29 December 2007

Air New Zealand Wine Awards 2007

Of the thousands of wines submitted to the 2007 New Zealand Air Wine Awards competition, only three wineries entered Pinotage. All the wines that had been entered were available for tasting on the day of the awards ceremony (tasting tables pictured above). The crowds clustered around the Gold medal winners table but I headed first for 'Alternative Red Varieties'. There among Montepulcianos, Malbecs, Chambourcins and a lonely rare Marzemino I found four Pinotages.

Two of them had received Bronze awards, Karikari ‘05 and Okahu ’06 but I thought the two non-award winning entries from Pleasant Valley at least as deserving.

KariKari Estate Pinotage 2005 (Bronze award)

This wine was rich maroon colour with a purple tinge, and had a smooth silky texture with blueberry flavours and acids on a finish which was a little hot.

Okahu Pinotage 2006 (Bronze award)

Beautiful bright black colour with great mouth feel. Crisp tannins with soft tannins on the finish.

Pleasant Valley ‘Yelas’ Pinotage 2006 (No award)

Bright black core with a purple rim. Soft attractive front leads to blackberry and black cherry flavours over some gentle tannins. It’s a bit tight now and I’d love to taste this wine after it opens up with another year in bottle.

Pleasant Valley ‘Yelas Henderson Valley’ Pinotage 2006 (No award)

This is darker, more intense than the previous, with rounded soft fruity bramble berry flavours and a really good balance finished by integrated tannins and acids. I really like this wine and don’t understand its lack of a medal.

I was intrigued to see what would be a ‘Cape Blend’ in South Africa and (since the name hasn’t been copyrighted) it could be called that in New Zealand.

HiHi “Lock, Stock and Many Barrels” 2006 is a blend of 50% Cabernet Franc, 35% Pinotage and 15% Merlot. It has an attractively soft approachable front – maybe it is that characteristic Pinotage sweetness that has rounded out Cab Franc’s sometimes green edge. “Lock, Stock and Many Barrels” is an easy drinking wine with some bright fruit flavours balanced by enough tannins on the finish to allow aging. (No award).

The annual Air New Zealand wine award competition, announced on Saturday 24 November,is the countries most prestigious. New Zealand has made Sauvignon Blanc its own and is close to claiming the Pinot Noir crown. Not satisfied with them, Pinot Gris and Riesling are also contenders. But the next major variety appears to be Syrah, and the 2007 Champion show wine was Trinity Hill ‘Homage’ Syrah 2006. (Pictured is John Hancock, CEO/Winemaker of Trinity Hill being escortedby grape angels to collect his award).

And after Syrah? Italian varieties are increasingly being planted. Not just the major ones, but also relative unknowns such as Arneis and Marzemino. So why shouldn’t Pinotage – which was a major New Zealand variety in the 1970’s – have another crack at the cherry? Where California is just planting Pinotage, New Zealand already has vineyards of mature Pinotage and winemakers who really understand the variety.

27 December 2007

Pinotage Raises 75K for Charity

The 13th Annual Hermanus Round Table Pinotage Auction raised 75,000 Rand for charity.

10,000 Rand was earmarked for Christmas gifts for children in Zwelihle, the rest to be spent on local projects. The auction, held on Saturday 8 December at the Arabella Western Cape Hotel, auctioned 51 lots of Pinotages, some not commercially available, for a total of 90,000 Rand.

24 December 2007

New Zealand Pinotage Tasting

New Zealand has been making Pinotage for forty years. The variety is not now as fashionable there is it once was, but there are some first rate Pinotages being made. Unfortunately, few are available outside New Zealand and it seems to me that they are not that widely marketed inside the country.

I was able to taste many of New Zealand’s Pinotage when I visited there last month. My trip was thanks to being able to fill the place of someone who dropped out at the last minute of a wine-writer’s tour of New Zealand, but my welcome to New Zealand and the tasting was thanks to Sue Courtney.

