldt’s indigenous grapes didn’t make it to the line-up that propels the South African wine industry, despite the authoritative tone of the chapter’s title. I suppose we have plenty foreigners to go around, and wine cannot be xenophobic. But it can be precious – and the sort of thing that compels intrigue.

Peter Kupfer with a wild grape called Maoputao (毛葡萄), which means “hairy grape”, identified as Vitis quinquangularis Rehd.

Peter Kupfer is a professor at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, and a world expert on Chinese wine culture. He has an enthusiasm not only academic but romantic for discovering ‘jungle wine’ in a similar vein to that of Leipoldt’s. His is a committed explorer of wine made from ‘mountain grapes’ indigenous to certain Chinese regions, and often dating back many thousands of years, as is reflected in his research paper translated as ‘Amber Shine and Black Dragon Pearls: The History of Chinese Wine Culture’ (the title including indigenous grape names).

In an e-mail conversation with Kupfer – and with German and Chinese mixing in – it is clear his passion is not only the details of the culture and the magic of the past but the thing itself: wine and its pleasures.

One of the first things mentioned is the hue and, like Leipoldt, the ‘fragrance’ – “blumig frischen” is his description of an unusual wine he encountered in the subtropical Southwest in Yunnan at a Catholic Tibetan monastery. Sweetly and mysteriously named Rose Honey, the rosé colour intrigued him.  “A taste sensation most unlike German wine.”

While this wine is made from vines probably brought in by French missionaries in the 19th century, wine-making dates back thousands of years in China, and, says Kupfer, the country has about two-thirds of global grape vines that are usually classified as ‘wild’ – Vitis chunganensis, luochengensis, amurensis, etc.  (The latter, from China’s Northeast, and well-established, is presently getting attention in research centres worldwide because of its high resistance to cold and diseases.)  

What is remarkable about his research into this field is how these wild vines fit into an established culture of wine production. Like many of the grapes found in the old, established European Winelands, local grapes had easy, expressive common names such as Black, Red and White Chicken Heart, Little Egg and Violet Shining – grapes used to make simple house wines. He says most have not yet been formally identified. “Names are confusing because each locality, even each village, might have another name for the same grape.”

In his paper, Prof Kupfer makes a salient point about wine in culture. I wonder what our alcohol-obsessed virus-guardians of the past months feel about these wise words:

“China has never in its history undergone any period of prohibition. On the contrary, the Chinese rule ‘No celebration without alcohol’ has been followed throughout all epochs, even in periods of war, revolution and starvation.”

  • Melvyn Minnaar has written about art and wine for various local and international publications over the years. The creativity that underpins these subjects is an enduring personal passion. He has served on a few “cultural committees”.

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  • Jacobus Viljoen14 October 2020

    Does this Prof have also contact on Table grapes in China?

  • Angela Lloyd5 June 2020

    I remember the Jooste family (ex Klein Constantia) showing guests a wild vine growing, along with other indigenous vegetation, in a kloof on the farm. I cannot remember whether they said it bears fruit but it’s certainly indigenous. Christian, Tim, does this ring a bell for either of you?

  • Raymond J5 June 2020

    By the way , it is Tzitzikamma and not Zitzikamma .

  • Tim James4 June 2020

    It seems that even in the western Cape there were indigenous vines, with fruit that the traveller Otto Mentzel in the 1730s said was eaten by the “Hottentots”. In his Stellenbosch University dissertation, JIJ van Rensburg says that Van Riebeeck apparently came to be convinced that the local vines wouldn’t serve for wine (there were lots of attempts to make culinary use of indigenous plants). “Local” would have meant within easy reach of the Table Bay settlement – and presumably somewhere with trees sufficiently sturdy to have vines growing up them. But unfortunately no more commentary is made on this.

    A bit of googling easily reveals the existence of a widespread indigenous vine called “Rhoicissus tomentosa (Lam.) Wild & R.B.Drumm. (= R. capensis)” of the Vitaceae family – like Vitis vinifera. Its common names include “wild grape, bush grape, African grape, forest Grape” as well as names in various indigenous languages. Its fruit is described “edible and pleasant-tasting but acidic with whitish flesh that is similar to that of the cultivated grape”.

    • Peter May5 June 2020

      Thanks, Tim…

      Yes, I remember now.

      Some years ago I meant to go to Kirstenbosch and ask if they had Rhoicissus tomentosa growing, but I didn’t get there. It’s not growing in the garden in Babylonstoren although they do have examples of old varieties growing, including Perold’s Barlinka!

      With all the vini and viticultural knowledge in the Cape, plus enthusiastic gardeners it surprises me that this grape is so elusive and that no one has turned it into a wine in hundreds of years.

      After all you guys have put Rooibois ‘tea’ in supermarkets in UK and USA, and if we northerners have got a taste for that brew then anything is possible 🙂

  • Peter May3 June 2020

    I am unclear about a couple of things:
    1) Do wild grapes exist in the Zitzikamma forest? The article implies Leipoldt was inventing them but he says he drank a wine made from them, or is it that they cannot be found now? It seems odd that a continent as large as Africa has no native grape vines when the European, American and Asian continents do.
    2) The Chinese grape is said to be wild, but doesn’t seem to be growing wild as the photo appears to show cultivated vines on trellising wires attached to an upright post – would the term ‘native Chinese grape’ be more appropriate here?

    • Melvyn Minnaar3 June 2020

      Hallo Peter
      1. Since reading Leipoldt’s intriguing remarks many years ago I’ve tried to find that romantic beverage. Alas. I agree: surely there will be ‘wild grapes’ ex Africa. (Of course ‘wine’ can be made with just about anything that grows.)
      2. ‘Wild’ and ‘native’ is probably interchangeable. Some are indeed ‘cultivated’ – and isn’t that a lovely oxymoron.

      • Peter May5 June 2020

        I am not an expert in grape vines, just very interested.
        I understand that ‘domesticating’, or ‘cultivating’ wild grape vines – which implies training and pruning as a minimum, then selecting particular ones for propagation – brings about clonal difference, changes. And I’d assume that training, pruning and general viticultural practises would result in larger, better fruit than from the same vine growing wild. Thus a wine made from wild (i.e. growing wild) would differ from (and be inferior to) wine made from the same variety grown cultivated.
        It seems that certain ancient wine grape varieties, such as Pinot and Savignan are cultivated wild grape varieties.
        So I guess I am saying IMO wild and native have subtly different meanings. 🙂

      • Peter May5 June 2020

        (Of course ‘wine’ can be made with just about anything that grows.)
        Sorry – I missed replying to this…
        It’s a matter of definition. An alcoholic beverage can certainly be made from organic material if water, sugar and yeast are added as necessary. Whether one considers the result as wine is the crux.
        I (currently) live in the EU where the definition of wine has been made and is enshrined in law as being the product of grapes. It’s a definition I agree with.
        So Sake is not wine, the product referred to in the article is wine as it’s made from grapes, as are the many wines made in many US States from non-vinifera cultivated native varieties.

        (Whether the definition of wine should be restricted to the product of the vinifera variety is another discussion 🙂

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