Sunday, 17 July 2011

Smokiness and burnt rubber: typical of Pinotage?

Most people who try Pinotage associate it with a barbecue smoky nose, and some even extend this to other South African reds such as Shiraz. I recently had a lively discussion about this with a few South African winemakers and estate owners, over beer and gin & tonic.

First was to define smokiness and burnt rubber. Both Yngvildt Steytler from Kaapzicht and Eben Sadie from the Sadie Family agreed that smokiness is a positive term and burnt rubber is not. Unfortunately the majority of consumers are not that precise and they often interchange these two terms depending on the level of that aroma. And to be honest, there are some who actually like the ‘burnt rubber’ character.

Anyway, Yngvildt believes that the ‘off’ flavour actually results from a dirty winery. A winery that observes proper hygiene does not have this issue. She could be right, as some critics attribute the ‘burnt rubber’ smell to brettanomyces, a yeast spoilage that occurs in dirty wineries.

Eben, however, has another opinion. Burnt rubber is a sulphide compound that may develop during the winemaking process but will disappear after a certain period of ageing. He reckons some producers rush to bottle and release the wines too early, hence the problem.

WInes of South Africa (WOSA) commissioned research to find the cause of the ‘burnt rubber’ smell a few years ago but the result was inconclusive. Scientists found no specific link between the aroma and any particular grape variety, region or vintage, so it is still a mystery to date.

A wine-loving friend of mine (by no means an expert) reckons it is the result of the bush fires that have happened throughout history and continue to happen pretty much every year around the Cape area. The burnt fynbos (native bush) finds its way into the soil and is absorbed by the vine roots and reflected in the wine. This is conceivable as obvious smokiness was found, for example, in Australia’s McLaren 2009 vintage after the bush fire that occurred before harvest.

South Africa’s ‘burnt rubber’ issue will surely continue to be debated in the years to come. Right now, for those who think burnt rubber is Pinotage, try these examples and think again:

Kaapzicht Steytler Pinotage 2007: Sweet fruit aroma and a spicy nose. Soft tannin. Yngvildt believes there is good hygiene in the cellar. Available from Kingdom Vineyard.

Scali Pinotage 2009: Red fruits and brambles, and a smooth tannin.

Kanonkop Pinotage 2005: Rich and complex with black fruits and spices and a hint of coffee (rather than burnt coffee) on the back palate. Available from Northeast.

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