Misunderstanding Cape wine

Some recent descriptions, by two important critics, of two groups of Cape winemakers have me scratching my grizzled head. Either they or I am out of touch with the interest and excitement of what is happening in South African wine.

zoobiscuitsFirst, Michael Fridjhon refers (without any irony or humour that I can perceive) to the Zoo Biscuits group of winemakers at the recent Cape Wine event as the local wine’s “lunatic fringe”. He said: “The industry’s lunatic fringe persisted in doing things their way. Under the banner of The Zoo Biscuits, they presented their idiosyncratic creations in a uniquely South African format.”

What constitutes a “fringe”, I wonder? Is anything other than bulk wine in South Africa a “fringe”? But I don’t think that’s what’s Michael is getting at. As to lunatic – well, they’re not even all moonstruck biodynamists, in which case I’d be more inclined to side with Michael on this one.

If you’re very conservative and inclined to insult, it would, I suppose be reasonable to describe say, the exciting and rather marvellous “natural” wines of producers like Craven and Testalonga (not Zoo Biscuit guys) as “lunatic” (a fringe of a fringe?) – but the likes of the Alheits, Duncan Savage, Peter-Allan Finlayson (one of the Cape’s leading makers of pinot noir part of a lunatic fringe!)? And I can’t see that the others in the group, including well-known producer names like Thorne & Daughters, Blackwater, Trizanne, Fram, Momento and Crystallum, are bizarre in any way. JH “Stompie” Meyer making three single vineyard pinot noirs? In what way are these “idiosyncratic creations”?

What is the “their way” that sets these winemakers apart from the sane fabric of Cape wine? Is it the avoidance of inoculated yeast that’s somehow egregiously eccentric? A dislike for the flavours of new oak? A devotion to expressing terroir? Seeking out old vines? I don’t understand. I presumed that Michael must have experienced at least a representative selection of these wines, so I tried finding tasting notes for them on Michael’s website, but couldn’t find any, so no indication of what it is he finds so lunatic and fringeish about them. Maybe he tasted them for the first time at Cape Wine, to account for his shock.

A slightly different face of conservatism, and also possibly of narrow experience of what’s really happening in Cape wine these days, appears when James Molesworth of the American Wine Spectator writes about the crop of wines on the forthcoming Cape Winemakers Guild Auction. Every year, a few American critics get to taste the wines (sighted). Yet again, Molesworth’s scores are in the dull, non-committal band that the Americans favour for serious Cape wines: these all get between 89 and 94 points out of 100. Nothing really disappointing, nothing spectacular.

Fine, of course, if that’s his opinion, and if Mr M really can’t see a greater quality spread than that in what he’s tasted. But consider his introductory comment that “These wines are a result of the experimental and behind-the-scenes efforts of a cadre of South Africa’s best winemakers…. As a group … they represent the vibrant South African wine scene.”

No they aren’t, and no they don’t. Emphatically not, as a whole – even if there is one of the Zoo Biscuit winemakers (Duncan Savage) represented. Good or very good wines many of them are, there are some new and exciting wines among the CWG Auction line-up (though I’m not even sure that “experimental” is at all the right word, in fact, for such wines as Andrea Mullineux’s Semillon gris or Adi Badenhorst’s cinsaut), but they are few and far between. The majority are variations on the producers’ standard ranges, or even just barrel selections from them. To imagine that they represent what is exciting in Cape wine is to miss the point by a mile.

If you were to mix these two articles to say that the Zoo Biscuits gang “represent the vibrant South African wine scene” that would, in my opinion be an unarguable assessment (though it is of course a very small representation). But that’s clearly not the case for either Michael Fridjhon or James Molesworth.

[Category: Tim’s stuff]