NYT - June 28, 2009
STELLENBOSCH, South Africa — Suppose the wine label said: This fruity red blend is full-bodied with tastes of sweet mulberry, spicy mocha and burnt rubber. The aroma lingers like the skid marks at an auto accident.
South Africa is the world’s ninth largest producer of wine, an up-and-comer in the global marketplace, the winner of more than its share of accolades in international competitions. How, then, have some of its wines been linked to a stench commonly coughed up by a junkyard fire: the bouquet of burnt rubber?
Most of the answer lies within the lively prose of a British wine critic, Jane MacQuitty of The Times of London. In late 2007, she tasted a run of South Africa’s flagship reds and wrote that half were tainted by a “peculiar, savage, burnt rubber” odor. In a later column she called a selection of the country’s best-rated reds “a cruddy, stomach-heaving and palate-crippling disappointment.”
Here in the glorious wine lands of the Western Cape, where the grape vines grow against a backdrop of stunning mountains, her comments were infuriating and perplexing and even derided as loony. No particular reds had been singled out by Ms. MacQuitty. Exactly which wines carried the scent of smoking steel-belted radials?
“All of us were slandered by a very general statement,” said André van Rensburg, the celebrated winemaker at the Vergelegen Wine Estate.
Wine aficionados began taking sides: yes, there is definitely a telltale rubbery odor, and no, it is all in your imagination. South Africans who dismissed the criticism were demeaned as burnt rubber denialists. Worse, they were accused of “cellar palate,” being so accustomed to tainted wine that their taste buds now welcomed it.
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