Thursday, 18 July 2013

Joe Asks: What's The Deal with Pinotage?

 - By Joe Mandrell

“Know thyself,” said the very Ancient Greeks, and I really think they hit on something (besides all the young boys). In addition to our merits and strengths, it is important for us to know our weaknesses: the gaps in our knowledge; our prejudices; our biases. Only then can we truly develop and flourish as meaningful members of humanity. It is in this noble, Delphic spirit that I begin with a confession: I fucking hate pinotage.

It is rather fashionable amongst wine people to hate pinotage, in much the same way that it’s cool for people who like music to hate Coldplay, and I think it’s for the same reason: they’re both offensive to the senses. I like to think that my own personal hatred is borne of education and experience, but I can’t shake the feeling that I might have made my mind up about this particular grape long before tasting it.  You know how sometimes you hear Viva la Vida and think “oh yeah, this is alright!” before remembering you despise Coldplay with the heat of a dying star? It’s something like that with me and pinotage.

So, pinotage is a cross between pinot noir and cinsault. Pinot noir and cinsault. Burgundy plus Rhône. Not a bad idea, really. In fact, nefarious négociants were happily beefing up poor pinot vintages with a touch of Rhône or Algerian wine long before pinotage reared its ugly head. If the pinot noir was a little under-ripe, or a little dilute, the blend was often bolstered with a healthy shot of something more ballsy, making the finished product far more rounded and attractive.

So, the idea behind pinotage was to combine the best elements of pinot noir (pretty, elegant and refined aromas and flavours, but a stone-cold bastard to grow) and cinsault (robust, heat-tolerant, high-yielding, but a bit harsh and lacking elegance) in a single grape variety that could survive the South African climate. A noble endeavour, we can all agree. But in practise, pinotage suffered from a debilitating flaw.

It smells bad. Variously described as evoking “smoke”, “paint”, “rusty old nails” or, my personal favourite, “a mechanic’s arse”, the stuff does whiff. It has a characteristic rubbery smokiness that can be quite overpowering, masking any fruit that might be there somewhere, desperately gasping for air. Also, the variety suffers from a propensity to develop aromas of acetone. This is basically the stuff used in nail polish remover and in paint thinner. Lovely. For me, the nose is usually so overwhelmingly off-putting that the palate suffers too, and fruit and refinement and enjoyment are the victims. I can honestly say that I’ve never tried a bottle, glass or slurp of pinotage that I have enjoyed.

But then I’m biased. Whilst I have tasted a fair few pinotages (pinotagae?), I have by no means tasted them all. Maybe I have been unlucky.

If so, and if anyone out there in the internet has any pinotage recommendations that do not make them retch or wretched, then I would be delighted to hear about them. If it turns out there is more wine in the world for me to enjoy, then so much the better. In the meantime, if you need me, I’ll be in a softly-lit room, getting to “know myself”…

What are your pinotage recommendations? CHANGE JOE'S MIND in the comments...

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