Rubber Resolved

A resolution to last year’s storm in the spittoon where Jane MacQuitty, Tim Atkin et al. accused SA reds of reeking of burnt rubber. A US wine authority of mega gravitas and some writing talent, Jay McInerney, writing on Rhône wines in A Hedonist in the Cellar (Bloomsbury, 2006) remarks “Côte-Rôti typically takes five to ten years to show its potential (and shed that nasty young Syrah burnt-rubber smell).” It’s in the grape, Jane!

hed Rubber Resolved

My review of A Hedonist in the Cellar that appeared in the Financial Mail last year:

Wine writing, like Airbus manufacture, has an international division of labour: American Robert Parker and the US’s Wine Spectator magazine taste and score the stuff out of 100 and produce books tabulating their impressions, rather like an international John Platter guide. Brits Jancis Robinson and Andrew Jefford concentrate on the stories and characters behind the bottle, focusing on pedigree rather than points. This ends up in spectacularly bitchy spats when the two schools arrive at different conclusions.

This book is a cross-dresser: a collection of 50-odd columns from American House & Garden magazine, it is British in that no scores are assigned even though its author is a true-blue Yankee: a grown-up former Brat Pack novelist who captured the Zeitgeist (cocaine and vodka sours) of 1980s Manhattan in his book Bright Lights, Big City.

But while Robinson and Jefford are semi self-effacing, Jay McInerney stars in each of his columns. Like the time he correctly identified a Haut-Brion 1982 blind in a New York restaurant – an achievement so amazing he relates it twice.

SA gets good reviews, with encouraging comments like “SA, a country that has been under vine since the 17th century, is well on its way to becoming the new Australia”, even if details are a bit dodgy. Hamilton Russell Vineyards is not “less than two miles from the Indian Ocean”, as the Atlantic continues all the way to Agulhas. And the Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande trophy that Kanonkop won twice for a Bordeaux-style blend is not a French award – it’s dished out at a London wine competition.

Likewise the comment that “Nelson Mandela, Charlize Theron, and pinotage are among South Africa’s distinctive contributions to global culture” is somewhat undermined by the observation that the last named “can sometimes smell like nail polish remover au poivre”. Perhaps McInerney should have stuck to J M Coetzee or Nadine Gordimer.

And calling the R20 000/day international consultant Michel Rolland, who does guest appearances at Rupert & Rothschild and Remhoogte, a “Mondovino star”, is either cynical or ironic, or just wrong, since Rolland is pilloried in the film. Such slips are doubly unfortunate as McInerney started out as a fact checker for The New Yorker magazine, before the fickle finger of fate summoned him to the top table.

Ditto for his bad boy past, which features only briefly in a column on Absinthe, with the experience compared with “doing a couple of lines and a shot of tequila“. Still, it’s a turn-up for the books when serial substance abusers reform and embrace establishment brands like Krug and Salon, though it helps to have a day job writing to pay the bills.

McInerney cheerfully admits he has no formal qualifications to write about wine “and for the life of me I had no idea what was meant by the phrases malolactic fermentation’ and volatile acidity’ “. Nor could he spit into a bucket. So instead, he played to his strengths and started “to write as a passionate amateur and to employ a metaphoric language”.

It comes as a breath of fresh air to those sick of “whiffs of cassia and wallops of capsicum”, and other winespeak horrors, to read of an Austrian riesling described thus: “think of a samurai sword. Then imagine it simultaneously slicing a lime and a peach.”

This fascination of wine for wordsmiths is widespread. In SA, the poet Stephen Gray is a witty commentator on port while André Brink can include a book on dessert wine in his CV.