Crossbreeding

It’s an old practice. For as long as humans have been mucking around in agriculture, they’ve been trying to mix and match plants (and animals), hoping to create something better than the original. Consider the ugli fruit – a combination of grapefruit, orange and tangerine. It’s large, nearly seedless, juicy and sweet. All the best characteristics of citrus fruit, created in part by happenstance, true, but brought about by the usual human intervention.

Grape growers have long engaged in crossbreeding in the quest for that perfect wine grape with mixed results. Most direct attempts by humans have been less than successful though happy coincidence has created some of the best grapes in the world. (Cabernet Sauvignon is actually a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc that occurred when vines were planted within pollinating distance of each other.)

What sparked our interest in cross breeds was the arrival in our home of a bottle of Pinotage. This is not be confused with Meritage, California’s way of creating Bordeaux blends without running afoul of French labeling laws.  Pinotage is a cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, which is called Hermitage in South Africa.

Pinotage first came into being in 1925 thanks to Professor Abraham Perold. Perold was trying to solve the riddle of Pinot Noir and South African soil. The Pinot grape seemed like such a good fit for the rugged terrain of South Africa and yet it refused to do more than churn out a few pounds of scraggly grapes each year. Hermitage, on the other hand, was loving its new home. Perold decided it was time for a little crossbreeding and planted both grapes in his garden. Perold let nature takes its course, with the two vines cross-pollinating away in his garden. Two years later, however, Perold moved and the garden remained untended until someone at the University decided it might be a good idea to clean up the eyesore. Charlie Niehaus, a lecturer at the University who was familiar with Perold’s work, managed to save the vines before the clean-up crew began their work.

Perold’s vines were transplanted to the School of Agriculture where they were nurtured through a few grafts, some tough economic times and the outbreak of war. By 1941, the Department had a distinct grape varietal that was perfectly content in the arid conditions. It was dubbed Pinotage by the staff and sent to a commercial operation in Mrytle Grove to test it as a wine grape.

Pinotage proved a tricky little devil. The first attempts at winemaking with Pinotage were less than successful. Pinotage is a very acidic grape and those first generations displayed that in full force – early reviews equated Pinotage wines with acetone.

With such unflattering reviews, Pinotage quickly became a cheap blending grape, used to add some “tannic” bite to bland reds. It would be decades before Pinotage growers would finally find a way to bring out the best qualities of the grape and redeem its reputation.

As you might expect, given its parental background, Pinotage is a dark wine with plenty of blackberry and plum flavors. More complex versions also include raspberry and red licorice. Higher end Pinotage can even add such exotic flavors as sweet tobacco, smoke and (bizarrely) bacon.

The bottle we were enjoying was from the birthplace of Pinotage, South Africa. Most South African wines are more European in style than California. That means less fruit forward tastes and more emphasis on some of the drier flavors, with the fruit serving as a balance rather than a primary flavor. The Grinder is no exception – there are fruits here, but curiously, the first impression is…coffee. Not “I just walked into Starbucks” coffee, but it’s definitely there. It was unexpected, despite the name. Truthfully, most wines that claim to capture that essence of coffee have just the merest hint, usually at the tail end. But this is all the best flavors of coffee without the less pleasant after tastes. There’s some fruit here, good dark blackberry tastes, that add a bit of juice, and something drier as well, what some reviewers have described as dried leaves. It’s all earthy flavors, and a perfect capsule of the South African terroir.

So be brave and ignore those doubters who are still out there. Pinotage can be a wonderful wine in the hands of someone who’s willing to work with the unusual nature of the grape. Heck, you might even find a new way to get your coffee fix.

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