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Tim James: Some observations on the Trophy Wine Show winners

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There have already been some irritated comments on Winemag about the results of the Trophy Wine Show, pointing to some of the nonsenses that are inevitable in these big tastings, however earnestly the organisers and the tasters address themselves to what always proves an impossible task. At least, with the overall improvement of South African wine in recent years, there are going to be fewer gold-winning wines that are unutterably implausible. But still a few dodgy ones, as I discovered earlier this week, when I had the privilege of tasting 23 trophy winners at the “Masterclass” that the show’s chair and owner, Michael Fridjhon, presented to the sponsor’s guests in Cape Town.

I must admit that my impressions of the wines were obtained very quickly, as the pace of this tasting is not slow – which didn’t prevent many of the tasters behaving pretty rudely, especially as their unwillingness to spit started to show and their chatting grew more uninhibited.

Warwick Professor Black used to be labelled as Sauvignon Blanc, but this 2017 apparently includes semillon and was entered (and won) as a blend. The sauvignon dominates, but there is more breadth and complexity that usual in a straight young sauvignon. Beautifully balanced and rather elegant, with some blackcurrant as well as tropical notes. More my style than the trophied Stark-Condé Round Mountain Sauvignon Blanc 2017, which is showy, big, rich and sweaty, with a touch of sweetness. Also showy, of course, and oaky and definitely almost off-dry is the Spier 21 Gables Chenin Blanc 2016. Very good of its type, of course – the type that tends to do well in big line-ups.

Backsberg Family Reserve 2017 is a good, pretty safe wine; fresh, silky, rounded and quite fruity, with a touch of oak showing. The winning Chardonnay was the Tokara Reserve, always a very fine wine – intense aromas and flavours, with a good vein of acidity – but the 2016 struck me as a bit less refined and elegant than usual (I’m happy and hoping to be corrected). And the Laborie MCC Blanc de Blancs 2011 was a surprise for me: lovely, with a good hint of biscuitty development; the ripeness that the Cape sunshine should give, but tight, poised and fresh, with plenty of room to go.

More reds than whites got trophies (though whites deservedly got more gold medals than did reds). Eagles’ Nest Merlot 2014 fitted into the line-up pretty deservedly, I thought, with a winning combination of refinement  and seriousness on the one hand, and suave approachability on the other. No disconcerting, disfiguring greenness. Very good. It was followed by Springfontein Limestone Rocks Child in Time Petit Verdot 2012, which was probably the only one of the trophy winners that I actively disliked (though the Stark Condé Sauvignon came close). The wine is even bigger and more assertive than the name; chewy and oaky. Best niche variety trophy? The judges were clearly taking a rest from their vaunted efforts to reward restraint.

Best Shiraz-based red blend was Middelvlei Momberg 2016, a perfectly decent, straightforward, pleasant and unexceptionable wine – modest enough to surely blush by being thus rewarded. Warwick Cab Franc 2015 is, as is widely known, a good wine in Stellenbosch-Bordeaux-variety style: ripe and rich, with big tannins but nicely silky; good intensity and length. The still very youthful Rustenberg Peter Barlow Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 has all those characters, rather more impressively; a very grand wine which will be gorgeous in a decade’s time, and, to my palate, one of the few outstanding wines in this line-up.

Generally, though, the judges seemed to be going for easier-drinking wines. The Diemersdal Private Collection 2016 (Best Bordeaux-style red blend) fits pleasingly into this category. Less impressively, so does the friendly, exuberant Arabella Pinotage 2017, the “best value gold medallist”. Good value, yes, at R45, but a bronze would have been more appropriate. The pinotage category winner was the De Grendel Amandelboord, happily mixing savoury and fruity qualities in a generous, well-balanced and quite impressive whole – a good half-way style, I thought, between the older and more edgily cutting-edge approaches.

Best red overall for the judges – and for me – was the Leeuwenkuil Heritage Syrah 2015, very much in the modern Swartland approach (it’s from a Kasteelberg vineyard, the wine made for Leeuwenkuil at Reyneke by the brilliant Rudiger Gretschel): elegant, spicy, savoury, untrammelled by new oak – and youthful, though already showing real interest and complexity.

We finished on a sweet note, of course. Butenverwachting “1769” 2015, is an accomplished and really lovely but not too muscatty entrant in the traditional Constantia stakes. Rich and lingering – though a little more acidity would elevate it to a more interesting place. And I felt very positive, too, about the Landzicht Wit Muskadel 2016: an impressive and finely balanced example of this now rather too easily ignored category; not too succulent or luscious or sweet; I’d be happy to have it by my fireside during what is possibly promising to be a cold, wet Cape Town winter.

3 COMMENTS

  1. The new soon-to-be-re-released Warwick ‘Professor Black’ is a blend that has been re-imagined after 25 years, with great respect, in the style of grand White Bordeaux. The debut 2017 vintage is 65% Sauvignon Blanc and 35% Semillon and would only have been appropriately entered in this SB/Sem category.
    Warwick ‘First Lady’ SB now continues the tradition of the more accessible RTD Sauvignon Blanc category, but that also contains Semillon fractions.

  2. you are correct in saying that the criteria of the Mutual Show was acceptability – which is a hangman’s rope. Acceptabilty is a quantitative feature – not a qualitative feature. Like a kid using crayons. Measurable factors and certain decisions occur in the cellar so that a wine emerges as Accessible (drinkable) hence Sellable. Light years away from Quality. Surely someone on a panel should object. No winemaker worth his salt should alter his criteria to adjust to Trophies and Gold Medals. Have the confidence to trust yourself. The “V” and the Le Riche Reserve are not going to be accessible / drinkable in 2018. That does not exclude them from being of Quality.Time for the Industry to judge the judges. “Trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too.” There is a lot more independence in the industry these days and this must be encouraged. Trust yourself!

    • Hi Peter, Firstly I’m not sure I buy the argument that accessibility and greatness are mutually exclusive. Secondly, as a long-serving Trophy Wine Show judge, I’d hate to think we were being dictatorial. Rather, I hope we have over time helped facilitate a discussion about both quality and style and in so doing, promoted change for the better. Of course, no producer is compelled to enter a wine competition but I would argue that there is a large element of human endeavour in winemaking and it’s only natural to seek to be rewarded relative to your competitors.

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