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Wine Without Pretense: Sip on some new red wines from South Africa
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It has been many months since I answered some of the questions I’ve received from readers via phone, email and my wine education classes. So now’s the time to do just that.

Question: I shop at a small wine shop in Buford. Recently the owner, knowing I like red wines, recommended a South African red called Pinotage. I had never heard of this wine and was reluctant to try it. What can you tell me about this wine?

Answer: Pinotage is the name of the grape that is a product of South Africa’s wine industry. When the Protestant Huguenots fled France in the 17th and 18th centuries to avoid religious persecution, many wound up in South Africa. They brought their wine-making skills and lots of grapevine cuttings. They crossbred two red vinifera grapes — Pinot Noir and Hermitage (also called Cinsault) — and merged those names into Pinotage.

I like to think of Pinotage as South Africa’s equivalent to America’s Zinfandel grape. It is flexible and can be made into virtually any style of red wine: Light and fruity, dark and intense and even Porto-like with rich sweetness and viscosity. Good Pinotage has a smoky/earthy flavor and is a medium-bodied, dry red wine. It’s great with food. I think your store owner was trying to get you to step away from your usual purchases and be adventurous. Next trip there, grab a bottle.

Q: A friend who is quite familiar with wine told me there are only five top-ranked red wines from Bordeaux. Is that true?

A: True, indeed. In 1855, the equivalent to the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce got together to classify and rate the red wines produced in the famous region. It was an intricate process that took time to complete. But they made their decisions based largely on the prices various wines were bringing. Those rankings did name four chateaux as Premier Cru or First Growth. They were Chateau Margaux, Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild and Chateau Haut-Brion. A fifth producer, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, was promoted to Premier Cru in 1973. However, four other quality levels exist. Most of the wines from Second to Fifth Growths are respectable.

Q: At President Obama’s State of the Union Address in January, TV cameras caught Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seeming to nod off during the speech. She later admitted she had consumed some wine at the dinner prior to the address and was “not 100 percent sober.” Any idea what the wine was?

A: Yes! And I applaud the lady for being upfront about the situation. She consumed one of California’s finest red wines, Opus One.

The wine came about as a result of a partnership, hatched in 1979, between the late Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild, from the aforementioned Chateau Mouton-Rothschild in Bordeaux. Opus One was a stunning new approach to premium winemaking using New World grapes (Napa Valley, of course) with Old World experience and techniques. It is made in the style of the great Bordeaux reds, using only the grapes permitted in Bordeaux production. That makes it a Meritage wine, an American name created to describe Bordeaux-style wines.

In California, a wine must contain at least 75 percent of a particular grape to bear the grape’s name on the label — i.e., Cabernet Sauvignon. Meritage wines frequently have less than 75 percent of one type of grape, hence the made-up name.

By the way: It rhymes with “heritage.”

I welcome inquiries and if you have one, then email me at I answer all questions as soon as I can, ask the reader if I may use the question in a future column and file it away for later use.

Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine? He can be contacted at His column appears on the first Wednesday of the month and on

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