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

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.