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Graham Beck The Ridge Shiraz 1997

A pretty little number.
A pretty little number.

Salad Niçoise is the perfect lunchtime meal as the thermometer goes past 30°C and heads for 40°C but what to drink with it? During the holidays, I unearthed a bottle of Graham Beck The Ridge Shiraz 1997 from the depths of my father-in-law’s Wellington cellar, and it proved an excellent companion to the food: elegant with red fruit, pepper and fresh acidity.

For one thing, it was served chilled. For another, it had an alcohol by volume of only 12.5%. The rise in abv of local red wines over the last ten to fifteen years has been thoroughly discussed in recent times but I believe it is a topic that we can’t let fall off the agenda. The 1997 was the maiden vintage of what is now The Ridge Syrah, Graham Beck’s ultra-premium offering in the Shiraz category, and if you want an illustration of how alcohols have climbed, then consider that the current-release 2006 is 14.33%.

I had occasion to drink a number of older wines over the holidays and what was striking was how they all had relatively low alcohols. Le Bonheur CWG Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 came in at 12.5%, Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 at 13% and Veenwouden Classic 1997 at 13% – compare current release versions of these wines and they are all around one percent higher in alcohol.

What was pleasing about these older wines is how well they had matured and I have a sense that by virtue of not being made from super-ripe fruit, they were more suited to the long haul in terms of their inherent composition. So many of the blockbusters that we saw during the 2000s impressed early on but fell over rather too quickly.

As for why alcohol levels have increased, a number of reasons have been put forward from the impact of climate change to commercial yeasts becoming ever more efficient when it comes to converting grape sugar into alcohol. Perhaps the most orthodox explanation is simply that there has been a stylistic shift towards wines with greater fruit expression and less astringent tannins, which necessarily requires grapes to be picked riper.  If fashion is the dominant factor in why alcohols have gone up, then hopefully fashion will also cause a swing back to more medium-bodied, less spirituous wines in due course – just as hemlines in couture go up and down.


  1. Hi Christian

    Compliments of the season. Must admit a Shiraz with a Salad Niçoise wouldn’t have been my first thought, maybe a Rose, but glad you enjoyed. Coming back to high alcohol,  picking ripe etc. I agree that at present it is fashionable…with Robert Parker and other leading commentators, these wines also seduce in big tasting line ups.

    As Wine Mag tasting panel chair, do you discuss stylistically before tasting gets under way on what you are looking for? Are instructions given to on guard against high alcohol, fruit bombs? My Mom wore mini skirts in the sixties and that came back a few years ago,so I hold my breath. 

  2. The idea that big alc/v is a ploy to appease Parker and other U.S. guru’s doesn’t hold any water. For starters, Parker has hardly had an SA wine past his lips, and Wine Advocate doesn’t go out of its way to cover SA. I’d suggest three main reasons for the rise ( amongst many peripheral influences) …1- Virus in older vines, and the inability of vines affected by leafroll to accumulate grape sugar, 2- a greater fear amongst producers of having their reds labelled as ‘green’ from picking early, a character which is caned mercilessly by the same critics who decry over-ripeness, and 3- the increasingly warm (and short) growing seasons, making phenolic ripeness harder to achieve at lower alcohols. The mean temperature in Stellenbosch has risen 1.8C since 1962, and cold units in winter are disappearing faster than Australian wickets at the SCG this week. But in short, don’t go looking for some sort of conspiracy because it is an amalgam of many factors.

  3. Hi Grant

    I certainly don’t want to get into a tit for tat with you as my wine knowledge is limited BUT I certainly didn’t mean to imply some sort of conspiracy at all. What CEs is saying, and I agree, picking ripe, high alcohol, ripe fruit etc, is a highly fashionable style the world over it seems, and to my mind this pleases Parker and most modern wine critics.

    I realize Parker doesn’t taste much SA wine, hell he hasn’t even been to SA. I just use his name in a broad sense to represent a modern wine critics palate. The CWG also seems to like this style, notice how the 2010 auction line up was criticized by local pundits and praised by international scribes Tanzer and Molesworth. 

    I agree with you that their are hundreds of variables that have an influence on what finally ends up in the bottle, and that changing factors beyond the winemakers control have also played a role in this style of wine becoming so prominent. But this style is popular in Bordeaux, where the average mean temp is lower and leaf roll virus perhaps not as prevalent as here in SA.

    I guess the point I am terying to make is: In this age of information/ social networking, the power of the critic, the opinion former is very important, and there is no doubting that this style of wine has found favour and pleased these opinion makers. If I was a winemaker and by making a certain style I could score 95 plus points, even a 100 point wine, I would. More points means more sales means more money.
    Is that Grant Dodd the golfer?


