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PINOTAGE and TORRONTÉS

Author: 
Edwin Núñez, Education Chair
Initial Publication Date: 
May, 2014
Our tasting this month will present wines from four Sothern Hemisphere countries: from South America, we will taste wine from Argentina and Chile; from the South Pacific, we will taste wine from New Zealand; and from Africa, we will taste wine from South Africa. Several flagship grapes from those countries will be represented by the wines. Rather than just writing a few cursory remarks concerning each of those regions and grapes, I will concentrate on two of the least known grapes presented in the tasting: the Pinotage and Torrontés grapes. Not many people are familiarized with these two grapes and their wines. We hope this short article will lead you to seek wines from these grapes and expand your wine-tasting horizons.

PINOTAGE, A GRAPE SAVED BY CHANCE

There are a couple of reasons why we don’t see many Pinotage wines in Alabama:

1.      The grape is cultivated almost exclusively in South Africa;
2.      South Africa is distant and has not been as effective marketing its wines.

It has not helped that elites in South Africa used to consider locally-produced wines as inferior to foreign and more prestigious labels. Our experience with Pinotage wines shows the opposite. South Africa has some very good wine makers that make a high-quality product. The 2012 AWS Rochester Conference had a session on Pinotage wines that allowed us to confirm the elegance and sophistication of those wines.

The Pinotage grape originated in South Africa in 1925 as a result of research conducted by Prof. Abraham Perold, the first person appointed as Professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University. He crossed two classic French grapes: Pinot Noir and Cinsault, known locally as Hermitage. He wanted to produce a grape that could yield wines as excellent as those from Pinot Noir but with the cultivation sturdiness of the Hermitage grape.

Initially, only four seeds of this crossing were planted by Prof. Perold and eventually forgotten. When he left the university the vines were going to be uprooted. By sheer chance, a young lecturer named Charles Niehaus happened to pass by at that moment. Niehaus knew about these vines and requested they be saved. Perold’s successor, Prof. Theron eventually grafted them into new rootstock and selected the best for additional cultivation. The vines grew vigorously and ripened early with high sugar levels. Pinotage marked the beginning of a new era in the production of South African wines.
 
Prof. Theron and Niehaus decided to take part of the names of both original grape parents and named the new grape as Pinotage. This marriage of a Burgundy (Pinot Noir) and a Rhône varietal (Cinsault) yielded a beautiful offspring in South Africa.

TORRONTÉS: A TRULY ARGENTINIAN GRAPE

On more than one occasion we have encountered people that are surprised to know that Malbec is not an Argentinean grape. Many are not aware that Malbec—known as Côt in the Loire Valley—has been used for centuries alone and in blends to make French wines. However, if you want to name a grape that is as Argentinean as the tango, you must say Torrontés.

Torrontés is a white grape that originated in Mendoza, Argentina. It is the result of crossing Muscat of Alexandria and the mysterious Mission grape. That grape’s name originated from the fact that it was usually found around the Missions settlements in the New World. Jesuits and Franciscan priests and monks cultivated the grapes around abbeys to produce sacramental wine and for their own consumption. It was only in 2006 that DNA studies determined that this grape imported from Spain was the largely-unknown Spanish variety called Listán Prieto. Nobody has been able to trace the origin of the name Torrontés. The earliest references appear in records from the middle of the 19th century. Although there is a grape from Spain with the name of Torrontés they are not to be confused since they are genetically unrelated.

The Torrontés grape produces a white wine with golden and greenish hues. It inherits its powerful nose from the Muscat and yields wines with complex white flower and citrus aromas. You can also detect peach and apricot tastes and a refreshing acidity.

Just as the Argentineans turned the Malbec grape into their flagship red grape, they are doing the same for Torrontés. They are making this grape synonymous with excellent Argentinean white.