Clash of Cultivars on BBC 4

It’s the kind of coverage WoSA (Wines of SA, the exporters’ mouthpiece now under new management) can only dream of: a 60 minute TV program on SA wine flighted on BBC Four no fewer than four times earlier this month, called Wine: The Future.

solms Clash of Cultivars on BBC 4

Given South Africa’s past, it was to be expected that director Nick Angel would adopt a Manichean approach: white farm (Solms-Delta)/black farm (M’Hudi); surfeit of resources/broken down Ford tractor; all-singing, all-dancing (literally) oesfees to release the new vintage/modest launch in a kitchen; Shiraz/Pinotage.

So which cultivar comes off best? Pinotage, a surprise result given the prejudice shown. For starters, the narrator intones “Pinotage is South Africa’s gift to the grape. A hybrid varietal that remains stubbornly unpopular abroad.” Cue UK wino Joe Wadsack, one of 400+ judges putting 10000+ wines through their paces at the International Wine Challenge in London asking what the next category was. “SA Pinotage? – yes, unfortunately.” Chuckle, chuckle, as the other judges scribble down their scores. Making a mockery of the blind tasting methodology with prejudice so publically aired.

Which fits in nicely with rude comments about SA reds from competition co-chairman Tim Atkin and an amazing outburst from another co-chair, Charles Metcalfe on “all sorts of weird and wonderful concoctions [from SA], some of them truly, amazingly awful.” Which must have raised a few groans among marketers now trying to solicit entries from SA for their expensive show. These show marketers must be hoping the program doesn’t get picked up by the SA Broadcasting Corporation.

Yet amazingly Joe the plumber liked the M’Hudi Pinotage and it went on to win Bronze. Confirming the comment from brand owner Oupa Rangaka that “everyone who meets my Pinotage goes agog.” It clearly wasn’t made from the grapes Marks & Spencer winemaker Gerd Stepp saw being harvested at 19.5-20 balling (he measured the sugar content on screen with a refractometer) on M’Hudi farm later in the program. By way of contrast, another Stellenbosch Pinotage producer (Beyers Truter) harvests at 25-26 balling and says picking under 20 is “madness.”

Making the understatement of the year that the sugar content was “not extremely high” (the grapes were downright green) Gerd even agrees with the nonsense comment from Oupa that “together with the other grapes it will average out at 20 something.” Which may be arithmetically correct, but the wine would almost certainly be thin and bitter, displaying that hardness Wadsack called “tannins made from Duplo-bricks or Lego, they’re so chunky.”

So no surprises then when M&S decide not to buy. Were the grapes intended for a M’Hudi sparkling Pinotage or did Oupa want to hurry harvest given the ominous looking rainclouds and his tractor problems? And what kind of winemaker allows his putative supplier to harvest such patently unripe grapes? Good gracious, Gerd!

The Solms-Delta Cape Jazz Shiraz disappeared into an IWC black hole. Given a C+ by the tasting panel – presumably borderline between a Certificate of Commendation and a Bronze Medal – when referred to higher authorities for possible promotion, both Atkin and yet another co-chair, elf-like Derek Smedley, liked it and put it forward for a medal. Cue an embarrassed Atkin later searching his computer for any trace of the wine and coming up empty-handed. The Certificate of Commendation one would have assumed was assured, had disappeared!

No wonder Mark Solms looked particularly exasperated when he noted his IWC results were inversely proportional to the degree of unusualness of the wine and that he does much better in sighted as opposed to blind tastings. Once again, when you see what happens behind the scenes at these grand wine competitions, its caveat emptors all round. Prejudiced judges and panel co-chairs, disappearing awards. No wonder Oak Valley Chardonnay 2006 got both a Gold Medal and a Certificate of Commendation from this competition last year after being submitted twice by producer and importer. Mark, do the industry another favour and ask for your entry fee back!