Plant Improvement

More than 300 years ago Jan van Riebeeck, the first Cape governor, planted grape-bearing vines at the Cape. What varieties were used is still a matter of speculation but it is generally believed that Muscadel, Chenin Blanc (Steen) and Muscat d'Alexandrie (Hanepoot) were among them. Other early cultivars planted were Pontac and Muscat de Frontignac - both used in the famous Constantia wines.

In those days the importation of varieties depended on the individual farmers and there was a high risk of bringing in pests and diseases. Today, imports of varieties are strictly controlled and subject to legal requirements. The official propagation of approved plant material is carried out under the aegis of the Vine Improvement Board. This is to ensure that the quality of plant material supplied to nurseries and wine farmers is constantly improved and disease avoided. This applies to material from well-known varieties as well as those which were recently imported and evaluated. Only the best material of any variety is carefully selected, improved and propagated, and eventually released as 'certified' to nurseries and producers.

Strict measures were first introduced following the phylloxera disaster which struck the wine world some 100 years ago. American vines which carried three tiny insects called phylloxera were brought to France in 1860. Within 30 years it spread uncontrollably and three-quarters of all vineyards in Europe were destroyed. Later it spread to other wine producing countries, including South Africa. Fortunately it was found that the American rootstock was resistant to phylloxera and that European vines could be grafted onto them.

In Europe as well as South Africa, almost all vines today are grafted onto one or another rootstock of American origin to prevent a repeat of the phylloxera disaster.

Experimental crossings between different varieties are carried out to develop new varieties with special characteristics but successful crossings are not easily achieved and must prove their worth.

In this way it took 36 years from the first successful crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut (Hermitage) until the first bottle of Pinotage was offered for sale. This successful crossing was achieved in Stellenbosch in 1925 by Dr IA Perold of KWV. The new crossing was further developed by Prof CJ Theron. Senator Paul Sauer of Kanonkop Estate played a decisive role in introducing the new crossing to the world. Stellenbosch Farmers' Winery commercially produced the first Pinotage in 1961