Sue Courtney is a wine-writer and wine-judge based near Auckland in New Zealand. She and I both started our websites in the early days of the public world-wide-web and over the past decade we have been in regular contact via email, and for more than a year I wrote a column on her site at www.wineoftheweek.com.

As soon as I knew I was flying to Auckland with a couple of days to spare before the formal tour started I emailed Sue and suggested we meet. Little did I expect that Sue would cancel all plans for two days and give me a royal tour of the area, finishing with a mammoth Pinotage tasting.

Unfortunately, although I travel a lot, I am increasingly finding jet-lag a problem. After a journey from London, via Singapore to Auckland of more than 24 hours door-to-door it seemed to me that while my body was in Auckland my brain was still in transit. So Sue had a Peter May who was unusually subdued and who kept dozing off like the Dormouse at the Mad-Hatters tea-party.

It was a shame that the Pinotage tasting was in the evening as I was struggling to stay awake.

Sue had assembled, thanks to many wineries that had sent samples, a veritable wall of Pinotage bottles. These were opened and presented blind in flights by Sue’s hubby Neil who uncomplainingly did all the donkey work of documentation.

The first flight included four still rosés and two sparklers, one pink and one red. While pink wines have their place, I can’t say that place is close to my heart. The still roses were competent but they didn’t light my fire, the best being Matua Valley Northland Rose (Almost fluorescent pink, with a sweet front palate, tangy finish and nicely balanced.) The sparkling red from Soljans (Soljans Sienna Methode Traditionelle Rouge) had been bottle matured by Sue for four years. It was first released in 2002 and the base wines were from the 1998 vintage. As is the problem with sparkling red wines, it is difficult to see the bubbles rising and they were not prominent in the mouth. It was tangy with some tannins and a pleasing sweet finish. I thought it would have been better as a still wine because the bubbles distracted from what could have been a serious wine.

I was fading fast and feared I wouldn’t be able to remain awake, so I cheered for the ‘real’ – meaning the still red Pinotages - when they appeared, forgetting that my every comment was likely to be documented by the reporter sitting opposite. Sue blogged that I said "I don't know why they bother," in reference to all the pinks. OK, I put my hands up. But I’d like it to be taken into consideration that I have spent much money on Simonsig’s sparkling pink Pinotage and drank and praised Delheim’s still pink stunner.

We then were presented with two flights each of eleven red Pinotages. There was one ‘ringer’ among the New Zealanders; it was a South African wine from Beyers Truter that I’d brought with me. I was certain that it would stick out and thus I was sure that I would identify it. We scored the wines, and chose our favourites.

In the first flight I rated the last wine highest. It had blue-red colour, a coffee nose and soft mouthfill, with juicy blueberry flavours, gentle acids, medium body and a good finish. This turned out to be the sole South African wine, a Beyers Truter Pinotage 2005 bottling for Tesco’s supermarket. This just pipped by half a point Lincoln Heritage Gisborne Pinotage 2004 (Spicy nose, light and tart with red currant fruits; really nice moreish sweet finish makes you want to drink another glass) and Marsden Estate Bay of Islands Pinotage 2004 (Coffee nose, well balanced, berry fruits, some mocha and refreshing acids on finish).

In the second flight my favourite wine was Ascension 'The Parable' Matakana Pinotage 2006 (Spicy nose, full bodied with black pepper and cherries and medium long finish), followed by Okahu Northland Pinotage 2006 (Deep colour, mulberry flavours over tannins with a spicy mid-palate) equal with Soljans Gisborne Pinotage 2007 (Attractive warm spicy nose which follows through on the palate, bramble berries, balanced tannins and fruit acids)

Neil now brought back the ten top scoring wines from the three of us to re-taste and decide a winner.

