Wine Wars

Uncorkamorimcork Wine Wars
by Amorim Cork
will briefly descend from from this digital platform to an analogue one at 3:30pm today (Friday) when I discuss Jane MacQuitty’s claim in the Times last month that most SA red wine tastes “peculiar, savage, [of] burnt rubber and dirt” with Jenny Crwys-Williams on her Talk Radio 702 program. The MacQuitty story is the latest salvo in an unprecedented attack on SA red wine by some of the big guns of UK wine.
jennyc Wine Wars

One of the more understandable concepts of the late French philosopher Jacques Derrida is the notion of “unconditional hospitality.” Simply stated, if you invite someone into your home, you shouldn’t try and dictate their behaviour. This lesson in deconstructionism was brought home to Wosa (Wines of SA, the exporter’s association) recently by UK wine writer and co-chairman of the London International Wine Challenge, Tim Atkin MW.

Brought to South Africa twice last year by Wosa, Atkin enthused about SA whites noting “the Cape is producing some of the top Sauvignons in the world at the moment.” Yet when he released his top 36 wines for summer in the Observer, none made the list.

Reds came in for an even rougher ride. In an article entitled Is the Cape waking up to the dawn of the red? in the July edition of Wine & Spirit magazine, Atkin calls SA “the worst of the major New World wine-producing nations” for red wine.

Admitting it’s a personal point of view, he states that SA whites “are vastly superior to its reds” – a controversial point of view indeed. Leaving out dessert wines and Ports, the Platter pundits from Mount Anorak sat on the fence for the 2008 edition of their guide, with whites and reds scoring 7 five star stunners each. Consider all wines and the reds have it by a margin of 12 to 9.

When it comes to blind tastings, reds are more convincing. September’s results from the Michelangelo International Wine Awards (the second largest SA wine show after Veritas whose results are only released in November) reveal that of the 30 double gold medals dished out, over half went to red wines, including the trophy for best wine of show.

Whites lagged with six DGs. Dessert wines, brandies and Jerepigos made up the balance. This was no triumph of local flavour as the Michelangelo organizers take great pains to note “unlike other South African wine competitions, the Michelangelo International Wine Awards is judged by a panel consisting of international judges plus only one local judge” – a triumph of cultural cringe.

If you leave out the many regional trophies, last year’s Decanter World Wine Awards dished out 80% of their SA gold medals to reds – exactly the same proportion as this year’s Concours Mondial de Bruxelles with 17 red golds out of 21.

Closer to home, the Swiss International Air Lines Wine Awards, under the chairmanship of another UK wine authority and founder of the International Wine Challenge, Robert Joseph, gave 20 of their 28 gold gongs to reds. Of course there could have been many more reds entered than whites – as was hopefully the case at the Syrah du Monde competition where SA bagged 7 of 34 golds awarded against Australia’s mingey two. In fact SA came second only to France and was thus the best New World Syrah performer. As Al Gore might say “an inconvenient truth” for the Atkin thesis.

Sticking with American opinion, US pundit James Molesworth is clearly in the red corner. Writing on The New SA in the Wine Spectator, he makes the point that Stellenbosch, the heart of quality SA wine production by any measure, has Cabernet-based blends as its strong suit, while Paarl and the Swartland are best for Syrah and Rhône varieties. Indeed, the Spectator’s best rated SA wine is Eben Sadie’s Columella 2005, a blend of Syrah and Mourvèdre.

Perhaps Atkin’s dislike of SA reds comes from his experience at this year’s IWC where he is a co-chairman, but few premium SA producers take this show seriously after last year’s controversial results that left many highly regarded SA reds from icon producers like Vergelegen and Meerlust as naked as apple-chomping Adam, without even a fig leaf “Commendation” for wines that won gold in other contemporaneous tourneys.

But then how seriously should anyone take London wine competitions when last year, a wine entered three times (by the producer, importer and retailer) to one show managed to win a bronze, silver and gold medal for the same wine. To paraphrase Nigel Andrews writing in the Financial Times on the subject of Oscars, “these handouts are given by the mad to the glad.”

While Mr. Atkin is entitled to his opinions, his attack on SA wine writers in the same story raised a few hackles. Presumably his comments apply only to local hacks writing in English who are called “parochial, barely qualified fans with a typewriter.”  Approached for his reaction, Cassie du Plessis, editor of Wineland and Fynproe was the soul of diplomacy.

“Our SA wine writing colleagues represent the whole spectrum, from pretty ordinary to very smart and informed, with most hovering safely around the middle.  Then, many supposed wine writers are really wine business or lifestyle writers, with few focusing seriously on wine quality and style. Unfortunately, there are some of these who don’t do much more than rework statements from PR companies and who slavishly hang onto the lips of some outspoken/influential wine personalities who they can ‘safely’ support.

The sad reality is that we have hundreds of wineries out there who vie for the attentions of a handful of writers and publications who they hope can swing the scale in the face of oversupply and market domestic stagnancy. And there’s no professional association guarding the standards and ethics of South African wine writing. It’s just about a free for all – with many writers having to juggle clashing interests to make a decent living!”

Hardly a ringing endorsement – but if not the SA wine press, then who will blow the trumpet for “the hundreds of wineries out there”? Mr. Atkin has a solution. “In the absence of a more robust domestic media… SA needs informed criticism from overseas.” Presumably from a publication like Decanter magazine. As the magazine’s website modestly proclaims “Decanter magazine is – quite simply – the world’s best wine magazine. Sold in 92 countries, Decanter is required reading for everyone with an interest in wine – from connoisseurs to amateur enthusiasts.”

A sentiment shared by readers of SA WINE magazine. An on-line poll reported in that magazine’s September edition confirms that two thirds of respondents name Decanter as the international magazine they rate most highly.

Through the Decanter World Wine Awards and in particular the person of consultant editor Steven Spurrier, a judge at this year’s controversial Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show and wine selector for Singapore Airlines, Decanter has an influence on SA wine well above its local circulation figures.

Which could explain the blizzard of angry phone calls and letters from lawyers when reported on the allegations of Gaetano Manti in the June edition of Il Mio Vino that the magazine offers “stories” for sale. Decanter editor, Guy Woodward, confirms that “advertorials are commonplace in lifestyle magazines. We carry them occasionally, and they are always marked as ‘promotional’ or ‘advertising’ pages.” Although obviously not flagged clearly enough to avoid confusion among Italian producers or Il Mio Vino.

Another nice little earner is how results of competitions like the Decanter World Wine Awards are reported, with more prominence given to those who pay more, just like lonely hearts ads in the personal pages. This year was a bumper one with 350 awards given to SA wines. So clearly SA producers are voting with their credit cards even if a local hero like the Babylon’s Toren 2003 Chardonnay from Backsberg, white wine of show at the Trophy Wine Show, has to settle for a Certificate of Commendation, out of the medals.

Atkin ends his polemic by asking “what have SA red winemakers ever done for us?” Rather than point out obvious things like paying for business class airfares to SA, accommodation, meals, etc. for Tim and his mates, perhaps the time has come for SA red winemakers to ask the question “what has the UK wine press ever done for SA?”

read more on Neil Pendock