Suburban Wino 2: The Wordpress Experiment

The Curious Case of Pinotage | November 9, 2010

In homage to this Thursday’s Wine to Water Charity Tasting, featuring the South African selections of Worthwhile Wine Company, I wanted to highlight some of South Africa’s most notable grapes, including the very unique Pinotage. If you’re not going to the Falcons’ game, or want to tailgate in style, please check out this event. RSVP and/or donate HERE.


Another thanks is due to Barbara Evans, Ben Simons, and Drew Lazorchak, who set me off on this wacky adventure.


There are hundreds of varieties of vitis vinifera in existence. Save the geek set, most are only familiar with about 8-10 of them (usual suspects Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, etc.). The rest- at least the majority- find pockets of the world where they thrive, yet never achieve commercial success as world travelers. However, many- like Zinfandel in California, Carménère in Chile, or Malbec in Argentina- find a home and become the “signature” grape of certain regions.

One such case is the little mad science experiment known as Pinotage. See, those hundreds of varieties of grape species have not all existed for ages. Some are mutations (Pinot Gris/Grigio and Pinot Blanc from Pinot Noir), others naturally-occuring crosses (Cabernet Sauvignon from Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc; Syrah from Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche). Furthermore, most “signature” grapes came from somewhere else (Zinfandel’s origins point to Croatia, Carménère and Malbec come from Bordeaux). In both cases, Pinotage is pretty unique. It was created on purpose, and created in South Africa. A 100% native example of vitis vinifera, all thanks to the guys in the white lab coats.
The idea came about in 1925 at the University of Stellenbosch by viticulturist Abraham Izak Perold. Perhaps attempting to play God (or Dr. Bunson Honeydew), Perold planted the seeds of Pinot Noir and the Rhône’s Cinsault (called “Hermitage” in South Africa) together, hoping to make something new.
Now, as is commonplace on this blog, I’m going to employ a completely random tangent to explain these two grapes. Imagine the world of vitis vinifera (that is to say, “wine grapes”) as an ice rink. Ultimately, everything on that rink ends up as wine. However, just as there are hundreds of different grapes, there are many different types of skaters on the rink. Cinsault- for example- is a workhorse grape of the Southern Rhône, found in haughty blends like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but never taking the spotlight like Grenache, Syrah, or Mourvèdre. It’s a workhorse. Hearty, productive, and understated. If you put Cinsault on an ice rink, it’d definitely be defenseman Ray Bourque. He was productive: the NHL’s highest goal-scoring defensive player, ever. However, defensemen are grinders, survivors; lacking the flash of wingers or the flair of goalies.
On the flip side, when I think of elegant, graceful, refined, and polished, I think of Burgundy’s greatest grape: Pinot Noir. I also think of figure-skating legend Brian Boitano. What? You don’t also think of Brian Boitano? Man, that’s odd. And a little embarrassing.
So, we’ve got these two grapes, ready to cross. I can get a good idea of what Perold was after: he wanted all the incredible aromas, flavors, and velvety textures of Pinot Noir, but didn’t want to fuss with all the inconvenient T.L.C. required of the tempermental, thin-skinned grape. “Throw in some Cinsault,” he surely thought. “I’ll still get all those triple axles, but I’ll get them with a wicked slap shot and playoff beard instead of bedazzled lycra bellbottoms.” Yep, I’m sure that’s how it went.
However, things don’t always go as planned. Instead of low-maintenance Pinot Noir, the hands of science were left with this:
A weirdo. A grape that- indeed- was vigorous, grew easily, and ripened early, yet displayed little of the characteristics of Pinot Noir. Sure, it fared well early in its youth, spurring tons of planting, but the grape has since earned quite a reputation among critics. Often marked by aromas of bananas and paint, flavors of meat and smoke, as well as flab from low acidity, Pinotage rarely plays the darling. I wish I could give a more personal account, but I- like many in the States- have little experience with these wines. I’ve tasted it before, but wouldn’t dare try to recollect my thoughts. I know I at least got one bottle- years back from a former customer who loved the stuff. Of course, he was from South Africa. I think. Maybe it was England. All I know is that he used words like “practise” and “flavour”.
To this end (if nothing more than to remedy my ignorance), I sought out a bottle of Pinotage. I’ll be giving it a taste soon, and I’ll attempt to give this weirdo a fair shake.
In the meantime, if you have any experiences or strong opinions about the grape, the wine, or if you just want to sound off on the ridiculous and incongruent metaphors perpetrated in this post, I anxiously await your comments (there’s a story behind the latter).
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