The name “Porseleinberg” was catapulted into world-fame last week when Tim Atkin MW scored the Porseleinberg Syrah 2018 a full 100pts. Being an asker of “what’s in a name?”, and a believer that Porseleinberg is a stupendous wine, I began thinking about the origins of this “berg”.
Initial research comes-up with this Swartland region’s hills and slopes comprising soils with a high kaolin content, from which clay is extracted to produce porcelain. Sounds pretty logical, thus. Until one reads that South Africa only really began producing porcelain in the 1950s, long before the region appeared on any map.
Then I happened to speak to Dan Sleigh, local author and the world’s leading expert on the VOC’s time at the Cape between 1652 and 1805, as well as being a West Coast lad. According to Sleigh, Porseleingberg has to do with matters botanical rather than crockery.
“Porseleingras” is a ubiquitous low-growing succulent in the Western Cape and other parts of South Africa. It got its name from the English name “purslane” (Portulaca oleraceae). The plant is also also known as pigweed, little hogweed, pursley and moss rose. In Xhosa it is called iGwanisha.
Origins of purslane are not certain, but existence of this plant is reported about 4 000 years ago. The succulent stems and fleshy leaves of purslane reflect that it may have originated and adapted to desert climates of the Middle East and India. It can be found in Europe, Africa, North America, Australia, and Asia.
How it got to the Cape is uncertain, but one possibility has porseleingras being picked up by the VOC in St Helena when in 1654 commander Jan van Riebeeck sent the ship Tulp to that island to collect orange and apples trees for planting at the Cape. The early Portuguese seafarers could have dropped the plant off en route from India, as eating the leaves is one of cures for and preventers of scurvy.
According to Sleigh, the VOC sailors definitely grazed on porseleingras, precisely for this very reason. Famous Afrikaans food writer Louis Leipoldt (1880-1947), who came from Clanwilliam, loved making a puree of porseleingras, mace, garlic and wine, which was apparently great to eat with rice and potatoes.
Modern-day foragers love it for its taste, health-giving properties, and as a bush medicine it can even help to cure haemorrhoids, adding in the relevance of the name “porselein” to certain sectors of the wine community.
But now that it is associated with one of the world’s great wines, porseleingras is headed for greater stardom. The terroir is there, for sure.
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