Badass Sommelier: ELYSIUM, Pinotage And The Wine Farms of South Africa

Dan travels to South Africa for today's lesson in wine.

Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, the director’s follow up to 2009’s wildly successful District 9, is full of big moments and big ideas, but it’s so anxious to get to the major set pieces that it feels rushed and slight. Ten minutes of breathing room would have helped this film enormously, a little extra time to learn why we should care about Matt Damon’s Max Da Costa and Alice Braga’s Frey Santiago besides “looks good bald” and “has a sick kid.”

It would have been nice to get to know Blomkamp’s world a little more, but what little we do get is great. The Los Angeles of 2154 has turned into Mega-City One, with the shining man-made star of the eponymous Elysium floating in the sky above, visible even during the day but promising only false hope to the impoverished masses. Elysium is not a subtle film, but it is a wildly entertaining one, something it shares with District 9.

This is also how I would describe the wines of Blomkamp’s home.

History, in Brief.

South Africa has a 300 year tradition of winemaking, going back to the 1600s when the Dutch established the Cape of Good Hope. They found grapevines growing readily at the southern tip of the continent, but the resultant wine (much like that made from native American grapes) left much to be desired. So on subsequent voyages, Dutch traders made sure to include cuttings from European vitis vinifera* vines among their wares.

European vines took to South Africa’s climate so well that there was even a time, during the 18th and early 19th centuries, when South African wine was considered to be among the finest in the world. But like the rest of the country, South Africa’s wine culture suffered greatly under apartheid.

Apartheid was so heinous that most of the rest of the world turned its back on South Africa, refusing to import South African goods. This extended to wine as much as anything else.

The Flying Winemakers.

Grapes and grapegrowers have always travelled, as have wine and winemakers. You don’t get Grenache in Gigondas if you don’t have the Romans march through Spain and pick up Garnacha on their way to Provence. But there came a time, in the 1600s, right as the wines of Bordeaux were really starting to take off, that a winemaker’s name became as well-regarded as the wine he made. It was at this time, coincidentally a time when good wines were starting to be made in South Africa, that European winemakers realized they could secure passage on a ship and continue to make wine all year round.

It has to do with the seasons. Summer in the north is winter in the southern hemisphere. So while the north is harvesting grapes in October, the south harvests in April. This gives a winemaker enough time to make a wine by December and get to South Africa just as the grapes there are ready for picking.

This practice of perpetual winemaking has only become more common as international travel has become easier. The Mouton-Rothschild family pride themselves on this, sending their winemakers from Bordeaux to Chile and back.

The promise of work year-round is good for the winemaker, of course, but it can be great for the wine**. Winemakers who travel will share technology, skills, and learned secrets, so that ultimately different nations produce better and better wine.

For fifty years, from the years following World War II until the 1990s, winemaking developed by leaps and bounds. California developed the heat index (which helps a region determine the best grapes to grow based on the average temperature of that region), while Bordeaux perfected blending techniques. Quicker and better harvesting and sorting methods were developed, pneumatic presses replaced traditional foot-stompin’, and the biodynamic movement took hold.

None of which made it to South Africa.

What the Hell is Pinotage.

Although there are great strides being made with the common international grape varieties (namely Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot), South Africa’s most important grapes are Chenin Blanc and Pinotage.

Chenin Blanc is a white grape, best known for dry, fruity wines from Vouvray in the Loire Valley. In South Africa the wine is often bottled as a single varietal, or blended with Sauvignon Blanc. It is fairly one-dimensional, simple but honest, and refreshing on a hot day. But there isn’t really all that much to South Africa’s Chenin Blanc, by and large, and so the country has developed a reputation for producing cheap, serviceable white wines.

South Africa’s other major varietal is Pinotage, and this thing is weird as fuck. It is the brainchild of Abraham Izak Perold, who bred the grape in 1925 and then promptly forgot about it. The idea was to breed a grape that would make an elegant and sophisticated wine, and yet be easy to grow in the harsh climate of South Africa. Perold crossed Pinot Noir with the sturdy and reliable Cinsault (here called Hermitage, named after the grape’s native home in the south of France), and ended up with something that tastes of neither parent.

Pinotage is an odd wine. Despite the ease with which it grows, the grape has a propensity for developing isoamyl acetate during winemaking, leading to a wine that smells like paint and tastes fat and hot. But at its best, Pinotage can be very exciting. It is a full and rustic wine, very new world in style with lots of rich fruit up front and low acidity, but with some exciting and weird things going on. You’ll find flavors and aromas of dried cranberry and like old diner coffee and baby powder. Pinotage sometimes tastes very pleasantly of rusty nails.

One of the complaints levied against Pinotage is that it’s difficult to pair with, but I find it’s a friendly match with heavily spiced foods. Kanonkop makes a very good one, but it’s a little pricey at $30. Their Kanonkop Kadette, though, is a delicious blend that sees a lot of Pinotage in the mix, and will usually run about $15.

So go out and pick up a bottle of Pinotage, look for something from Paarl or Stellenbosch that is not high in alcohol (13% or so), and put it next to jerked meats or curry. You’ll be surprised at how well it plays.

*All of the wines you like are made from vitis vinifera grapes.

**Can be. There is a distressing trend towards what is called International Style Wine, where different wines from different regions made from different grapes all taste the same. These wines aren’t necessarily bad, there’s no flaws in the winemaking, they’re just really fucking boring.