An unfair hearing
Is Swartland Shiraz really so superb or is it all just spin?
UK wine and whisky wonk Andrew Jefford loves painting big pictures with big words.
Last November, he did a dotty aboriginal one for a bunch of little Aussie battlers in Adelaide at the end of the Wine 2030 Research Network's "Blue Sky Day". He chose a provocative theme: why has the international wine press fallen out of love with Château Chunder and his mates?
Weaving images of tall poppies being mown down on Gallipoli beach, and of sensitive new-age consumer Sharon from Stockwell desiring "an emotional purchase of a carefully crafted agricultural product with more or less cultural resonance" only to find an "industrial wine" with moron-strength alcohols and everybody-loves-Illovo levels of residual sugar in the bladder that she pulls off the sunshine-in-a-bottle shelf at Tesco's, Jefford performed a tour de force of all that has gone wrong with Aussie wine over the last while.
Some of his observations extended beyond the fatal shore, to embrace Robert Hughes' more appropriate moniker for the Lucky Country and Land of the Hot Christmas.
His rule of thumb that "the more expensive the wine, the more significant the participation of wine writers becomes to that wine" is wonderfully illustrated by the recent rise and rise of Swartland Shiraz. Exhibit A is the exasperated comment from Dana Buys of Vrede en Lust fame on Pendock Uncorked: "A number of the Grape blogs in recent months have given the Swartland and Paardeberg a significant amount of coverage. Don't get me wrong, I also enjoy the Swartland, Riebeek Kasteel and especially the energy of the band of winemakers there. One would just like to see Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek get a fair hearing."
"Increase the price," Jefford would say. At R550 a bottle, Eben Sadie's Columella is one of the priciest Shiraz blends around and one certainly beloved of the Grape communal bloggers and consequently reflected in the enthusiasm for this wine in the sighted wine guide with which the three Grape editors are intimately involved as senior sighted tasters, editors and what have you.
Columella does less well in blind tastings where, as one Stellenbosch winemaker pointed out at the Five Decades of Pinotage tasting at Onrus last year, "you don't hear Eben talk".
Grape's enthusiasm soon began to snowball like Paris Hilton's publicity machine. Swartland Shiraz was wildly popular with punters at Wines of South Africa's Mega-Tasting in London last October, duly ending up on high-profile Christmas laundry lists, and when WOSA flew UK journalists Christian Davis and Jamie Goode to SA the week after the Mega-Tasting, they spent a whole day out on the Swartland with the Shiraz surfers.
The Grape campaign is helped on by get-up-and-go winemakers like Chris Mullineux, who proposed an SA panel of his mates for the Hospice du Rhône gig in California next month. A panel which features not a single producer in the Top 10 of WINE magazine's Shiraz Challenge last year.
Nor the top-scoring wine at the Michelangelo International Wine Awards, the Rijks Private Cellar Shiraz 2004 which achieved the incredible score of 99.6 tasted blind by a panel of international judges. Surely the highest (and almost unbelievable) blind panel score in history.
Nor the world's best Shiraz last year at the International Wine & Spirits Competition, the Eagles' Nest 2007. But that's hardly Chris's fault. At the end of the day, it's a chicken and egg situation. Which came first, quality or column centimetres?
The Swartland has one heck of a lot of chicken farms.
Pendock's Plonk: Solms-Delta Amalie 2009. Grenache Blanc spices up peachy Viognier and helps achieve a lunchtimefriendly 13% ABV.
Tagged Opus One Hundred