Pinotage Gains Traction
It is, after all, the South African grape variety British Masters of Wine slammed in the 1970s as tasting of “rusty nails,” smelling “hot and horrible,” and “reek[ing] of nail varnish” and “acetone.”
Then, it surged into the spotlight in ‘91 when Kanonkop Pinotage 1989 was named World’s Best Red Wine at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London, and Beyers Truter, then the Kanonkop winery cellar master, was named International Winemaker of the Year.
All seemed like smooth sailing for Pinotage until 2007 when Jane MacQuitty, wine columnist for The Times in London, wrote, “South Africa has yet to tame its red wine’s peculiar burnt rubber and dirt odour.”
Then the following spring, she removed the gloves and wrote, “A recent tasting of the five-star wines … widely regarded as the Cape’s crème de la crème, proved to be a cruddy, stomach-heaving and palate-crippling disappointment … South Africa’s tell-tale dirty, rubbery red wine pong was there in abundance.” You may recall reading about this controversy in Tidings in October 2009.
Although MacQuitty can indeed be a bit acerbic, she wasn’t far off base. To some degree, she was simply committing to print what had been whispered for years in wine trade circles. So when she went public with the criticism, other British wine writers chimed in by including “burnt rubber” in their tasting notes of Pinotage.
Like all good criticism, MacQuitty’s remarks stirred action. The trade body, Wines of South Africa, threw a blind tasting of Pinotage for British wine hacks shortly thereafter, asking them to point out wines with the offending aroma of burnt rubber. The bottles fingered as faulty were hurried back to Stellenbosch University for analysis.
The latest report in 2011 reads: “Closer analysis of these initial samples displaying a BR [burnt rubber] character revealed several compounds which may have been responsible for the detected off flavours. These included volatile phenols that are usually associated with Brettanomyces and smokiness, as well as the presence of volatile sulfur compounds in some of the wines.”
Before your eyes glaze over, I’ll cut to the chase.
The report concludes “… that there are indeed ‘BR’ related issues in SA wines, but that these do not constitute more than a small percentage of faults in wine … The majority of affected wines, therefore, do not show off flavours that can be described as specific to … SA wines … The issue is still under intensive investigation.”
It boils down to this: Wines of South Africa is on it.
And my bet is, winemakers are now vigilantly careful not to release wines that taste like what Jane or any other critic would call “cruddy, stomach-heaving and palate-crippling disappointments” or “dirty, rubbery red wine pong.”
To be fair, Pinotage is a very new grape variety. First bred in 1925 at the University of Stellenbosch, this crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault wasn’t even commercially available until 1961 — only about 50 years ago. Compare that with the 1600 years Pinot Noir has been grown in Burgundy and you see where I’m going. It takes time to establish proper sites, clonal and rootstock selection, and optimal grape growing and winemaking techniques. Ups and downs are to be expected. And it’s heartening to now see some of the best Pinotage producers spinning out some seriously delicious juice. Beyerskloof, Kanonkop, Fairview, KWV, and Diemersdal are all names to watch.
Obviously when I was preparing this article, I had to ask Beyers Truter if he ever tastes burnt rubber in Pinotage. Beyers is, of course, the recognized authority on Pinotage in South Africa. He’s chairman of the Pinotage Association, co-owner of the Beyerskloof winery, former cellar master of Kanonkop Estate, and one of the first men in South Africa to make wine from this grape variety.
His answer was cold and smooth.
“I have never come across that flavour in all my years of making and tasting Pinotage.”
“Yes. The British wine writers who wrote that had something in mind by saying that, I think.”
Knowing many of the wine critics to whom he was alluding, I found suggestion of an ulterior motive preposterous. It takes courage to make public a whispered criticism. And, frankly, doing so offers a service to winemakers.
When the burnt rubber issue was outed, it upped the quality bar. In general, the Pinotage I’ve encountered at trade tastings in the last, say, five years has been far better quality than that sampled a decade ago.
