SA wine history: Selective memory – Part Two: Lanzerac Pinotage

By , 29 September 2021

Established in 1692, historic Lanzerac in Stellenbosch’s fascinating Jonkershoek valley has been on my mind lately, for good reasons (they’re running a fabulous Discover Lanzerac competition for which the prize is an all-inclusive stay worth up to R60 000, deadline extended until tomorrow, 30 September) and possibly not-so-good ones (former owner Christo Wiese is reportedly suing former Steinhoff CEO Markus Jooste to have Lanzerac returned to him, saying that the contract they signed in 2012 was based on ‘fraudulent misrepresentation’ – see here).

In all the marketing material for the competition, as well as around 50th anniversary celebrations for Stellenbosch Wine Routes, Lanzerac claims to have been ‘the first winery in the world to use the term “Pinotage” on their label’. It states: ‘This visionary release marked the birth of Pinotage as a unique variety from South Africa. To this day, Lanzerac, under the leadership of Cellar Master Wynand Lategan and Farm Manager Phillip Le Roux, is still producing award-winning Pinotage.’

Hmm.

That Lanzerac produces award-winning Pinotage today is without question. Contrary to what the marketing material implies, however, Pinotage has not been produced at Lanzerac for six decades. It was only in 2002 that Lanzerac owner Christo Wiese finally succeeded in buying back the Lanzerac trademark from Distell (formerly Stellenbosch Farmers Winery). And this was after reaching a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with SFW in 1997 to share the Lanzerac name, allowing Wiese to produce a Lanzerac Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab-Merlot blend and Chardonnay while SFW would continue to make the Lanzerac Rosé and Pinotage. ‘A unique arrangement,’ noted the 1998 Platter’s guide.

In 1999, Platter’s recorded: ‘Giant merchant-producer SFW continues to produce the historic Lanzerac Pinotage and Rosé at its Stellenbosch winery complex, in the massive quantities their long-established popularity demands.’ The Pinotage 1996 was rated 4 Stars and described as follows: ‘World’s first Pinotage, 1959 released 1961, and still a benchmark of this local-hero variety. Luxe black-and-gold packaging (pvs dumpy “skittle” bottle, impossible to lay down, now a rustic memory) reflects modern, sumptuous wine within.’

Going backwards in time, Platter’s 1996 recorded that the latest Pinotage in this ‘historic Stellenbosch-sourced range by SFW’ – the 1994 vintage – was ‘undemanding but not simple’. (At Christo Wiese’s ‘country seat’, meanwhile, ‘initial, almost experimental, bottlings’ had taken place.)

Platter’s 1993 reported that ‘SFW has been augmenting and upgrading this old Cape favourite, named after a famous Stellenbosch estate’ (while at Lanzerac Farm itself, listed separately, Jan Boland Coetzee was consulting on vineyard plantings, which at that stage did not include Pinotage).

Lanzerac as we know it appeared for the first time in 1992. ‘Welcome to the fray, Mr Wiese,’ said Platter’s after bemoaning ‘yet another heavyweight luminary joining the crowded, overtraded wine scene’… (!)

Regarding Lanzerac Pinotage during the 1980s, SFW had actually ceased production for several years prior to relaunching with the 1989 vintage. The 1986 Platter’s entry for Lanzerac stated: ‘Quality range discontinued except for the rosé on the local market several years ago… Some oldtimers tell SFW they no longer make pinotage like the old Lanzerac ones.’

So what was the original, iconic Lanzerac Pinotage 1959 if it wasn’t a Pinotage from Lanzerac?

Actually it’s all fairly well documented (when it’s not being glossed over).

In 1953, Pieter ‘PK’ Morkel at Bellevue Estate on Stellenbosch’s Bottelary Road became one of the first wine farmers to plant Pinotage on a commercial scale. The wine that he made from his Pinotage vineyard in 1959 was awarded the General Smuts Trophy for the best wine overall at the Cape Wine Show that year, but he sold this young wine to SFW, as he was contractually obliged to do with all of his wines. SFW just so happened to own the Lanzerac trademark, having bought it in 1958 when the Lanzerac property was sold to David and Graham Rawdon for use as a hotel, and this was the name chosen for Morkel’s Bellevue Pinotage when it was bottled by SFW in 1961.

