Tim James: The story of syrah in the Cape

By , 6 March 2020



Syrah on Haskell Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

The history of wine-grape varieties in South Africa remains to be properly researched. It’s a task which will not be made easier by most pre-20th century viticultural notes, which reveal a sometimes bewildering ignorance. Take, for one example, what William Bird wrote in his The State of the Cape of Good Hope in 1822 (the book that famously reveals that greengrape – which we now know to be semillon – occupied about 93% of the Cape’s vineyards). Bird describes pontac as “the same as the cote-rotie of the Rhone, the pontac of Guienne . . . and the port grape of the Douro”. How could Bird have imagined pontac being all those at the same time? Unless, possibly, he was just adding up the various European identifications that he’d been given by local farmers.

Particularly interesting to me in that little list is the reference to “the cote-rotie of the Rhone” (his spellings), because Côte-Rôtie’s (black) grape is, of course, syrah. I’ve been doing some preliminary teasing out of the historical presence of syrah/shiraz in the Cape’s vineyards – including borrowing insights and information from Gerald Atkinson, based in Christchurch but the author of deep and valuable research into Australia’s grape history.

There have been unconvincing mutterings that syrah has been present in Cape vineyards for a long time – from a very early stage, Professor Orffer claimed. But I’ve never found any evidence for this in what I’ve read – beyond such ambiguous mentions as Bird’s “cote-rotie of the Rhone”, and the occasional reference to “Persian” varieties. The latter could possibly be linked to the discredited idea that syrah originates around the Persian/Iranian city of Shiraz – a misapprehension shared by Orffer. In an 1824 book entitled History of Ancient and Modern Wines, AL Henderson, writes that “The plants with which the Cape vineyards are stocked, are said [by locals, we presume] to have been brought from Persia and the banks of the Rhine; but, under the new names which have been assigned to them, it is impossible to recognise the species.”

Nearly two centuries later, Dr Atkinson, in a long and densely substantial essay, as yet unpublished, argues that an early 19th century reference to “shiraz” in Australia is in fact to a grape imported from the Cape – one which proved to be white! From the South African point of view, the most interesting thing about this is that it supports the idea that at least some wine-people in the Cape in the early 19th century believed that the great red grape of the Northern Rhône was present in Cape vineyards.

Undoubtedly they believed this in the latter 19th century. But – and here we get bizarre and complicated again – they believed that this Rhône variety was the grape they’d named hermitage, for the most famous of the Northern Rhône winegrowing areas. In fact, hermitage here (unlike in Australia) was the grape we now know to be cinsaut. It’s not clear why cinsaut got called this, but the misleading name is understandable if people thought the grape was shiraz. Emphatically, they did, though this is seldom realised. A book called Viticulture of the Cape Colony, published in London in 1893, states that hermitage “is the Grosse Syrah, originally from the valley of the Rhône, and is of comparatively recent introduction at the Cape”. (It seems that cinsaut came here in the early 1880s, but under what circumstances I don’t know – if it came from Australia, but was not properly identified, that could explain the name.) Similarly, Dr Hahn’s 1888 work entitled “Viticulture in South Africa” insists that hermitage is the “Sirrah bleu of the French”.

It was JP de Waal who discovered the mistake. He was manager of Groot Constantia from 1890 (when it was a state-owned model farm, partly designed to educate winegrowers, but pushed into being more a place where American rootstocks were grown and experimented with, as part of dealing with the scourge of phylloxera). Cape viticulture and wine-making owes greatly to de Waal in many ways – beyond, for example, his being the discoverer that “greengrape” was semillon. He realised this in the vineyards of Bordeaux, while he was on a learning tour of some notable winegrowing areas of the world around the turn of the century – incidentally, how impressive that he realised he could learn from the sniffed-at New World as well as the much-venerated Old.

It was an immense loss to us that de Waal was killed in a tramcar accident in San Francisco in 1902, while continuing his tour. But on an earlier stage, in Australia, he had realised that the Cape’s hermitage was not in fact syrah, but cinsaut, or oeillade as it was known in Australia. (Prof. Perold later claimed to be the first to have proved the identity, but whether or not Perold realised that de Waal had noted it before, I don’t know.) De Waal also recognised how greatly superior was syrah to cinsaut – despite the accolades that cinsaut had received in the Cape from the likes of Dr Hahn. De Waal recommended to the Cape government’s Department of Agriculture that it should import Australian shiraz vine material. To its credit, the reaction was immediate, and cuttings were brought into the Cape from South Australia early in the 20th century.

