Unintelligent design: winemakers deliberately created an unsatisfying mixture of Cinsault and Pinot Noir. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
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Pinotage – a bad idea that became a national flag

The new multicultural South Africa should stop banging on about Pinotage and embrace Cinsault, a French grape so cosmopolitan that it’s even comfortable with curry.

This is a despatch from the Pinotage wars, a conflict that is all the fiercer for being entirely pointless, though it has that in common with other wars and at least nobody has died in this one – so far. The weapons of choice are wine glasses but those who consider South Africa’s signature grape a perfect example of the futility of a nation trying to “own” a variety can fill those glasses with almost anything. The enemy, poor loves, is a little short of ammunition.

Not that decent Pinotage doesn’t exist. Man Family Wines makes one; Decanter magazine gave Bellingham’s Bush Vine Pinotage 2010 an award – although I’m not a fan of wine gongs, I’m prepared to accept that it probably doesn’t taste, unlike many, of burned rubber or a tin of baked beans. I just feel that Pinotage suffers as much from a design error as the dodo did and should follow it into extinction.

Unlike the dodo, Pinotage was a deliberate creation. In 1925, Abraham Izak Perold, the first professor of viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch, crossed Pinot Noir with Cinsault (known in South Africa at the time as “Hermitage”), then forgot about the seedlings. They were rescued and have been thriving in a limited sort of way ever since. Your local off-licence will have a Pinotage. It will be cheap. If you want a better adjective, you’ll have to breach the battle lines.

The thing is, crossing Cinsault and Pinot Noir doesn’t strike me as a very good idea in the first place. Both are lovely grapes and are versatile: red Burgundy, which is made from Pinot, is the wine I’d have with my last meal (depending on what that meal was); Cinsault is the party grape, its rose and cherry fruitiness and light, sociable style able to charm the austerity out of Carignan, or persuade a po-faced Grenache/Syrah/Mourvèdre blend to lighten up. Along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignan, it features in the spicy signature red of Lebanon’s Château Musar and in at least one of Domaine Stéphane Ogier’s Châteauneuf-du-Papes. It gives aroma and frivolity to the sumptuous Chocolate Block from Marc Kent at Boekenhoutskloof – a wine that proves what South African reds can do.

Cinsault can also be good, although probably never great, on its own. From the Rhône, there’s the lovely red-plum Estézargues les Grandes Vignes 2012; in Chile, De Martino makes a delightfully delicate Viejas Tinajas that has the signature Cinsault quality of wafting across tongue and consciousness without unduly disturbing either. I still fondly recall a brunch interlude in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon with bread, cheese and tomatoes so fresh that you wanted to snip their umbilicals, with the fruity Cinsault falling down my throat as the owner of Heritage wines, who was also the town’s mayor, burbled in the sunshine. I took a bottle home and opened it with my sister, loudly singing its praises and . . . found it needed Lebanese weather, Lebanese food and possibly a loud-voiced Lebanese mayor. Some things don’t travel.

Some do. Cinsault grown in France’s North African colonies beefed up Burgundies that didn’t quite cut the mustard. Was this where Perold got his crazy idea of marrying Cinsault to Pinot Noir? If so, what made him think that a combination that was usually about hiding one flavour profile within another was a great notion for the alcoholic equivalent of a national flag?

The new multicultural South Africa should stop banging on about Pinotage and embrace Cinsault, a French grape so cosmopolitan that it’s even comfortable with curry. For the bold smokiness of Eben Sadie’s Pofadder Cinsault 2012 the pro-Pinotage faction downed arms long enough to make sautéed venison and mushrooms.
It seems churlish to point out that no Pinot was harmed in the making of this meal; but then, all’s fair in war.

 

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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David Keenan's new novel is a dizzying recall of adolescence

This Is Memorial Device vividly recalls the teen years of the post-punk generation. I'm just not sure I wanted to remember.

