The Source & Extinction of “Burnt Rubber” Taste in South African Wines

Last week I had the opportunity to attend CapeWine and visit five major wine growing regions in South Africa.  During the course of my eight day visit, I realized that the vast majority of the more than 300 South African wines I tasted did not include the telltale “burnt rubber” note that I used to rely upon to identify “South Africa” in a blind MW tasting.  Some people also refer to this taste as “eraser or band aid,” but it is a unique note that has plagued South African wines for many years now – especially in reds and primarily in pinotage.  This has caused many people around the world who have tried pinotage to refuse to try it again.  Yet this time I found pinotages that were so fresh and fruity I could have been tasting a lighter bodied spicy syrah.

Therefore, I asked several South African winemakers to explain how they had resolved the problem, but ended up receiving a variety of responses including denial of the issue.  The most common answer revolved around the topic of viruses in the vineyard, and a few winemakers mentioned a strange form of brettanomyces as traditional (not very clean) winemaking.  One winemaker told me they had been fermenting reds at too high of a level, whereas another told me the issue was fermenting reds at too low of a level.  In the end, the most comprehensive and believable answer came from a Stellenbosch winemaker.

“It was a variety of factors,” he explained, “and as an industry, we have worked very hard over the past few years to eliminate these issues.”  He then proceeded to name four factors:

1)      Viruses in the vineyard — both leafroll and fan leaf virus, which delay ripening.  Therefore many grapes were picked at an unripe “green” level in the past.

2)      Reductive winemaking – wines not protected from oxygen and sometimes temperature control issues, which emphasized green notes and created a “burnt” taste

3)      Brett in the Cellar – given the fact that wine has been made in South Africa for over 300 years, there is brettanomyces in many cellars.  Though considered an interesting note of complexity in some wines, brett added to the above conditions only exacerbated the problem.

4)      Choice of Wood – the choice of barrel, usually older foudres for fermentation, can also emphasize the “burnt rubber” note and/or brett characters.

Solution:  Many South African wineries have replaced virused vines with new vines.   Hundreds of hectares have been replanted in the last few years, and more are still scheduled for replanting.  Cleaner and more anaerobic winemaking practices, new barrels, lower fermentation temperatures, and methods to reduce brett, have also assisted in reducing the problem.  More thinning in the vineyard and crop reduction has also resulted in riper fruit.

Interestingly, I have encountered several people who enjoy the “burnt rubber” taste of old South African wines.  They say they appreciate it as it reminds them of “home and/or South Africa.”  I can understand this, because once you become used to a taste and smell, it becomes part of your “world of meaning.”  The sense of smell – one of the least researched and understood senses—can immediately transport you to another time and place.

It is possible that a few South African wineries will continue to produce this style, and that can be part of their “strategy of differentiation.”  However, in my opinion, South Africa is producing a very unique style of wine that is truly a mix of old and new World.  No one else has achieved this.  They should continue in their efforts to reduce the “burnt rubber” notes, and move forward in producing fresh and exciting wines with a ripe fruit nose, but crisp acids and terroir notes that no other country can replicate.  Careful vineyard cultivation, unique terroir, clean winemaking, and innovative winemakers can make this a reality.  In fact, it is already occurring.

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