To my knowledge, this was the first time syrah had, as it were, set foot here. And how sad that JP de Waal wasn’t here to help with the early stages of its so-successful acclimatisation.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013

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7 comment(s)

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    Matthew McCulloch | 9 March 2020

    Unfortunately, it is unlikely if we will ever know for certain the origin of Langmeil Winery’s Freedom Shiraz vines – Brush Farm, Camden Park Estate, the Busby collection or via the Cape.

    The earliest Barossa settlers were more concerned with survival than meticulous record keeping!

    From the history of Camden Park Estate:

    Viticulture and agriculture
    In 1816, the Royal Society for the Arts in England had offered medals for wine from New South Wales. As early as that year, Blaxland (at Brush Farm in Ryde) was sending wine to Governor Macquarie to keep him informed about the possibility of an Australian wine industry. Blaxland certainly knew of the grape varieties brought back to Australia in 1817 by John, James and William Macarthur and of their plantings at Camden Park. But their first vintage was not until 1824.

    John Macarthur returned from England in 1817 with his two sons, James and William, and began to expand the productivity of the farm by introducing vine cuttings, olive trees and various seeds and agricultural implements purchased overseas. However an olive tree at the Macarthurs’ Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta, dates from c. 1807 and the first olive trees presented to Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens as a gift of the Macarthurs in 1816 predate the Camden Park olive trees.

    In 1825 James Busby wrote the first of a number of books on viticulture and wine making. In 1833, he brought 437 grape cuttings back to NSW and made these widely available (through the Botanic Gardens, Sydney). Busby, who had been trained in vineyard management, grape varieties and wine making in France, referred to Mr Blaxland’s vineyard as being a showplace in the Sydney Basin. He commented on the generosity of Blaxland to share his knowledge and cuttings from his vineyard. Cuttings from Brush Farm provided early vines for Wyndham Estate (at Dalwood) in the Hunter Valley. It was not until the 1830s that William Macarthur sent 34,000 vines from Camden Park estate to the Barossa Valley in South Australia, to begin the wine industry in that state.

    Tim James | 7 March 2020

    Thanks for that Pieter. It’s generally accepted that early Australian plantings of shiraz all come from the imports of French vines by James Busby, landed in 1833 and soon thereafter proclaimed and widely distributed. I see the Langmeil website doesn’t suggest where the material for their ancient vineyard (apparently the oldest shiraz vineyard in the world) comes from – but, again, it seems generally accepted (or merely assumed?), as far as I can see online, that it was from the Busby strains.

    However, fascinatingly, Gerald Atkinson had sent me a cutting from the South Australian Register (Adelaide) of 1841, listing the content of a shipment of vines and other fruits from the Cape. One of the grapes listed is “Blue Persian”. What is that? There’s not a sufficient description. Perhaps it is, indeed, shiraz – one of the more convincing mentions that give rise to the belief that the Cape had shiraz in the early days? I will ask Dr Atkinson if perhaps these cuttings, rather than the Busby ones, could have made their way to Langmeil – and indeed prove to be shiraz.

    Peter de Wet | 7 March 2020

    I worked in South Australia in 2001. A visted many wineries in the Barossa and at Langmeil the owner showed me around his vineyards. He showed me a Shiraz vineyard planted in 1843 that he claimed was planted from cuttings shipped from the Cape of Good Hope.

    Greg | 6 March 2020

    Good one Tim! Spoeged back with style. Pieces like this are what make
    this portal worth supporting. SA wine lovers unite behind the last authentic and intelligent place for wine passion left to us. It’s a labour of love and care.

    Tim James | 6 March 2020

    Gosh Spoegie, your faith in the academic profession is almost as touching as your contempt for the journalistic one (and I do admire that correct “whom”!). But in this case I fear it is misplaced. And your cheap remark would certainly have embarrassed Prof Orffer, who was a good scientist and open to correction in the light of later discoveries. The name “syrah” was not even used in the Northern Rhône until the end of the 18th century, and DNA testing has totally debunked the myth that the grape was brought to France from Persia. (The famous grape of the city of Shiraz was, incidentally, a white one.)

    spoegbak | 6 March 2020

    Wow prof Orffer vs a boozy journo , i know whom i will trust

    Angela Lloyd | 6 March 2020

    There are so many myths and plain incorrect stories about the identity and introduction of wine varieties into South Africa, that Tim’s detailed and, I guess, time-consuming research, should be obligatory reading. A re-read through his 2013 Wines of the New South Africa would also be worthwhile.

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