The ten were

From Flight one:
Lincoln Gisborne Pinotage 2004 ($18)
Hihi Gisborne Pinotage 2004 ($19)
Marsden Estate Bay of Islands Pinotage 2004 ($24)
Beyers Truter Stellenbosch Pinotage 2005 (Sth Africa £7.99 =$24NZD)

From Flight two:
Muddy Water Waipara Pinotage 2006 ($32)
Okahu Northland Pinotage 2006 ($28)
Te Awa Hawkes Bay Pinotage 2006 ($30)
Kerr Farm P06 Kumeu Pinotage 2006 ($20)
Ascension 'The Parable' Matakana Pinotage 2006 ($25)
Soljans Gisborne Pinotage 2007 ($18)

Sue, Neil and I re-tasted the wines and again scored them. Whilst the Beyers Truter South African wine had been my top scoring wine from the first flight, in the final showdown my highest scores went to Ascension 'The Parable' Matakana Pinotage 2006, with Soljans Gisborne Pinotage 2007 and Muddy Water 2006 a close, and equal, second.

I am fascinated by the co-incidence that I had visited Ascension and enjoyed their 2006 the previous day, and had a (rather dismal) lunch at Soljans earlier the same day.

Time was getting late. Sue proposed a final taste-off, but the only thing by now that I really wanted my lips to touch was a pillow back at my hotel. Muddy Water 2006 was the only wine that all three of us had included in our top three in the taste-off; it was Sue’s top wine and my second choice and so by mutual agreement we nominated Muddy Water 2006 as the winner.

My overall view of the tasting was that there were a lot of very good wines, but also that that the reason that many did not get called back was because of high acidity. I like some acidity in wines - it makes them food friendly - but it has to be appropriate and balanced. Too many were not balanced. But it is not just Pinotage; in the following weeks in New Zealand I leveled the same criticism of excess acidity at too many Pinot Noirs.

I also wondered whether Muddy Water’s success in the blind tasting was aided by its high alcohol level – the label says 15%. I know that high alcohol wines tend to show well in tastings where each wine has less than a minute to make a statement. But it did not make my top three in the first time round, so maybe it opened up with time. I was lucky enough to taste the same wine later in my trip. It was a lone Pinotage amongst a sea of Pinot Noirs and – wow – it tasted just magnificent. But that’s another post.

Congratulations to Muddy Water.

Thanks again to Sue & Neil Courtney. Read Sue’s report of my visit here

23 December 2007

Pinotage Club Celebrates 10th Anniversary

The Pinotage Club is 10 years old. We went live on the web in December 1997.

As the original site said “The beginnings of The Pinotage Club date back to early 1997 when the subject of conversation of a group of business travellers working in Cape Town turned to wine. The group felt that the South African wine industry was not capitalising on its one unique asset – Pinotage -- that Pinotage was underrated in its own home, that diversity of wines was to be encouraged and that Pinotage needed a 'fan club'. Forming such a club presented problems when those present lived in different countries and travelled frequently. But as the wine flowed the solution became apparent. We could keep in communication by e-mail and our club could exist in cyber-space on the world wide web. It was agreed that it would be a very informal club. Details of Pinotages tasted, availability etc would be e-mailed to each other.”

In retrospect it was an unfortunate choice of a name since, as later became clear, in the United States wine ‘clubs’ are commercial organisations selling wines by subscription. But we felt that our championship of this variety which seemed to have few friends in its own country and many enemies outside made us members of a select group.

After three years of being a lone voice promoting Pinotage on the web, the official producers Pinotage Association launched an impressive web site at www.pinotage.co.za. The increasing wealth of detailed information on that professionally run site and the increasing overhead of maintaining the Pinotage Club’s GeoCities web-site led to the migration in 2006 to this blog format. Here news items of interest to Pinotage lovers could be quickly published.

