Simon vd Stel with barrel, grapes and mountain backdrop by Dutch painter Pieter van Anraedt
There is very little available on the mysterious origins of Pontac. A.I. Perold considered Pontac to be the same as the Teinturier male of France. In general it is speculated that Pontac should have its origins in Bordeaux. This would be the most plausible explanation since the Pontac family in the 17th century created Chateau Haut Brion. Nick Stephens wrote an interesting piece on the Pontac family which can be found online at the link below.
To cloud matters further I recently found reference that Pontac was imported to the Cape from Mauritius. In 1803 Lachlan Macquarie called at the Cape and visited Klein Constantia. Macquarie made the following entry about that visit on 7 March 1803:
“We set out at 7 and arrived at Little Constantia at 9,O’Clock. — Here we Breakfasted, and walked in the Vineyard both before and after Breakfast. — We visited the great Wine Vaults or Cellars in Little Constantia attended by the Proprietor thereof Mr. Colyne, of whom some of us made Purchases of Wine on tasting it, and finding it so deliciously good. — I Purchased here two Casks of Constantia Red Wine – one of which is called Pontac – the name of a grape originally imported hither from the Mauritius – and of a most lucious [sic] rich quality. — I paid 80 Rix Dollars for it, and 100 Rix Dollars for the other Cask – which was still of a more superior quality.”
At first one would find it curious that vines would be brought from Mauritius, an island not known for wine production. It is however plausible that the VOC planted vines at Mauritius in an experimental manner as they also did at the Cape. François Leguat on his voyage to Mauritius during the latter part of the 17th century commented that the vine grew there but the grapes did not ripen well, which at least implies that an attempt was made at growing grapes.
What is even more interesting is the fact that there is a link between the creator of Constantia, Simon van der Stel, and Mauritius. First owner of Groot Constantia, Simon van der Stel, was the son of Adriaan van der Stel, an official of the VOC, first Dutch governor of Mauritius in 1639. Simon was born at sea while his father was en route to Mauritius to take up his new posting. Adriaan had a long tenure in Mauritius, and Simon spent seven years there. Perhaps also significant is that Simon’s mother-in-law married in 1658 to the wine merchant Jean Mariau.
Could it be that Pontac first found its way to Mauritius with cutting‘s brought to the Cape by the van der Stel’s?
Prof C.J. Orffer commented that Pontac was one of the earliest varieties planted at the Cape and was certainly already planted during the van der Stel era and as early as 1772 Pontac was shipped to the Netherlands.
Frenchman Henry Lowcay, appointed Government Viticultural Expert in Cape Colony in about 1888, wrote the following in 1898 in the Australian Chronicle:
Then there is the ‘Tein tuner,’ a grape originally from Central France and the Bordelais, which is known under the name of ‘Pontac.’ This is a wine of a very deep color, and heavily loaded with tannin, which gives it an astringent and peculiar flavor.
The name Pontac was however not given by the folk at the Cape of Good Hope but rather the name was already is use in the Netherlands. Johann Hermann Knoop’s “Fructologia” (1763) shows the Pontac-druif or Vin Tint was for years highly regarded in France and used to give other red varieties body and colour. Pontac was also planted in the Netherlands but became less popular because proper ripeness could not be attained.
For some reason from the beginning of the 20th century Pontac became less heard of and London wine importer Mr Cuthbert Burgoyne after visiting South Africa in 1921 wrote:
A natural Pontac might have an attractive richness (as opposed to sweetness) that would make it a valuable article on the English market. I hope the time may come when demand and price will enable you to replant this remarkable grape.
Today they only remaining plantings of Pontac is found at the Allesverloren wine farm.
Pontac cluster. Source: Ursula Brühl, Julius Kühn-Institut (JKI), Federal Research Centre for Cultivated Plants, Institute for Grapevine Breeding Geilweilerhof – 76833 Siebeldingen, GERMANY
Lachlan Macquarie’s journal entry found here.
The Pontac Family of Haut Brion – Their Legacy: Pontac Chateaux, a London Tavern, an Old English Sauce and Perhaps a Grape. Link here.
19 Nov 1898 – VITICULTURE. – Trove – 19 Nov 1898 – VITICULTURE. – Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 – 1954) http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article87702971
Knoop, Johann Hermann: Fructologia. Leeuwarden 1763