South Africa's own White Crystal grape (Kristaldruif) – its ancestry revealed for the first time!

2016-07-20 10:58

In the Weekend Argus article by Mr Jan Cronje published on April 2 2016, I reported that the identity of one of White Crystal’s parents was the famous French Bordeaux grapevine cultivar known as Sémillon. This fact was very interesting from the point of view that in August 2015 the South African Wine and Spirit Board had re-certified White Crystal for 'vinification purposes'.

White Crystal was provisionally listed under the wine legislation of 1957, but removed from the schedule in 1990 because newer 'international' grapevine cultivars were preferred by the winemakers at that time. Furthermore, as a table grape, Crystal was already going out of popularity, because seedless grapes had gradually 'cornered the table grape market'.

The use of Crystal grapes was originally used for making a semi-sweet wine (reminiscent of the famous Sauternes wine of Bordeaux) and goes way back to the time of Simon van der Stel who was at that time the Governor of the Cape Colony. 

I was very interested in learning more about our indigenous Crystal grapevine cultivar because in the 60’s my father had planted such a grapevine in our garden and we harvested the Crystal grapes to make our home-made wine. So we had used Crystal as both a table grape and a grape for making some dry table wine. Well, we now know which grapevine cultivars were responsible for the creation of this amazingly sweet grape which many families had growing in their back gardens forming beautiful pergolas or patios. 

From a 'DNA fingerprint' analysis (and data interpretation) performed on White Crystal, it now appears that the second parent was also a white grape cultivar called 'Krystalli' (a.k.a. Kristalli) which must have originated from Greece, probably from the island of Crete close to the Peloponnese peninsula.

The ancient history of Crete and the Peloponnese peninsula is very interesting because over a period of time that region was conquered by various peoples such as the Greeks, Romans and Arabs, and more recently, during the Second World War by the Germans. It goes without saying that viticulture was one of the victims in that region (as a result of the political instability). Many of the ancient Grape cultivars have, for all intents and purposes, become extinct there. However, recently, some single grapevines have been found on abandoned land and a few of those ancient indigenous grapevine cultivars are being successfully re-cultivated. However, we know very little in terms of the 'importation' of the Krystalli grapevine into South Africa as there seems to be no documentation available to guide us. Therefore we can only assume that some Krystalli grapevine cuttings were brought to the Cape Colony in a personal capacity, possibly one of the early Huguenots settlers who had connections to Greece at that time.

In Greece, Krystalli was once a favourite table and wine grape and its revival is reminiscent of our own experience here in South Africa as we revive and re-instate our own White Crystal variety. 

Finally, we can imagine that somewhere in the old Dutch Cape Colony (probably in the middle of the 17th century), there was a vineyard planted with white Sémillon grapevines (one of the most planted grapes at that time) and not far away someone was growing some Krystalli vines either as a hobby or merely for supplying sweet table grapes for their kitchen. An observant vineyard worker (farmer) surely must have noticed a seedling vine growing nearby and could tell (probably from his experience) that the seedling's leaves were different from those that he was familiar with from vines growing nearby (for example, Sémillon). An alternative (and viable) theory is that this 'mysterious' farmer did know that the seedling's leaf shape showed some 'resemblance' to the Krystalli cultivar growing nearby and subsequently named that seedling Kristaldruif, after it's presumptive parent. 

It's now quite obvious that such a person must have saved that seedling and allowed it to flourish in our Western Cape's sunny climate.

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