Imagine dropping down the ­metaphysical wormhole to the scene of your adolescent self, with all your mates; with all that immortal music, sex, drugs, madness and tempestuousness. For some of us it’s a place we would rather not revisit. For the post-punk generation, David Keenan’s debut novel sends us plunging into that era anyway – violently, viscerally, surreally – in this “Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986”. Keenan’s real-life west coast Scotland is the home of a fictional dissonant, radical group called Memorial Device, whose underground misadventures are transmitted through a constellation of eyewitness accounts and psychedelic reveries from the damaged, delirious misfits in and around a band that sounded, as the narrator Ross Raymond describes it, “like Airdrie, like a black fucking hole”.

Such were the post-punk provinces across the UK, vividly realised here, populated by John Peel apostles transcending dead-end reality in bedsits wallpapered with pages from the NME and Sounds, romantic young minds consumed by Johnny Thunders and Iggy Pop, Jack Kerouac and H P Lovecraft. These are murky everytowns where, as Ross writes, “music deformed my life rather than just changed it”.

Keenan – an author, journalist, jazz critic, obsessive scholar of psych-folk – has a febrile imagination and his fiction debut is a fantastical meander in intense, magical-realist prose. Much like in youth itself, you’ve no idea what’s happening, or where you’re going, each chapter a crunching gear change of new characters who fizz in, dazzle, disappear and reappear. The chapter headings are filled with unfathomable imagery:

 

22. Ships Rising Up and Passing Through the Water Full of Sunlight and Memory the Tricks That It Plays: Bruce Cook on Autonomic Dreaming with Lucas and Vanity and all the baggage that comes back to haunt you like ghostly ships at the bottom of the ocean in a graveyard beneath the sea breaking free and rising to the surface.

 

This is the breathless style that dominates the book. Full stops are sporadically abandoned for chaotic streams of consciousness (Paul Morley’s sentences are tweets in comparison), like being trapped inside the amphetamine-boggled brain of Spud in the celebrated job-interview scene from Trainspotting (a struggle at times, with none of the daft jokes). With each new voice comes more forensic musical analysis, lurid recollections – of a barbaric scalping, of wanking on acid, of porn, puke, piss – and densely packed rushes of salty information. Ross’s co-author Johnny McLaughlin recalls his sexual exploits as a 17-year-old: he was “a collector . . . a gourmet, a pussy-eater (a body-gorger) (a piss-drinker, a shit-lapper), a woman-lover, a tit-biter, an auto-asphyxiator (an ass-lover, a panty-smotherer), a heel-worshipper (a hose-hugger)”. There’s as much sex here, it turns out, as music.

There are inevitable echoes of those fellow countrymen of Keenan’s, the literary dark lords Irvine Welsh and John Niven, yet little hilarity. But, mercifully, there are also passages of surrealist beauty: through prison bars, a main character is hypnotised by the moon, bathed in its “strange silver glow that made it seem like it was on fire, like ice on fire”, feeling “like a crystal ­being cleansed”. The last chapter is stunning, a soaring, existentialist, cosmic crescendo.

Memorial Device’s lead singer, the charismatic, amnesia-blighted, journal-writing Lucas, has his writing described as “a walking frame or a wheelchair, a crutch, which when you think about it is what most writing is, something to support the figure of the writer, so that he doesn’t fall back in the primordial soup of everyone else, which is no one”. Ultimately, This Is Memorial Device uses post-punk merely as its skeleton frame. It is a meditation on memory and perspective, on the magical forces of language, on the absurdity of existence and the dreadful thoughts bubbling like toxic fluid below the fragile surface of every human brain. Despite its black-humour set pieces (and a comically colossal, micro-detailed appendix, the undertaking of a madman), it’s a serious, disturbing book, free-form literary jazz for agonised over-thinkers, perhaps like the minds of intense young men.

In these creatively risk-averse times, it’s heroically bizarre, if more admirable than lovable. By the end, you’re exhausted, and happy to file it away for ever, along with the young life you no longer wish to live.

Sylvia Patterson is the author of “I’m Not With the Band” (Sphere)

This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan is published by Faber & Faber (298pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times