Our fourth newsletter, in 1998, quoted wine-writer Tom Stevenson who "felt all the fuss about Pinotage was a waste of time” and that “if it were a worthwhile grape it would be grown in abundance around the world but it still remains an exclusively South African wine." We agreed it is a valid observation that for the variety to be considered successful, it must surely be adopted by other countries. We soon found that Stevenson was wrong in saying it was exclusive to SA since Pinotage wine was being made in New Zealand where it had been grown since the 1960’s. And Zimbabwe’s two wineries both made Pinotage. Further spread of the variety had been halted by international sanctions against South Africa during apartheid years, although some cuttings had managed to travel in visitor’s suitcases.

The Pinotage Club has since researched and tracked down Pinotage vineyards around the world. Over the past decade we broke news of Pinotage in three US states, two Canadian provinces, plus Israel and Brazil. And in a blind tasting of Pinotage from around the world held in the Cape in 2001 local winemakers in the Cape were stunned when Babich Winemaker’s Reserve 1999 Pinotage from New Zealand was revealed as the favourite.

And if Pinotage no longer “remains an exclusively South African wine," what of South African Pinotage? There is no doubt that there is better Pinotage now being made in the Cape. Much of the thanks for this must go to The Pinotage Association for its research into factors affecting growing and vinifying Pinotage. But enthusiastic winemakers who have treated the variety seriously played a major part, and brands such a Stormhoek have done a great service in introducing easy-drinking fruit-led Pinotages to new drinkers and there is a generation of wine drinkers for whom Pinotage is just another variety, without any of the negative connections felt by many older drinkers.

It is interesting to see how versatile Pinotage is; pink Pinotages assuaged the recent increase in popularity for rosé wines. Co-fermentation with Viognier was pioneered by Fairview, Laborie Estate brought out dessert Pinotage fortified with Pinotage brandy, Sylvanvale released an Amarone style wine made from grape bunches dried on the vine, Graham Beck made the first Methode Champenoise red Pinotage and Simonsig had great success with their Methode Champenoise pink Pinotage. Diemersfontein created a cult with their coffee and chocolate Pinotage and Stormhoek and Froze created pinks meant to be served over ice.

Year after year more wineries compete in the annual Pinotage Top 10 Competition. Kanonkop and L’Avenir Estates currently hold the record for the most wins, with seven each, but every year more new names gain the coveted trophy and the quality barrier keeps being lifted. This year the Pinotage Association opened the competition to international entries.

When we started the Pinotage Club, it seemed possible that the variety could vanish. Now the future seems bright.

Here’s to the next 10 years.

Highlights from the past 10 years

1997 – Pinotage Club formed, website goes live December.
- First Pinotage Top 10 Competition held; there were 34 entries.

1998 – Pinotage Club described as 'Passionate about Pinotage' by the South African newspaper The Dispatch.
- First California Pinotage confirmed and bottle obtained. Pinotage confirmed in New Zealand

1999 – First sparkling red Pinotage made by Graham Beck.
- Newsletter publishes several Pinotage recipes, including Warwick Estates Pinotage Ice-Cream.

2000 – Severe fires in the Cape hit several vineyards.
- Warwick releases Three Cape Ladies Cape Blend an “intrinsic Cape statement of a trio of varietals which together express the Capeness of South African red wine”.
- New Zealand doubles Pinotage production.

2001 – Pinotage confirmed in Brazil and Virginia.
- International Pinotage blind tasting held in the Cape with four SA wines and 6 from New Zealand, California, Brazil and Zimbabwe. NZ wins.
- Pinotage tasting in Toronto presented by Pinotage Clubs Peter May
- Pinotage Association launch website

2002 – Pinotage Club presents five Pinotage tastings in London and Glasgow - 2000 & 2001 Pinotage Top 10, Kanonkop vertical, International Pinotage and ‘Back to Back’ - Pinotages from cousins Michael (Backsberg) Back & Charles (Fairview/Spice Route) Back.

