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Futile but fun – classifying Cape wine

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The dust has pretty much settled on the results of the biannual poll of wine industry professionals to determine the top 20 South African wineries, the final outcome as follows:

1.Sadie Family Wines; 2. Kanonkop; 3. Alheit Vineyards; 4. Mullineux; 5. Boekenhoutskloof; 6. Newton Johnson; 7. David & Nadia; 8. Raats and Richard Kershaw (equal); 10. Crystallum; 11. Paul Cluver, Savage and Rall (equal); 14. AA Badenhorst, De Morgenzon, Reyneke and Tokara (equal); 18 Klein Constantia; 19. Delaire Graff and 20. Thorne & Daughters

This dipstick survey can hardly be considered definitive but it’s a revealing take on who’s hot and who’s not, even so.

I’m pretty much agreement with the final list (I had Raats ahead of Boekenhoutskloof in the top five and I preferred Lismore to Reyneke) but the wineries I put forward corresponded in every other respect. Tim Atkin MW, meanwhile, allowed himself 25 so-called First Growths in his South Africa Special Report 2018 excluding De Morgenzon and Savage but including Chamonix, Hamilton Russell, Hartenberg, Keermont, Porselienberg, Restless River and Stark-Condé.

What’s telling is not so much who made the list but who didn’t. It was asked of me via Twitter which criteria applied when it came to deciding on a top 20: “Those who market best? Those whose wines score most? Those whose winemakers are most prolific? Or those who journos talk about most and are therefore most publicly recognised?” To which, I replied: “Probably a combination of all of those factors”.

On a more serious note, issues that are important in determining a top 20 but perhaps weren’t given enough attention by any of those polled are 1) consistency of quality over an extended period and 2) permanence of land tenure.

Rust en Vrede
Rust en Vrede – conspicious by its absence in a top 20 wineries list?

Here, for the sake of argument, is a list of 20 wineries that have demonstrated world-class credentials over time (wines approaching icon status included were applicable):

  1. Bouchard Finlayson (Galpin Peak Pinot Noir)
  2. Buitenverwachting (Christine)
  3. Cape Point Vineyards (Isliedh)
  4. De Wetshof (Bateleur Chardonnay)
  5. Eikendal
  6. Groot Constantia
  7. Hamilton Russell Vineyards
  8. Hartenberg (Eleanor Chardonnay, Gravel Hill Shiraz)
  9. Iona
  10. Jordan (Cobblers Hill, Nine Yards Chardonnay)
  11. Le Riche (Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon)
  12. Meerlust (Rubicon)
  13. Morgenster
  14. Neil Ellis Wines
  15. Rustenberg (Five Soldiers Chardonnay, Peter Barlow Cabernet Sauvignon)
  16. Rust en Vrede (Estate)
  17. Springfield (Life from Stone Sauvignon Blanc)
  18. Thelema
  19. Vergelegen
  20. Waterford (Cabernet Sauvignon)

Put that out as your top 20 list and I suspect that many, many punters would agree – the above wines featuring in home cellars long before the likes of relative new-comer and overtly hipster labels like Alheit, Crystallum, David & Nadia, Rall, Savage and Thorne & Daughters.

In addition, how to make room for boutique operations who, though not as high-profile as some, undoubtedly makes wines of real excellence such as Arendsig, De Trafford, Botanica, Lismore and Shannon?

How to accommodate the large-scale wineries who are compelled to operate at all levels of the market, and yet compete with the best when it comes to their ultra-premium offerings? Here I’m thinking of DGB’s Bellingham, Distell’s Nederburg, KWV’s The Mentors series, Spier’s 21 Gables series plus what Fairview, Graham Beck and Leeuwenkuil are doing.

What to do with those independently owned wineries that might don’t make much of a fuss but churn out very good wine year in and year out such as Creation, Oak Valley, Muratie, Nitida and Stellenrust?  

What to do with labels which are stand-alone but closely affiliated with producers already in the “official” top 20 such as B Vintners and MR de Compostella (Raats) as well as Leeu Passant (Mullineux)?