  4. Well said, Christian. I think the main reason we have to endure so many unbalanced wine without real character (two main results of the over-ripe picking) is probably point #2 raised by Grant. The problem with going back to the more balanced wines, is that they taste better after some maturation – thus representing huge cash-flow and restaurant list issues if producers want to hold back stock. There will be some sort of correction though, because (stylistically) things have gotten just a little out of hand. In some cases, there’s evidence of this already.

    Compare that 1997 The Ridge with the 2003 The Ridge: both fairly cool vintages, the 2003’s alcohol is 14.5% (on the label, so possibly it’s even a bit higher). Of the 2003’s I’ve had, only one was drinkable, with the rest plagued by varying levels of brett. Amongst other things, brett just looooves the high pH levels that come with very ripe fruit… In fact, I’ve got three more bottles of the 2003, which I’m willing to trade for something very cheap (but drinkable) if there’s any takers.

  5. Kwispy, I reckon that highly engaged ( read, people who post on wine fora, go to tastings, etc) wine lovers always overestimate the importance of ‘style’ in the wider community. I make the same mistake myself often when thinking about strategy; producers need to think like consumers, and not make assumptions about knowledge and engagement, not to mention the tendency to intellectualise wine. A very small proportion of wine drinkers can ( or want to)ascertain and appreciate style nuance, and the majority go for flavour and power, which generally accompanies sweetness. Lest we forget, this end of the spectrum is an extremely valid style, enjoyed by many, and used as a vehicle by a lot of producers to great commercial success. There is something out there for everyone. Having said that, I’m in complete agreement about the need to make wines of character and nuance that age gracefully…the key is balance, and high alcohol wines can still have that when made well. 47 Cheval Blanc comes to mind, over 14% and (apparently) one of the greatest wines ever made. Cheers.

  6. As Wine magazine panel chairman, I always like to have a discussion among panel members about the pertinent issues that apply to a particular category before judging begins. However, I don’t want to lead the panel too much in any one direction on the basis that the whole premise of using a panel is that “the many are smarter than the few” to quote Surowiecki of “Wisdom of Crowds” fame. (This is not to say that I do not believe in the pronouncements of an individual expert a la Parker or Jancis Robinson MW, only that South Africa does not have such a figure and I can’t see one emerging any time soon).
    As for the high alcohol debate, wine assessment is essentially about aesthetics, and while I think we should be concerned about the seemingly inexorable climb in alcohols, I’m not for one moment suggesting that it is impossible to make fine wine at 14% abv and over. Of course a wine must first meet a minimum technical standard but thereafter we are into much more mysterious territory: the quirks of the human palate and the ability of a wine to provide intellectual and emotional satisfaction. Basically, layer upon layer of factors influencing a wine rating decision.
    There are those that take great delight in pointing out the reliability (or lack thereof) of wine competitions. For them, consistency and predictability are all – if Beyerskloof Diesel Pinotage 2008 gets 5 Stars in Platter’s, then it must also get 5 Stars in Wine magazine, double gold at Veritas and top honours in every and all other competitive forum it ever appears in. I would argue that far more relevant is the issue of validity. If Beyerskloof emerged as my top wine in a line-up of Pinotage today, Kaapzicht Steytler tomorrow and Flagstone Writer’s Block a month from now, I would think I was doing a good job.
    Lastly, while I generally don’t think binary opposites are that helpful when it comes to wine (between “light and elegant” vs. “rich and powerful”, to which do you give primacy?), I do think we should make the distinction between commodity wine and fine wine. The former holds little interest for me and if that makes me a wine nerd, so be it.

  7. Re 47 Cheval Blanc…I havn’t, nor am I ever likely to taste it. But as a wine held up to be at the pinnacle of wine aspiration, it is interesting that it is supposedly substantially riper than what Bordeaux clocked in at most years.

  8. Christian quotes Surowieckis’ “Wisdom of Crowds” which is fair enough, but let’s not forget Charles Mackays “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” published in 1841 recounting humanitys gullability for witch hunts, economic bubbles (The South Sea company), alchemy etc in the 19th century and proved yet again by the 2008 global economic crisis, Tannenbaum Ponzi scheme, Armageddon in 2012 and Y2K fears (to name but a few). Hysteria and “groupthink” can infect tasting panels, often resulting in high accolades for overblown, unbalanced wines that mysteriously go un-drunk when the post tasting dinner is over.


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