For many years, SFW’s Lanzerac Pinotage was the only Pinotage available in the trade, although the wine was not only sourced from Bellevue but also from the likes of Kanonkop (whose 1961 Pinotage scooped the General Smuts Trophy that year). It was only in 1999 that Bellevue started selling wine under its own label, and only in very recent years have Bellevue viticulturist Dirkie Morkel (nephew of PK) and winemaker Wilhelm Kritzinger made a concerted effort to highlight the estate’s old-vine Pinotage heritage by naming a top-end, tiny-yield bottling as 1953 Single Vineyard Pinotage.

Meanwhile, based only on SFW’s decision to use the Lanzerac name six decades ago, Lanzerac calls itself ‘the home of the world’s first commercially bottled Pinotage’ – to quote directly from a current media release detailing festivities taking place at Lanzerac next weekend to celebrate Pinotage Day (Saturday 9 October). To be fair, the release does then make the following attempt at clarification: ‘It was during the harvest of 1959, when the Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery cooperative, realised the potential of that year’s vintage, and in 1961, created the world’s first bottled Pinotage, using the Lanzerac label.’

If you didn’t know better, you might still assume that it was a wine from Lanzerac, but certainly Lanzerac cellarmaster Wynand Lategan is under no illusion as to the maiden wine’s origins. ‘I’ve seen SFW’s blending record for the wine, in fact I’ve got a photo of the page somewhere, and it clearly states that the Pinotage came from “Morkel” plus it was blended with a dash of Cinsault, I don’t know where from. But definitely the 1959 Pinotage was grown and made at Bellevue, then matured, bottled, labelled and marketed by SFW.’

In 2019, wanting to mark the 60th anniversary of that maiden vintage in an authentic way, Lategan somehow managed to persuade the team at Bellevue to part with about 2.5 tons of fruit from their low-yielding ‘1953’ block for a special commemorative bottling of ‘Lanzerac Pinotage’ that will sport packaging very similar to the original, except for two things: the bottle is not the early dumpy one, let alone the teardrop-shaped one that came later, and the front label does acknowledge Bellevue as the source of the grapes.

The wine will be launched to the media next week (watch this space) and on Pinotage Day, 9 October, Lategan will host two private Pinotage tastings in the Lanzerac cellar, at 11am and 2pm, for R195 per person, with the media release promising that he will provide ‘in-depth knowledge of both the estate’s range of Pinotage wines, rich Pinotage pioneering heritage and vineyard practices pertaining to the Pinotage vines’ (book via email here).

Although the first Pinotage vines were only planted at Lanzerac in 1996, it’s noteworthy that this was before Wiese had reached any agreement (gentlemanly or otherwise) with SFW. ‘Since then, we’ve gradually planted more and more Pinotage,’ says Lategan, who joined Lanzerac in 2005 and insists he would have championed the variety regardless of any marketing potential based on fortuitous historic branding.

‘Firstly, it’s an exciting and very expressive variety to work with. Secondly, our Jonkershoek terroir lends itself to growing Pinotage, with its perfect balance between a warm and a cool climate. And thirdly, Pinotage tells a uniquely South African story. It’s the wine foreign visitors want to taste, and as Pinotage producers we’re over that stage of doubting ourselves. We’ve proved to the world (and ourselves) that with care and dedication and collaboration we get results. We can own it and promote it with pride.’

Will a Pinotage produced today from Lanzerac grapes (or Bellevue grapes, for that matter) age as gracefully as that Lanzerac Pinotage 1959 and some of its successors from the 1960s?

Lategan believes so, but only time will tell.

  • Joanne Gibson has been a journalist, specialising in wine, for over two decades. She holds a Level 4 Diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and has won both the Du Toitskloof and Franschhoek Literary Festival Wine Writer of the Year awards, not to mention being shortlisted four times in the Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards. As a sought-after freelance writer and copy editor, her passion is digging up nuggets of SA wine history.

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