2003 – More Pinotage tastings in Cape Town (with WineCellar) and London.
- Pinotage planted in India.
- Pinotage Club guest hosts a Pinotage 101 at www.wldg.com.
- Descriptions for Pinotage Aroma wheel requested.
- Wilderer’s Distillery makes Pinotage Grappa.
- Pinotage discovered in New York State.
- Pinotage Club trains staff at London’s Vinopolis wine experience with a tasting of different Pinotage styles.

2004 – Pinotage Club held Pinotage Top 10 from 2002 tasting in London.
- Bellevue Estate held a 50th birthday party for their Pinotage vineyards. Pinotage planted in Ontario.
- Barkan Winery invites critics to a tasting where they unveil Israel’s first Pinotage.
- Delheim co-operate with a Canadian winemaker to make a pink Pinotage.
- SA WINE magazine drops its annual Pinotage Champion competition.
- Kaapzicht Steytler Vision 2001, containing 40% Pinotage, wins International Trophy for the Best Red Blend in the 2004 International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC).
- Peter May made honorary member of Pinotage Association and judges at the Pinotage Top 10 Competition
- Pinotage aroma wheel released, designed by Dr Johann Marais for the Pinotage Association.

2005 - 'California Wine and Food Magazine' reports local Pinotage is "clearly superior" after tasting 12 California Pinotages from 10 wineries along with 7 from South Africa and 3 from New Zealand.
- Peter May judges at Pinotage Top 10

2006 – Stables release the first South African Pinotage from outside the Cape ; it comes from the new KwaZulu-Natal Wine of Origin region.
- Pinotage Club moves website to a blog format. First entry shows Pinotage Club’s Peter May harvesting Ontario’s first Pinotage vintage.Peter May harvesting Ontario's very first Pinotage

2007 – Beyerskloof produce a million bottles of their standard Pinotage, open new restaurant and wine tasting cellar, and toast it with their new sparkling pink Pinotage.
-Three Virginia wineries release their first Pinotage varietals
- Meerendal take advantage of change in Wine Of Origin system to register a single vineyard block Pinotage- ‘The Heritage Block’ - planted in 1955
- WineLibraryTV.com’s Gary Vaynerchuck raves about Kanonkop
- Pinotage confirmed in Cyprus

17 December 2007

Pinotage -- South Africa's Home-Grown Identity

“Pinotage is not merely a European grape transplanted to a new hemisphere. It's a native [which] could establish South Africa not only as a major winegrowing region but also as a region with a home-grown identity,” says Lolis Eric Elie in New Orlean’s ‘Times-Picayune’, adding “If only the grape could make good wine consistently.”

On a recent trip to South Africa, Elie “did a blind tasting of several bottles of Pinotage and one Pinotage blend. I tried to include all of the versions of Pinotage available in New Orleans these days. There are not many.”

Zonnebloem 1997 Pinotage was the favourite. “The nose was very much like what you'd expect in an Amarone: prunes and old leather. The fruit had all but subsided, leaving a hint of red berries, but mostly dark, dried flavors and slight petroleum perfume. This wine demonstrates how better Pinotage can age for a decade or so, but even by the end of the tasting this wine was losing its structure, leaving behind bright, almost sour flavors. At 12.5 percent alcohol, it exemplifies the taste of Pinotage made in the Old World, European style.”

Morkel's 2005 Bellevue Estate “exemplifies the other, newer approach to Pinotage. The wine spends 12 months in American oak barrels. From this wood, it gets an eggnog scent on the nose. It is well balanced with ripe tannins and a little acidity. Though it's 14.5% alcohol, the flavors are so integrated as to not be overpowering.”

Elie remarks on the differing styles found in the tasting – “there's another dichotomy besides the Old World vs. New World, austere vs. powerful debate. The grape can produce highly tannic, acidic wines that taste sharp and harsh, like a bad Sangiovese. But it also can produce light, berrylike wines that resemble nothing so much as a Beaujolais. Those two wines have nothing in common and, it would seem, the two visions of Pinotage they parallel have little in common from a flavor perspective also.”

