Michael Fridjhon: 100-point scores, cultural cringe and imperial condescension

By , 18 September 2018



The pricing crisis of the South African wine industry worked its way towards a climax at Cape Wine 2018 earlier this month. DGB released a video clip entitled “The Inconvenient Truth about South African Wine” (directed mainly to foreign buyers, but equally applicable to the local trade) which made it clear that at current price points, much of the industry is unsustainable. The numbers speak for themselves: in the local market, according to market research company Nielsen, well over half our bottled (not bag-in-the-box) wines sell to consumers for under R40. The category deemed “ultra-premium” (red wines above R125 and white wines over R96) represents 5% of bottled wine sales and under 2% of the total wine market. Our exports are not adding any sheen to the message: most of what leaves our shores is shipped in bulk. Meanwhile over half a million cases of Australia’s 94m case total export brings in over R6000 per dozen – twelve times more than our average export price point in our biggest international market. A remarkable 22 000 cases of Australian export wine earns R20k per case or more for their producers.

It was into this witch’s cauldron of unhappiness there appeared what some people thought was a heaven-sent antidote – news that a Cape wine has, for the first time, been awarded a perfect 100 point score, from a credible international critic (Tim Atkin MW – see here). No wonder the partying at Cape Wine took off on the extra octane: if we have wines that rank with the best in the world, so the logic went, we can price accordingly. It was a tempting prospect, plausible until the morning after.

Even assuming the 100 point score was realistic, it can’t do much to change the low centre of gravity afflicting our wine prices. It may temporarily nudge demand, which in return will make it possible for players at the very top end to ratchet up their hard currency pricing. It won’t change our dependence on bulk buyers, it won’t increase our volumes or our prices in the markets we’ve allowed to become addicted to cheap South African wine traded in ever weaker Rands. The only two countries where South Africa sells more wine than Australia are Germany and the Netherlands. Both are notoriously cheap wine markets, which is no doubt why our Antipodean competitors are happy to leave them to us.

Our wines have been getting better every year. We know they have long been under-valued. Now, with Tim Atkin’s 100 point rating for one wine (and two at 99 points) at least a few have been over-scored. There’s a certain justice in this. However, before we get carried away with the excitement, this is not like Kevin Anderson winning at Wimbledon or Louis Oosthuizen bagging the Claret Jug. This is a result arrived at in a sighted tasting environment by a single critic who has made a speciality of South Africa. It is hard to escape the image of the nice people from Europe arriving in their tall ships with their beads and trinkets to buy Manhattan Island.

Pause for a moment to consider the cynical symmetry of the top tier scores in Tim Atkins’s 2018 South African report. At the apex, we have Kanonkop’s Paul Sauer 2015 – the first SA wine to make the 100 point “perfect” score (read our review here). Just below this windswept peak of Everest we have Eben Sadie’s 2017 ‘T Voetpad, a close second at 99, alongside Chris Alheit’s 2017 Magnetic North. Kanonkop has long been regarded as our undisputed First Growth estate. Any credible ranking of top Cape wines would have to include the Paul Sauer. By the same token, Eben Sadie has been the pioneer of handcrafted single-site wine in South Africa. He is the recipient (in 2017) of the International Winemakers’ Winemaker Award – the highest peer group recognition in the world of wine. Something from his cellar would naturally have to be in the running. Chris Alheit has lately come to share this space with him, both from a site-specific wine perspective as well as in his role as an exponent of zero intervention “natural” winemaking. It’s a little too fairy tale, a little too fake, a little too self-serving: Tim Atkin putting a stake in the ground – not for South Africa – but for Tim Atkin.

Five years ago Atkin’s highest SA wine score was probably 93 – and it was good enough to make everyone pay attention – to SA wine, to the producer in question, and to Tim Atkin as a critic. Since then a 93 score hardly raises an eyebrow: WineMag’s ratings over the same period have nudged upwards by two if not three points. We’ve all recalibrated a little. What used to be a noteworthy achievement – a score over 90 – makes little or no impression on a market which has watched score inflation/point devaluation track the Zimbabwean dollar to the depths of the Mariana Trench.

In 2014 Atkin defended himself against accusations of ‘stratospheric scoring’ in his Bordeaux ratings. “To put my ‘inflated scores’ in context,” he wrote, “I gave two 100 point scores to Bordeaux 2009s (Lafite and Cheval Blanc) and none to the Brunello 2010s.” He argued that his scores for the 2014 Bordeaux vintage were not at a ‘preposterous level.’ “I was,” he said, “writing about the best wines from the best properties in the world’s leading fine wine region… in a good to very good vintage … with pockets of excellence.” His top four 2014s made it to 98 points. “In my life,” he said, “I think I have given fewer than a dozen perfect scores.” He certainly doesn’t appear to have awarded any wine of the much vaunted 2015 Bordeaux vintage a 100 points, though Petrus edged close enough at 99.