There are, of course, also those operations like 4G, De Toren and Vilafonté, who craft wines first and foremost as luxury goods, and who have convinced many they automatically should be among SA’s top 20…

That might tome that is Platter’s 2019 has just come out and it’s interesting to see how the critic’s top 20 performed. Out of the top five, Mullineux was named Winery of the Year for the third time with four Five Star wines while Sadie Family Wines had three, Kanonkop two and Alheit and Boekenhoutskloof one each.

As for the rest, David & Nadia and Rall did very well with three each, followed by DeMorgenzon, Raats and Savage with two each while Crystallum, Klein Constantia, Newton Johnson, Paul Cluver, Reyneke and Thorne & Daughters all got one each. A.A. Badenhorst, Delaire Graff, Kershaw and Tokara, meanwhile, failed to get any Five Star rated wines [correction: the Badenhorst 2017s were not submitted for review]. Ultimately, there is no central control, no absolute ranking, no unalterable classification and why would we want it any other way?

5 COMMENTS

  1. Perhaps you, well we, are too hung up on lists of the best wine or best winemaker/winery/tasting room/woman winemaker/cellar worker/dick even. Maybe the Exampler Theory applies here. And it is just that. Accept that it is a basic human and marketing trait to want to categorise and rise in a category. Quite frankly, I do not give a damn. This is a counter productive excercise. And, it show the sorry dark side of SA wine: of continuous infighting, dick comparisons and demeaning habits (do you see Australians do the same?). Christian, stop perpetuating divisions. Rather focus on excellence, wine passion and achievements (what happened to profitabilty in wine as a criteria for excellence?) and on wine people who exhibit those.

    • Hi Peter, Having recently returned from Australia where I judged at the Victorian Wine Show followed by an intensive programme of visits in Yarra Valley, one particular observation is how readily just about all producers embrace the show system – the general attitude seems to be that while there’s not terribly much at stake, it’s useful to know where you stand relative to your competitors and it all comes to a good-natured jostling for position (a “bit of fun”is how more than one winemaker referred to participating in shows). Many South African producers are much more anxious about how they are going to fare in competition which I think goes to how fragile our industry is.

  2. Hi Christian – just as an aside and something that I am not sure a lot of people noticed if you haven’t had a chance to study the new edition – is how close Bruwer, Gavin and Mzokona came to taking top honours again in the 2019 guide for the Raats/B Vintners/ MR wines. 3 x 5 stars, but have a look at the “Highly Recommended” section. Another 6 wines at 94 points – pretty damn close and a 93 for MR.

    I agree with the commentator above however – this is a futile list – it is like herding cats. It isn’t a homogenous industry – Mullineux doesn’t make Sauvignon Blanc, so how can they possibly be compared to Cape Point? Kanonkop doesn’t make chardonnay, so how can they be compared to Kershaw? The apples with apples comparison just simply cannot be done in our industry and I think attempting to do it, does more harm than good.

  3. Coming up with a ranking of the top South African wine producers is difficult indeed, and there probably is a measure of futility associated with weighing up a Chenin specialist against a Chardonnay cellar, or comparing a Cabernet winery with a Shiraz outfit, etc – although no doubt many enjoy debating the rankings and appreciate them for what they are, simply the outcome of a poll but a revealing take on who a group of industry professionals admire most. It’s arguable that the size, nature, focus or location of the producers should not count for or against them in determining who’s deserving of premier league status. Regardless of the fuss level, if even just one of their wines or their only wine stands out as very, very good, isn’t that what should count most? Nevertheless, more meaningful and more useful is a classification of the country’s top wines in each category, where surely consistency of quality over an extended period is important. However, the list of wineries and wines provided by Winemag to demonstrate world-class credentials and icon status is problematic insofar as a few of them are more hype than pedigree – all good but some not that good, not today.

  4. Track record, taste of time, relevance, profitability should have been some of the criteria for the polling to my opinion. Also it’s could have been useful to regroup or categorize those producers who make same style of wines together then decide on which producer is excelling the most vs his peers.

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