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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How the radio stations reacted to Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize

For its part, Radio 1 was too absorbed by the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards to mention the proclamation on Newsbeat.

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature inspired a bewildering gamut of radio responses. At first, proof of his talent was abundantly forthcoming, Andy Kershaw yelling down the line for World at One from a motorway services on the M6 within ­moments of the announcement. (“I can’t understand why they didn’t give this to him 41 years ago!”)

However, a full six days after Talk Radio excitedly reported the event on its home page (“a pivotal part of the cultural revolution of the 1960s”), the online feature has yet to attract a single comment. That’s zero talk. For its part, Radio 1 was too absorbed by the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards to mention the proclamation on Newsbeat, though Heart FM firmly quoted the chair of the English faculty at Oxford (“The Tennyson of our time”), and pencil-suckingly dissected lyrics (“Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’/ Up the road . . .”).

Is it poetry? Is it literature? You could tell it was doing everybody’s head in. But when, on Radio 4’s Front Row, Billy Bragg praised Dylan for “bringing a literary and poetic thread into pop music”, the argument sounded terribly old.

The whole battle about Dylan being as great a poet as Tennyson is a hangover from an ancient battle, from a time when it actually had to be pointed out that this pop-music stuff can be brilliant and clever. A time when boring people battled for respect and prestige for an obvious genius. Over on Radio 2, Mark Goodier cheerfully played “Tangled Up in Blue” (“Major, major prize for Bob today. If that isn’t a decent excuse to play a song, I don’t know what is”). But by Sunday, on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, the gloves were off and guests were declaring that they couldn’t stand Dylan’s voice (cliché, pathetic).

By Monday Simon Armitage was saying that Dylan’s lyrics had no more sophistication than something composed by a child. Is it poetry? Is it literature? Well, it kind of is. But it kind of isn’t. And it doesn’t matter very much, except to the likes of Dylan – and only a long, long time ago. Now he hardly requires the approbation. The Nobel Committee has given the prize to the one writer in the world who doesn’t need it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood