Jamie Goode: Recalling the “burnt rubber” controversy – what was the cause?

By , 3 August 2021

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Did SA solve its “burnt rubber” problem when it stopped using tar trellising polls? Image credit: @visualviti

In October 2008, a most unusual wine event took place in London. It involved some of South Africa’s top winemakers, and also many of the UK’s leading press. It was tense. It was a bit weird. But it was fascinating.

Back then, some 12 years ago, things were very different for South African wines in the UK. Compared to now, when many of the top wine journalists are advocates of the exciting wines coming from the Western Cape, the scene then was decidedly sceptical, at least with many of the national newspaper columnists at the time.

What was the issue? There was a distinctive taste that was exhibited by many South African red wines that marked them out as South African. This was an actual thing: I remember it at the time, and I was pro-South African wine. Jane McQuitty, the influential wine critic of The Times, was particularly vocal about it. Tim Atkin, who is now one of the strongest advocates of Cape Wines, was also outspoken on the issue. “The characters that I and most UK wine writers dislike so strongly in certain Cape reds seem to be enjoyed by many of our colleagues in South Africa,” he wrote in The Observer newspaper at the time, noting that at a recent tasting of 70 South African reds he’d found the character in a third of the wines. “Is it a case of what Australians call “cellar palate”, where a winemaker gets so used to tasting his own creations that he becomes blind to their limitations? Or is it just a difference of taste?”

Marketing body WOSA showed some initiative, and rather than deflect attention away from the issue, WOSA UK’s Jo Wehring helped pull together an event to discuss it, with help from Richard Kelley, an importer with strong ties to South Africa. The event was called “The Great Cape Wine Debate”. It involved a group of UK journalists and a select band of South African winemakers to discuss several current topics, focusing in particular on the “Burnt Rubber” issue. Kelley gathered together a star list of winemakers.

Marc Kent (Boekenhoutskloof)
Roelf & Michelle du Preez (Bon Cap)
Gottfried Mocke (Cape Chamonix)
Bruce Jack (Constellation)
Chris Williams (Meerlust/The Foundry)
Niels Verburg (Luddite)
Carl van der Merwe (Quoin Rock)
Eben Sadie (Sadie Family Wines)
Callie Louw (TMV)
Mike Ratcliffe (Warwick and Vilafonté)

Wehring had already got together a group of these critical journalists and presented them with a number of South African reds (as well as a few ringers) blind. They reached more-or-less a consensus on which reds showed the burnt rubber character, and these were sent to wine science researchers in South Africa for analysis to see if any offending characters could be identified. The goal was to then analyse the offending wines and try to identify chemical markers of this characteristic, with a view to eliminating it.

The London tasting was slightly odd, in that the group convened represented some of South Africa’s top winemaking talent. We tasted their wines, and none showed any hints of burnt rubber. And the samples that had already been sent back to the wine scientists in the Cape for analysis that had shown signs of this trait, but they didn’t yield any useful clues as to what was causing it. So all this work was somewhat in vain, other than to get people together to speculate as to the cause.

One suspicion was that the character was a result of the wine fault known as reduction. The idea is that if ferments are done and then the wine is stored in large tanks with little access to oxygen, volatile sulfur compounds such as hydrogen sulfide, disulfides and mercaptans can develop that give the wine a rubbery, dirty edge. Another suggestion was that vines that are suffering from virus can struggle to finish ripening red grapes such that affected vineyards might produce wines that have over-ripe components as well as under-ripeness side by side.

I’d forgotten about the whole burnt rubber episode. I taste a lot of wines every year. Many are fancy high-end wines, but I also have a newspaper column for which I’m regularly tasting through supermarket wines, and I’m co-chair for the International Wine Challenge, so in that capacity I’m exposed to wines across all price points. I don’t think I’ve used the “burnt rubber” descriptor for many years. But the issue raised its head again when I visited Chris Mullineux in the Swartland in November 2019, and he came up with the most convincing explanation for it that I’ve heard. “We have two fundamental principles,” he explained. “We don’t work with any vineyards affected by virus, and we don’t work with any vineyards with tar poles. There two types of trellising pole in South Africa. The ones we use in our vineyard are called Tanapoles, and they are slightly green when they are young. The old school way is they dipped the poles in tar, and we think this gives an aromatic flavour. In my opinion that is the “South African” taste.” He adds, “obviously, there are many opinions.”

“We had a bush vine Syrah vineyard that was super-vigorous, so we decided to trellis it. It was a 20 year old vineyard. We bought the poles and planted the vineyard. The next vintage the wine suddenly had the most hectic South African character, and it had never been there before. We thought it might be the barrels or something. But that winter we were in the vineyard pruning and it was a warm winter’s day. Andrea said, what’s that smell? I smell that flavour that was in the wine. We realized that it was the poles.”

It would be interesting if, indeed, the explanation for “South African” burnt rubber character in red wines turned out to be the way that trellising poles used to be treated.

  • Jamie Goode is a London-based wine writer, lecturer, wine judge and book author. With a PhD in plant biology, he worked as a science editor, before starting wineanorak.com, one of the world’s most popular wine websites.

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  • Abongile Mafevuka8 August 2021

    Overseas palates are different so they may describe a certain characteristic taste as burnt rubber for want of a better word. Has any scientific research been carried out to determine if tar poles indeed convey any chemicals to the grape? These tar dippings on the poles have denatured to a large degree in the African sun.

    • Mike9 August 2021

      Abongile? Descriptions can vary, palates not so much. Surely what matters most here has less to do with exactly how to describe what bothered those MWs back in the day and more to do with it being a thing of the past.

  • Tyrrel+Myburgh4 August 2021

    Creosote poles are problematic (http://scholar.sun.ac.za/handle/10019.1/80197) and I’m surprised to see that people still use them. I also think they aren’t totally responsible for the “burnt rubber” issue….I think you will find that some of these wines were made from bushvine vineyards.

  • Chris4 August 2021

    If not from the vineyard then its microbial.

  • Tim James3 August 2021

    There are a few problems with this creosote theory, I think, Jamie, even if they are not definitive refutations of it. And it’s worth noting that the theory has been around a very long time. For example, a discussion of the problem on the defunct (and disappeared) Grape website as far back as 2008 quoted winemaker Gary Jordan saying at the report-back on that year’s Trophy Wine Show: “Chatting to some of the guys here, from a technical viticultural point of view I think it’s got a lot to do with creosote poles, pine trees in the area”. Peter de Wet of Excelsior commented that he had worked in Australia and Napa “and they definitely use creosote poles. Nobody seems to complain about rubbery wines from there. ” Fair point, surely?

    And Dana Buys of Vrede en Lus remarked: “If creosote poles were the cause of the problem for the red wines, then why are our Cape white wines doing very well with no complaints re the same off-odours?” (In fact there had been a few complaints about white wines suffering, but comparatively few. The difference might be explicable, but it does suggest that looking to creosote in itself is somewhat reductionist.)

    A more significant problem with the theory, I’d say, is that creosote poles didn’t disappear from Cape vineyards as suddenly as Brit critics stopped complaining about rubbery wines. I’d guess that the poles are still widely used. It’s just possible (and I confess I’m saying this as someone who never entirely believed in the problem in the first place) that the real question to ask is why, in fact, those critics (and I think it was almost exclusively Brits) DID in fact suddenly stop complaining about it. Could it be that they forgot to carry on looking for it in the face of the increasing fashionability of the best Cape wines? I wonder if they’d still find it if they retasted some of the wines they earlier complained of?

    There is surely no doubt that some wine characteristics seem to get noticed or un-noticed all of a sudden in the official wine world. Brett “taint” was another widely noted problem a decade ago – there was, as I recall, scarcely a single Cape syrah which some smart taster or other had not accused of having brett. Perhaps, though, all the cellars were cleaned up suddenly around the time that all the poles were replaced in the vineyards. And now, on a more positive note, it seems that many of the world’s white wines have suddenly become saline – ten years ago it was really only manzanilla sherry which was widely considered salty. Finding saltiness is, of course, a nicer fashion than finding burnt rubber.

  • Chris3 August 2021

    It’s the creosote poles. It seems to have a more pronounced effect on varieties with thinner skins, like Pinot. Grapes with thicker skins tend to be ok. We puzzled over this for some time, eventually deciding it was the poles and then replaced all creosote with normal wooden poles at great cost several years ago. We noticed the difference immediately the following harvest.

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