South Africa Makes A Wine Comeback



A review of the Backsberg Pinotage 2007 and the Auchentoshan 1999 Bordeaux Wine Cask Matured, 11-year-old Single Malt Scotch Whisky.


By Joshua E. London and Louis Marmon


Washington Jewish Week  February 23, 2012


Auchensoshan Bordeaux 1999The re-entry of South Africa into the international community after the end of apartheid resulted in a new appreciation for that country’s wines. South Africa has been producing wines since 1659, and they were very much enjoyed in Europe until the 1800s when unfavorable tariffs and vineyard diseases decimated the industry. Recent investments for modernization and better viniculture practices have elevated South African wines to among the world’s best.

Pinotage is South Africa’s signature grape. It was created by a Jewish chemist, Abraham Izak Perold who later became the first professor of viticulture at Stellenbosch University. A cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, Pinotage has also seen its share of ups and downs with some justifiable criticism of its tendency to develop offensively pungent chemical aromas. As a result many South African wineries have focused on popular varietals such as Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc, though others have not abandoned their winemaking legacy.

Many very good Pinotages are currently available including the kosher Backsberg Pinotage 2007, a supple and fruity wine with good balance and no unpleasantness. Blackberries, violets and hints of smoke open into herbal strawberry and spicy dark fruit flavors. Serve it slightly chilled with duck, grilled lamb or burgers.

Spirits-wise, we recently retasted the portfolio of whiskies produced by the Auchentoshan Distillery in the lowlands of Scotland and thought we’d focus on one limited edition expression that we’ve not yet written about: the Auchentoshan 1999 Bordeaux Wine Cask Matured, 11-year-old Single Malt Scotch Whisky ($70; 58 percent abv).

This particular bottling is unusual in that, unlike most wine-cask influenced whiskies, this Auchetoshan has not been “finished” in wine casks. Instead, Morrison Bowmore Distillers, owners of Auchentoshan, boldly decided to try 100 percent maturation of the whisky in wine casks from Chateau Lagrange, a winery in the Saint-Julien appellation of the Bordeaux region of France. Chateau Lagrange was classified as one of 14 Troisiemes Crus (third growths) in the historic Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855. Lagrange’s reputation was mediocre for some time until Japanese liquor giant Suntory bought the winery in 1983 and invested additional resources to rehabilitate it, with Marcel Ducasse as directeur general and winemaker – by all accounts he did just that, and today this winery has a stellar reputation.

Not so coincidentally, Suntory also owns Morrison Bowmore Distillers. So it not only made economic sense for Auchentoshan to source these casks from Chateau Lagrange, but it also means that Auchentoshan would have complete quality control as well as complete knowledge of cask provenance and use at Chateau Lagrange. It is the equivalent of having casks seasoned to desired specifications, as is done with nearly all new sherry casks, except that these casks also underwent the additional examination needed to be deemed suitable for Chateau Lagrange’s own needs. The results are remarkable.

Before jumping into the whisky, however, it is worth a quickie revisiting of the kashrut aspects. At least insofar as to remind folks that, according to the standards of such kashrut authorities as the OU, the Star-K, the CRC and, of course the local Vaad Harabanim of Greater Washington, all Scotch whiskies, and presumably all beverages, that make a point of informing consumers of the use of wine casks in their production are considered problematic and not recommended for kosher consumers without kosher certification. That said, as we have noted before, there are widely respected authorities – such as the Kashruth Authority of the London Beth Din (KLBD) – who differ with the American kashrut authorities and permit all Scotch whisky even when its marketing packaging makes a point of informing consumers about the use of wine casks. The KLBD publicly states that its decision is based on related decisions of Igros Moshe (the rulings of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein z”l).

So without further ado, here is the Auchentoshan 1999 Bordeaux Wine Cask Matured, 11-year-old single malt Scotch Whisky: This triple-distilled, lowland single malt is a remarkable, enticing, delicious whisky! The whisky begins with classical malty notes but then dives headlong into less familiar waters. It presents contrasting sweet-and-sour fruit notes, a lovely citrus-type sharpness offsetting a more traditional creamy sweetness, and offers further notes of fruit compote, fresh berries, vanilla, caramel, custard, dark chocolate, nutmeg, raisins, cloves, gingerbread, syrup, white and black pepper, oak and oak-associated spiciness and something slightly musty, like slightly damp cedar wood in an old wine cellar. Excellent without water, even at 116 proof, but a little additional water does bring out additional aromas and flavors, even as it dampens a few others. Try it both ways for good measure. With only around 300 bottles available in the U.S., this will be hard to find, but well worth finding – either here or overseas. L’chaim!

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