Graham Beck’s 2007 Pinno from “has 14.5% alcohol, but it is not a big, powerful wine. It's full of strawberries and driven more by acidity than tannins. It's a good, crowd-pleasing party wine,” and Uiterwyk's DeWaal 2005 Pinotage “parallels the nutmeg and Beaujolais flavors of the Pinno. It has nice, soft tannins, with tart cherry flavors on the front end and a bit of tar on the finish. It has 14% alcohol.”

But Southern Right’s 2005 Pinotage got the thumbs down being “full of smoke on the nose, and every bit of its 14% alcohol level was evident from the initial whiff, turning into harsh tar on the tongue, overpowering the fruit flavours,” and Fleur du Cap’s 2006 Pinotage also failed to please because while its “combination of flavors is interesting, they were not especially tasty.”

Elie has a refreshingly positive take on Pinotage and the full article, which is online here , is well worth reading.

As Elie says -- “So much rides on the shoulders of Pinotage.”

12 December 2007

Stoneboat finds Pinotage has Great Potential in Okanagan

Stoneboat Vineyards in Canada's Okanagan Valley has five acres of Pinotage, some of which were planted several years ago along with some newer three year old vines and their first varietal Pinotage, from the 2005 vintage, is currently on sale.

Owner Lanny Martiniuk tells me that "the reception to the varietal has been overwhelmingly positive, despite the fact that most people are unfamiliar with it. Once they try it, we find that people quite like it; it was our best-seller in the wine shop this summer.

Our 2006 is close to being in bottle. We are in the midst of blending this vintage, and will likely release it in the new year. We're very pleased with how it is turning out. The 2007 vintage looks very promising, we're really happy with the fruit and how it is evolving in barrel. There was a somewhat smaller crop this year because of a long period of cold (-25) in the winter; flavours were nicely developed and concentrated in the berries as a result. We are determined to improve upon the wine each vintage, and we still have much to learn from it, especially since our climate and growing techniques differ so much from those in South Africa."

Lanny first encountered Pinotage when Lake Breeze Vineyards -- who were the first vineyard to plant Pinotage in Canada, asked him to propagate some vines for them from South African cuttings. Lanny says "The varietal sounded interesting, so I retained a plant for myself and watched it grow for a few years, during which time we sampled various South African Pinotages and liked their flavours.

The hardiness of the plant was appealing also and we were very happy with the fruit it produced, so we decided to plant more of it. I tissue cultured the one plant that we had and grew more from that."

Lanny says "We believe Pinotage has great potential in the Okanagan, and we really enjoy it both as a vine and as a wine."

The winery's unusual name refers to the flat sledge, pictured on their label, used for carrying stones. A stoneboat was originally used to clear their Home Vineyard of its abundant river rocks, and the name is a tribute to the original caretakers of the Home Vineyard, who had to clear the land of its rocks in order to cultivate it and represents the valued qualities of hard work and tradition.

Julie and Lanny Martiniuk started farming in 1979 with purchase of a 15-acre orchard which they have now expanded to nearly 50 acres in which they have three vineyards growing a number of varieties. They produce under their own label Pinots Noir, Blanc, and Gris varietals plus two blends, as well as Pinotage. Lanny sat sat on the British Columbia Grape Marketing Board for several years and was a founding member of the BC Wine Institute. Lanny also runs a grapevine propagation business, which has produced hundreds of thousands of vines for wineries and vineyards across BC.

Full details of Stoneboat's Pinotage and other wines can be found at http://www.stoneboatvineyards.com/

08 December 2007

Canadian Gold for Lammershoek

Lammershoek did well at the 21st Annual Ottawa Wine and Food Show this year taking half of the eight medals awarded to South African wines, including a Gold Medal for their 2005 Pinotage, the third year running Lammershoek Pinotage won a Gold.

They have just released their 2006 Pinotage which they say is an "excellent expression of the Paardeberg terroir. It is a wine from a young vineyard and therefore the berry-like character is dominant with mild oak tones, a deep plum colour and remarkable body.

This bush vine vineyard is west facing and receives sun all day. It yields approximately 6 tons from 3350 vines per hectare. The vineyard lies on a deep, well drained soil called “Cartref”. This specific soil formation is thought of as “poor” – its low water retention is perfect for the early ripening Pinotage grapes.

The grapes are hand picked at full ripeness, cooled to 2 ºC for 24 hours and then hand selected, destemmed and crushed. Cold maceration follows for up to 72 hours in open top concrete fermenters. Fermentation takes place under controlled temperature conditions with no undesirable post-alcoholic extraction. The mash is pressed and the wine, after settling, transferred to a concrete tank for malolactic fermentation. Once completed, the wine is biologically stabilised, racked to 255 litre new (20%), 2nd and 3rd fill French oak barrels for 12 months maturation. The wine is racked 2-3 times in that period and bottled without fining or filtration."

Lammershoek recommending serving their Pinotage at around 16 ºC and they say that the 2006 vintage will age comfortably over the next 5 to 8 years.

05 December 2007

Book Review - To Cork or Not To Cork

Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle
George M Taber

Wine maturing in oak barrels is a familiar sight. But did you ever question why bungs closing those barrels are made of plastic, not cork? Dennis Burns did so when he toured a California winery. He was told natural cork could impart a taint that ruined wine, which satisfied him until he reached the tasting room and saw corks being pulled from bottles. If plastic was better than cork in barrels, he thought, surely it would be a better closure in wine bottles? Burns’s business was plastics and, although he knew little about wine, he was about to shake-up the industry when he went on to produce SupremeCorq, a plastic alternative to traditional natural corks.

Cork is a miraculous material. It is the bark of a species of Mediterranean oak tree. Cork bark can be stripped without harm from the living tree every ten years or so for generations. Cork will withstand both extremely high and extremely low temperatures and insulates against both; it absorbs vibration, can be squashed in half and will resume its shape, it can be pushed on one side without bulging out the other. And it has been used as a closure for wine bottles for more than 400 years. But, as everyone who drinks wine knows, it has one major fault, and a wine with that fault bears its name – the wine is ‘corked’.

If around 5% of all soft-drinks, or canned soups, or any other product were unusable because of faulty packaging it is unlikely their producer would remain in business. But wine-lovers expect, and have been expected, to bear the disappointment of spoiled bottles. Cork had no viable competition until recently when the cork industry began to be shaken out of centuries-old complacency by alternatives such as glass, plastic and screw-cap closures.

George M Taber tells in To Cork or Not To Corkthe truly fascinating story of wine, cork and alternatives. This is no dry, dusty history; Taber relates the very human tales of people whose living is intimately bound up in wine closures. Of wineries that lost millions and almost went out of business because of contaminated corks and of cork producers whose livelihood is threatened by alternatives. And of the inventors and entrepreneurs who think they have found a solution.

In many ways this book is a detective story. There is a villain that has been there since the beginning (a 1676 book blamed spoiled wine on cork defects), but its true identity was only unmasked as TCA by Hans Tanner in 1981, and it took years for his research to be widely known. TCA is a compound so powerful that if it was salt then just two grains in swimming-pool would make the water taste salty. The book relates techniques used to combat the villain and of skulduggery as proponents of various closures trade propaganda and insults. But there is no neat ending. The cork industry has cleaned up its act and invented ‘technical’ corks such as DIAM that promise taint-free cork closures. But modern screw-caps now close 95% of all New Zealand wines and since the vast majority of wines are consumed within days of purchase the question of which closure is best for aging wine is academic for most.

Taber tells this detective tale through the people involved. I was completely gripped by this book. You don’t have to know about wine to get involved by the personalities whose successes and failures Taber relates. Soda and mineral water drinkers might be bemused – their beverage will be perfect every time and they don’t care whether it comes in a can or glass or plastic bottle, and even served in the most expensive restaurant the bottle will have a screw-cap. But many wine drinkers expect the romance of a cork. Whether cork will be romantic for another 400 years is questionable. For me, the ‘crack’ of a screw-cap seal being broken with its promise of a taint-free wine is enough.

