South Africa is coming up in the world. Just a couple of days ago it hosted the UEFA Confederations Cup of soccer, in which Brazil defeated the U.S. (yes, the United States!) 3-2 for the championship; next year the country will host the World Cup.
South Africa is also “the world’s ninth largest producer of wine, an up-and-comer in the global marketplace, and the winner of more than its share of accolades in international competitions.” But a canker grows amid the vineyards of Stellenbosch, and her name is Jane MacQuitty, a wine critic for The Times of London.
According to The New York Times, “In late 2007, she tasted a run of South Africa’s flagship reds and wrote that half were tainted by a “peculiar, savage, burnt rubber” odor. In a later column she called a selection of the country’s best-rated reds “a cruddy, stomach-heaving and palate-crippling disappointment.””
This was, of course, something that Stellenbosch’s luminaries needed to tackle head-on. So, for the past year, “vine-and-wine detectives from the department of viticulture and oenology at Stellenbosch University have been working the case. The “burnt rubber team” includes sensory scientists and analytical chemists. They taste, they sniff, they scratch their heads. They are looking for the golden thread that ties together a single taste that was born in multiple locations. Is the problem with the root stock, the soils, the storage, the bottling, the techniques of fermentation? Gas chromatography is being used to separate wines into their chemical compounds, searching for a culprit among the molecular units.”
The story of this sleuthfulness is completely worth reading in full.