Jamie Goode: Recalling the “burnt rubber” controversy – what was the cause?
In October 2008, a most unusual wine event took place in London. It involved some of South Africa’s best winemakers, as well as many of the UK’s great wine presses. It was tense. It was a little weird. But it was fascinating.
Back then, around 12 years ago, things were very different for South African wines in the UK. Compared to today, when many wine journalists defend the exciting wines of the Western Cape, the scene was decidedly skeptical then, at least with many national newspaper columnists of the time.
What was the problem ? There was a distinctive taste that was presented by many South African red wines which referred to them as South African. It was a real thing: I remember it back then, and I was pro-wine from South Africa. Jane McQuitty, the Times influential wine critic, spoke in particular. Tim Atkin, who is now one of Cape Wines’ strongest defenders, has also been outspoken on the matter. “The characters that I and most British wine writers don’t like so strongly about in some Cape reds seem to be liked by many of our colleagues in South Africa,” he wrote in The Observer at the time. , noting that in a recent tasting of 70 South African Reds, he had found character in a third of the wines. “Is this what Australians call the ‘palace cellar’, where a winegrower gets so used to tasting his own creations that he becomes blind to their limits? Or is it just a difference in taste?
Marketing organization WOSA showed initiative, and rather than distracting attention from the issue, Jo Wehring from WOSA UK helped organize an event to discuss it, with the help of Richard Kelley, an importer with close ties with South Africa. The event was called “The Great Cape Wine Debate”. It involved a group of British journalists and a select group of South African winegrowers to discuss several topical issues, focusing in particular on the issue of ‘burnt rubber’. Kelley has put together a list of starred winemakers.
Marc Kent (Boekenhoutskloof)
Roelf & Michelle du Preez (Good Cap)
Gottfried Mocke (Cap Chamonix)
Bruce Jack (Constellation)
Chris Williams (Meerlust / The Foundry)
Niels Verburg (Luddite)
Carl van der Merwe (Quoin Rock)
Eben Sadie (Sadie Family Wines)
Callie Louw (TMV)
Mike Ratcliffe (Warwick and Vilafonté)
Wehring had already assembled a group of these critical journalists and introduced them to a number of South African Reds (as well as a few ringers) blindly. They came to a more or less consensus on which reds exhibited the burnt rubber character, and these were sent to wine scientists in South Africa for analysis to see if any offending characters could be identified. The goal was then to analyze the offending wines and try to identify chemical markers of this characteristic, with a view to eliminating it.
The London tasting was slightly odd, as the assembled group represented some of South Africa’s best wine talent. We tasted their wines, and none showed traces of burnt rubber. And the samples that had already been sent back to Cape Winemakers for analysis that had shown signs of this trait, but they gave no useful clue as to its cause. So all this work has been a bit wasted, other than getting people together to speculate on the cause.
One suspicion was that the character was the result of a flaw in the wine known as reduction. The idea is that if the fermentations are carried out and the wine is then stored in large vats with little access to oxygen, volatile sulfur compounds such as hydrogen sulfide, disulfides and mercaptans can build up. develop and give the wine a rubbery and dirty appearance. Another suggestion was that vines that suffer from viruses may find it difficult to finish ripening red grapes, so affected vineyards could produce wines that have overripe components as well as side-by-side under-ripeness.
I had forgotten the whole episode of the burnt rubber. I taste a lot of wines every year. Many are fancy high-end wines, but I also have a newspaper column that I regularly sample supermarket wines for, and I’m co-chair of the International Wine Challenge, so as such I’m exposed to wines across all price points. I don’t think I have used the descriptor “burnt rubber” for many years. But the problem surfaced again when I visited Chris Mullineux in Swartland in November 2019, and he offered the most compelling explanation I have heard. “We have two fundamental principles,” he explained. “We don’t work with vineyards affected by the virus, and we don’t work with vineyards with tar poles. There are two types of trellis poles in South Africa. The ones we use in our vineyard are called Tanapoles, and they are slightly green when they are young. The old-fashioned way is to dip the poles in tar, and we believe that gives an aromatic flavor. In my opinion, it is the “South African” taste. He adds, “Obviously there are a lot of opinions.”
“We had a bush Syrah vineyard that was very vigorous, so we decided to train it. It was a 20 year old vineyard. We bought the posts and planted the vineyard. The next vintage the wine suddenly had the liveliest South African character, and it had never been there before. We thought it might be the barrels or something. But that winter we were pruning the vines and it was a warm winter day. Andrea said, what’s that smell? I can smell that flavor that was in the wine. We realized that it was the poles.
It would be interesting if, indeed, the explanation for the “South African” burnt rubber character in red wines turned out to be the way trellising poles were previously treated.
- Jamie Goode is a London-based writer, lecturer, wine judge and book author. With a doctorate in plant biology, he worked as a science writer before launching wineanorak.com, one of the world’s most popular wine websites.
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