Cat pee to burning tires: Winemakers tackle the stinky vintage challenge

By Molly Steinbach
Posted 2/7/20

The most abhorrent, offensive, repellent wine I have ever tasted was a pinot noir from South Africa. This was back in "wine school," and another student turned to me and said, "It's like the Michelin Man rolled in garbage, then set himself on fire."

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Cat pee to burning tires: Winemakers tackle the stinky vintage challenge

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The most abhorrent, offensive, repellent wine I have ever tasted was a pinot noir from South Africa. This was back in "wine school," and another student turned to me and said, "It's like the Michelin Man rolled in garbage, then set himself on fire." So when I was considering what to write about in my next article, and someone suggested stinky wine, you can see where my mind went.

No doubt about it, some wines stink. Whether it's a whiff of "rotten eggs" when you first open a bottle that quickly disperses, or a pervasive dumpster fire smell that is still apparent when the last drop has been drunk (or poured out), not all wines smell like a bed of roses. In my database of tasting notes, I have references to aromas ranging from the mildly questionable, like cat pee and barnyard, all the way up to baby diaper, perm solution and port-a-potty.

By no means are all the wines that inspired these notes from South Africa (the port-a-potty was from Spain - that was a bad one), and, equally, not all South African wines smell unpleasant. But South African wines do have a reputation - deserved or not - for producing wines with a particular aromatic disposition: burnt rubber.

What causes this? Is it something in the air or the soil or the water? Researchers at Stellenbosch University in South Africa have looked into it, and can't determine any one component that causes the expression of burnt rubber in a wine.

Most people believe that, rather than having anything to do with South Africa, the smell of burnt rubber in a wine is the result of a fault: something genuinely wrong with the wine, possibly due to poor winemaking practices. And, no doubt, one can find the smell of burning tires in wines from elsewhere in the world. In fact, the only occurrences in my tasting note database are wines from Chile and Oregon.

Since the time of the odious pinot noir (about 10 years ago) I've noticed a significant improvement in the quality of South African wines. Far less often am I assailed with anything resembling a self-immolating Michelin Man. South Africa has been working diligently to compete on the international wine stage in recent years, and so is making an effort to produce wines that don't offend people. Seems like a good strategy to me.

So is it succeeding? I've tasted three selections from three reputable producers to find out.

Although one might not think immediately of South Africa when faced with a sauvignon blanc, it is actually the second-most prevalent white grape in the country (after chenin blanc). The 2017 Bayten Sauvignon Blanc Constantia ($19) is tropical, but not in a grapefruity-grassy New Zealand way. Tart passion fruit blends with creamy guava, with a lift of bright tangerine. There is plenty of mineral, and a hint of yeasty richness. No wonder sauvignon blanc is known as the pride of the Constantia region.

After sauvignon blanc, the next most-planted white grape variety in South Africa is chardonnay. The 2017 Hamilton Russell Chardonnay Hemel-en-Aarde Valley ($51) comes from Walker Bay, one of the cooler grape-growing regions in the country. And chardonnay does like a cool climate. Like many New World chardonnay producers, there is a measure of oak-aging in this wine, lending the nose a whiff of butteriness, along with fresh stone fruits. On the palate … holy pineapple! The wine has an almost cognac-like richness to it, but with beautiful acidity that prevents the wine from becoming heavy.

Since we're talking about South Africa, you're probably waiting for me to bring up pinotage. The funny thing is, pinotage is actually becoming hard to find, at least here in New Mexico. I could track down only a handful of them. Pinotage has experienced a number of rises and falls in popularity within South Africa as well. Some people love it, and want to make it South Africa's signature red grape. Others are wary of it, particularly because of its tendency during the winemaking process to develop a compound that makes it smell like acetone or paint.

But good pinotage does certainly exist. The 2017 Stellenbosch Vineyards Pinotage Bushvine ($18) brings aromas of tobacco smoke, hot rock and incense mingling with black cherry, and the palate is full of toasted aromatic spice and dark fruits.

Notice something? Not once did I get a whiff of burning flip-flops or torched basketballs. Yes, the pinotage has a smoky aroma, but the thing giving off the smoke wasn't your rubber ducky going up in flames. Each of these wines was elegant, well made and enjoyable. I guess I'm going to have to change my standard for stinky wines now.

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