Whatever your position, To Cork or Not To Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle brings the debate right up to date, backed by facts and figures and quotes from the participants. My only niggle with the book is that, although Taber travels the world and has an international perspective, every now and again the reader is abruptly brought up by Americanisms such as expecting to know when Thanksgiving is and phrases such as “in the entire world the thwack of a perfectly pitched baseball hitting a perfectly swung bat” brings “joy to all but the most jaded”.

However, even the most jaded wine lover will enjoy and learn from this well written, easy reading yarn about that essential but disposable closure that must be removed before we can enjoy our favourite drink. If you’re thinking of a present for a wine-lover, this book will not disappoint.

04 December 2007

Dave Hughes Honoured by Pinotage Association

Dave Hughes has been awarded Honorary Membership of the Pinotage Association.

Beyers Truter, Chairman of the Pinotage Association, handed the honorary membership certificate to Dave and called him South Africa's best wine friend. Dave's career includes distiller, winemaker, wine auctioneer, international wine and spirit judge, writer on drink and allied subjects, consultant to Nederburg Annual Wine Auction, Veritas Wine Awards, South African Airways Wine Selections and the International Wine and Spirit Competition.

One of the first times he showed Pinotage overseas, was in September 1976, for a Wines and Vines magazine tasting in San Francisco. One of his first overseas presentations of a range of only Pinotage wines was at the Wine Educators Conference in Santa Rosa California in 1981, where he presented eight different Pinotage wines to an audience who had never heard of the grape.

According to Dave it was difficult to promote South African wines in those days because of international sanctions, due to our politics. In 1985 he was barred from talking at the Roseworthy Campus in Australia, because a few students objected to the presence of a "racialist South African". The tasting was held in Wolf Blass cellars and instead of 30 odd students, there was a crowd of about 100 students, winemakers and consumers.

My congratulations to Dave; may your socks never match!

Pictured above, left to right, are are De Wet Viljoen (Chairman of the Absa Top 10 Pinotage organising committee), Dave Hughes and Beyers Truter (Chairman of the Pinotage Association).

03 December 2007

Major's Hill 2005

DeWald Louw (pictured right) tells me that the first time, some years ago, that I reviewed his wine I remarked only that it was fault-free. I don’t remember the occasion but let me state right away that the current 2005 vintage is also ‘fault free’.

This wine has a perfumed fruity nose, and also some warmth on the finish from the 15% alcohol. However the alcohol doesn’t show in the taste which offers sweet berry and fruits-of-the-forest flavours. The wine is bright with a good balancing crisp acidity.

I really enjoyed Major’s Hill 2005 and look forward to opening future bottles.

WO Robertson
ABV– 15%
Tasted October 07 with food

Text and photographs copyright Peter F May (c) 2007

01 December 2007

The Survivors

Four Pinotage vines survived 30 years untended in the vineyard of an abandoned agricultural research station in the Earnscleugh Valley near Alexander, New Zealand.

Jeff Sinnott (pictured left), winemaker for Amisfield Wine Company, told me this fascinating story.

The vines received no irrigation, sprays, pruning, or any attention at all for more than thirty years in an area where frosts are severe and winter temperatures drop below minus 7˚C while summers regularly experience drought.

Just seven living vines were discovered five years ago in the research vineyard, thirty years after it closed. Three were Chenin Blanc and four were Pinotage and it is thought they were planted in the 1950’s. Unfortunately the Pinotage vines were virused but cuttings from them were taken to Gisborne where they have been propagated and grown as virus-free vines.

“I don’t think anyone has bought them yet,” says Jeff, “but it is important to preserve the DNA of these ancient vines.”

Text and Photograph Copyright © Peter F May 2007