Smoked Wine?

A little somethin’ from the other Down Under.

Everyone's yammering on about Bacon Salt, with all the flavor of bacon and none of the guilt. So what if I said I could turn you on to a bacon wine? South African pinotage ranks as the one wine that can stand up to any heavily marinated or dry-rubbed meat you throw at it, because, like Bacon Salt, it comes with its own strange little blend of herbs and spices. Ever hear a wine wonk describe a wine as possessing gamy or meaty notes? Until you've had this little bruiser from the other Down Under, you have no idea. In 1927, South African–born and German-educated Abraham Izak Perold crossed pinot noir and cinsault grapes to create a new varietal he called pinotage. His act was similar to breeding a beauty queen and a lumberjack. You can sense a bit of pinot here and there, in the slight acidity of the dark fruit or in the brambly (boysenberry to us Northwesterners), plummy overtones that activate the salivary glands at the back of your mouth. But erase all visions of delicate berry fruit, as pinotage rarely grows up to be anything like its pretty, pretty mum, the pride of Burgundy and Oregon. No, pinotage definitely sports Daddy's nose, and then some. Cinsault, a workhorse grape from France's Rhône Valley, gives some of that region's big reds their structure and mouth-puckering tannin. Along with a full dose of deep-purple fruit, pinotage always radiates to some degree a savory, singular note of cooked meat. Mmmm...meat. Some may call the aroma that of jerky; I always smell bacon; wine salespeople downgrade it to "a certain smokiness." The bacon aroma, coupled with a whiff of coffee and light, toasty oak overtones, makes pinotage almost smell like breakfast by the campfire. A bottle of 2006 Indaba or Robertson Winery pinotage, after 30 minutes in the refrigerator to soften the super-spicy edges and bring out its fruit, makes a superb introduction to the varietal. Both $10 wines have plenty of fruit, along with a smoky, peppery edge that makes nice with flank steak or any heavily seasoned red meat. For a few dollars more, the 2004 Wildekrans pinotage ($15) presents a silky-smooth parade of herbs, plums, and chocolate, punctuated with that familiar aroma of pig on a spit. For a truly exceptional experience, try Warwick's 2005 old-vines pinotage ($21), which rivals any shiraz at this price for its explosive dark-berry core and a laundry list of understated scents that could just as well describe a fine dark chocolate—as long as that chocolate were devoured by the fireplace, of course. If the smoky aroma of these pinotages overpowers you, just wait, because it tends to blow off; pour the bottle into a pitcher an hour before serving to mellow it out. During the era of apartheid-related economic sanctions, South Africa's wine industry grew sequestered from the myriad trends and missteps of other New World countries and their fledgling wine regions. As those regions ripped up native or more locally specialized grapes to make room for acres of the most recognizable grapes (chardonnay, merlot, and cabernet), wineries of the southern cape stuck to their tried-and-true pinotage and chenin blanc. Since apartheid's end, South African wineries have materialized on the international scene, all grown up and flaunting their own styles. When checking my facts on South African wine, I noticed in critics a streak of clear and mean bias against pinotage. It was particularly nasty among a cadre of British writers, maybe a result of the grape's German engineering and unique non-Frenchiness (read: macho by design). How could anyone have ill will toward anything that smells like bacon?

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