Pinotage is fast becoming fast becoming the “it” grape. The new black. Potentially, the next big thing. And it’s fanning out into a range of seriously compelling styles, swinging from rugged and rustic reds fit for fire-roasted feasts, to easier-drinking styles that are as accessible as a harlot’s boudoir.
Some of the finest renditions of Pinotage yield enough polish to pour at a posh party. Much like Pinot Noir, when Pinotage is good, it’s really good — even with a bit of smoke and rubber. Which brings me to an important point.
Obviously, scorched Michelins aren’t what most of us are looking for in red wine, but winemakers toast barrels all the time to impart smokiness. And tar is a revered flavour in Barolo, one of the top wines of Italy.
It’s easy to argue a note of smoke or rubber, if not overpowering, adds appeal when well integrated. Why not? Micturating felines is enthusiastically anticipated in Sauvignon Blanc. Barnyard flavours — that polite euphemism for merde — is considered the hallmark of great Burgundy. Comparatively, what’s a little smoke and rubber?
So I’ll leave you with a bit of irony. When I asked Truter if he thinks Pinotage can age gracefully, he said: “During this year, I did a tasting from the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s, and the wines from the ‘60s were still very good and have shown classic balance. I like a full-bodied Pinotage, such as the Diesel Pinotage, with a classic balance that can last forever.”
Shall we play a little game of free association?
Ding ding ding ding ding.
Fast Facts about Pinotage
- Abraham Perold, the first Professor of Viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch, first bred the variety in 1925 when he crossed Pinot Noir with Cinsault
- Cinsault produces large quantities of mediocre wine: supple, juicy, and cherry-like with hints of muskiness. Pinot Noir is, of course, a notoriously challenging grape that can produce sublime, satiny, ageworthy wines inbued with strawberry, raspberry and beetroot notes that gain complexity with age
- Pinotage is no longer unique to South Africa. Canada, New Zealand, Israel, Zimbabwe, Australia, Brazil, Cyprus and the United States all produce small volumes of this variety now
- Although most Pinotage we see is red, dry table wine, the variety also makes sparkling wine, rosé and sweet styles
KWV Café Culture Pinotage 2010, ($14)
With warm, compelling aromas of sugared espresso, this wine is immediately quirky and engaging. A quick lick of freshly roasted coffee, dark chocolate, and black peppercorn flavours wrap around a core of juicy black-cherry-and-plum fruit. Dry, well balanced, and clean. Full bodied with 14.5% alcohol. Coffee lovers rejoice. If you like this style of wine, other coffee-scented Pinotages to try include Barista Pinotage and Mooiplaas The Bean Coffee Pinotage.
Food pairing: Dark chocolate
Kanonkop Kadette 2009 ($14)
This tightly-knit blend of 46% Pinotage, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot and 6% Cabernet Franc starts with a nose of grilled meat, red and black liquorice, and fresh berries. Then, on the palate, smoked blueberry and crushed blackberry notes with tones of musk, caramelized meat juices, bonfire pit, and black peppercorn. Delicious. Balanced. Long and lush with a seamless structure supported by ripe tannins and balanced acidity and alcohol.
Food pairing: Pan-roasted duck breast
Sebeka Shiraz Pinotage “Cape Blend” 2009 ($12)
Pull the leopard print stopper on this wine and pour yourself a glass of great sensual appeal. Starting with smoked blackberries on the nose, this wine moves swiftly across the palate with velvety smoothness — meat, berries and spice. Very good value blend of 58% Shiraz and 42% Pinotage, offering a great way to spend a firelit evening.
Food pairing: Flame-grilled steak, or even a hamburger
Les Ruines Eilandia Pinotage 2010 ($16)
Burnt rubber and tar on the nose leads to a palate laden with black liquorice, dark chocolate and black forest fruits, tapering toward a long, chocolaty-espresso finish. Thoroughly enjoyed this wine. Savoury, sensuous and supple. Elegant. Medium- to full-bodied with 13.5% alcohol.
Food pairing: Roasted beef tenderloin