Stoneboat Vineyard’s crop of Pinotage could simply be happy to be here in B.C. Thankfully, it has grander aspirations than that. In the hands of Stoneboat owner Lanny Martiniuk, this plucky, controversial vinifera—the grape that produces the signature wine of South Africa, and is rarely planted anywhere else—has not only thrived on its six-acre plot on the Black Sage Bench, but it’s notched a Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in Wine, and managed to earn a place in the library of the most acclaimed Pinotage producer in the world.
But let’s start at the beginning, back in Oliver in the early ’80s.
Finding it virtually impossible to import the grape plants he wanted, Martiniuk, a talented young propagator, started working on experimental varieties and growing them himself. That skill flourished into a business growing vinifera for local wineries, eventually bringing him into contact with South African transplant Paul Moser (founder of Lake Breeze Vineyards) and his hopeful handful of Pinotage cuttings.
A crossing of the finicky yet beloved Pinot Noir vine and the robust Cinsault (known as Hermitage in South Africa), Pinotage was created in 1924 by Abraham Perold, the first professor of viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch. The first wine was created in 1941, with the first commercial plantings taking place at Myrtle Grove and then Kanonkop Estate.
When properly vinified, South African Pinotage are vibrantly fruity, with rustic, earthy flavours. When done poorly, the acrid smell of acetone, or nail polish remover, can linger on the nose, leading many critics to cringe at just the mention of Pinotage.
But Martiniuk knew none of this when Moser asked if he could grow them for him. Intrigued, he was able to get enough clippings to propagate, creating entirely new plants from smaller pieces of the vines.
“I grew the first Pinotage in the Valley for him, and he planted them out,” Martiniuk recalls. “It was something new and interesting for me.”
Moser allowed Martiniuk to keep two of the plants, which he grew in pots in his greenhouse.
Keen to plant a few acres himself, Martiniuk took his two plants to Saanichton to have them tissue-cultured further, and 160 baby plants were born in test tubes. He brought them home and they did well, so he propagated more cuttings, and had a friend at a winery make wine from them, which they agreed tasted good.
Then his grapes got the thumbs up from the late, great Lawrence Herder, so Martiniuk put them into the program at his newly founded family winery, Stoneboat, and started making wine from them in 2005.
“What I find, for a medium weight red, is that it has far more nuances than any other single varietal.”
Since then, says Martiniuk, the plants have further evolved to do well in the Stoneboat soil. “It’s a Pinot Noir that seems to be booted up on steroids,” he chuckles. “It’s richer, it’s stronger. It has characteristics like it doesn’t bunch rot. It has very vertical growth, and it has a lot of tendrils that let it hang on. It doesn’t mildew easily. It tends to be a little more bud sensitive to cold conditions, but on the whole I would say it’s a growers grape. It can produce a very rich wine when treated properly.”
Still, Pinotage has yet to develop much of a presence outside of South Africa, with the largest satellite plantings located in the U.S. and New Zealand. In B.C., the B.C. Wine Institute’s 2014 acreage report puts it at a mere 0.3 per cent of red grapes grown, and there are currently only three known growers in the Okanagan.
Globally, Kanonkop is the undisputed Pinotage king.
With that in mind, it caused quite a thrill when, in 2007, Kanonkop got wind that Stoneboat was producing Pinotage and reached out via email to do a wine exchange. A case was sent, a case was received, and the Martiniuks dived into their sample.
“We tasted it and we said, ‘Well, it is different than ours and everything,’”—South African Pinotage can be a much heavier, much bigger red than Okanagan Pinotage, while Stoneboat’s Pinotage is more fruit forward, with some expression of its parent Pinot Noir—“and then we never heard anything from them!” Martiniuk exclaims, with a laugh. “We thought, ‘Oh my god, they must have laughed at us. Or maybe they don’t want to phone us up and say it’s garbage. Because we thought we were doing really well.”
Three years later, though, Kanonkop responded, saying they’d just done their first tasting, and that it was very good and very interesting. Their team explained that, in South Africa, they either drink Pinotage right away, or they don’t look at it for five years.
It got even better in 2018 when Martiniuk’s son Chris, a pilot, found himself at Kanonkop for a tasting. At first he didn’t mention his Canadian Pinotage connection, or that his family had participated in the wine exchange. It must have been meant to be, however, because the wine shop manager brought up Stoneboat.
Once the connection was made, the manager revealed that they were still enjoying their way through that 2007 case, and that it was still doing well in the bottle. Then, she paged one of the owners, who fetched the last remaining bottle from his own private library to show Chris.
Chris had the opportunity to tell them, much to their shock and delight, that Stoneboat has taken it one step further, becoming the first winery in the world to produce an Icewine from Pinotage. Now another exchange is in the works.
“Something that we thought we’d never hear from again has turned out to be a really neat thing,” says Martiniuk.
As for Pinotage, after all these years it still manages to be Martiniuk’s personal favourite.
“What I find, for a medium weight red, is that it has far more nuances than any other single varietal,” he muses. “I believe it stands alone better and is a far more interesting wine on its own than a lot of other varietals.”
356 Orchard Grove Lane, Oliver
For more information, visit stoneboatvineyards.com
@ Vitis Magazine