Atkin will accuse me of cultural cringe, of not believing that we are worthy of a 100 point wine. He’s wrong about that. I can think of several mature wines that sit comfortably with the very best examples produced anywhere in the world. In this I am not alone: visitors to Cape Wine who were fortunate enough to attend the Tuesday night old wine tasting in Stellenbosch hosted by producer collective The Whole Bunch were effusive in their praise of these admittedly ancient treasures. One, at least, was ready to forward a couple of credible 100 point candidates from that evening. Atkin may say that it’s much easier to let the lapse of time do this for you, that the 100 point young wine is what the industry needs.

On that same Tuesday evening at Cape Wine the Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective presented its 2015 Cabernets in a line-up which included a couple of very good 2015s from the Medoc – Chateau Leoville-Las Cases and Chateau Pichon Lalande. The Stellenbosch wines were pretty neat (as well we might expect them to be) but when the audience was asked to decide whether the Cape wines were better than the two clarets, the majority thought otherwise. These, incidentally, were wines which Atkin had scored 94 and 96 respectively.

We so badly want to have an undisputed 100 point young wine. Presumably, this is what makes us ready to believe the well-sold fairy tale that in the past few years our wines have improved by 40% (the increment from Atkin’s base score to highest score 5 years ago, versus today). But deep down – or not so deep down – we should know this can’t possibly be the case. It’s difficult to accept that the Nirvana we have been offered may be nothing other than a second class view of heaven, paid for in discounted currency. No doubt this is what prompted so many otherwise thoughtful and intelligent producers to claim that this first 100 point score must be good for South Africa. I believe that we can either wallow in our “achievement” – like pre-school kids who all get a certificate at year-end prize giving – or we can refuse to be seduced by what is a cynical exploitation of our own frailty. We’ll get there one day, but not now, and not with counterfeit coinage.

  • Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is founder of Winewizard.co.za and holds various positions including: Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town; founder and director of WineX – the largest consumer wine show in the Southern Hemisphere and chairman of The Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show.


33 comment(s)

  • Savvas Themistocleous18 September 2018

    I agree with your thoughts on score creep. I felt a bit perplexed to hear that the top 3 wines had scored so highly where, in my admittedly amateur opinion, the two 99 point whites felt like they were no better than previous good vintages released. I haven’t tried the Paul Sauer to make a judgement. The 98 and 97’s from last year do look like a setup for the 100 and two 99’s from this year. I think our wines are great especially at the top end but the issue here isn’t whether we have quality but whether the scores from different years are good comparitive measures which they don’t seem to be.

  • Matt A18 September 2018

    Deep inside I think many or most know that while the 2015 PS is a great wine, 100 points is more about making some sort of noise (for the benefit of SA, the critic, or both). This may indeed benefit SA wines on the whole (in the short term), but I had not thought of it in terms of capitalising on our ignorance and craving for international recognition, I suppose there is a case to be made for that. So yes, I do feel we have a right to question these scores from within SA. It is not cultural cringe, nor looking a gift horse in the mouth, it is about not being led to believe the emperor is fully clothed. We do drink foreign wines in SA and we do know where we stand, and so do foreign buyers. There is no doubt we have world class wines but if wines are being scored to compete with Australian wines where credibility has already been thrown under the bus, what will that do to our credibility in the long run?

  • Savvas Themistocleous18 September 2018

    I did have a thought that perhaps Robert Parker’s 100 point score drew a line in the sand and aimed to achieve similar goals to Tim Atkins 100 point score for PS did. Is this a reasonable alternative viewpoint to explore?

  • Michael Olivier18 September 2018

    An excellent erudite eminently readable piece. One of my favourite of all local writers, he could make a post on the inside of a tennis ball sound so exciting you’d be rushing off to buy one. Thank you, dear Michael.

  • Sweaty Ballsack19 September 2018

    100 points for an SA red? That I cannot swallow! But I’d happily swallow 100 points for most of the Alheit chenins! No chenin produced anywhere in the world comes close to his wines. Sorry for the Loire – so where us the line in the sand drawn? Who/where sets the benchmark?

  • AB19 September 2018

    It was only a mattet of time before someone called bedtime on this elated period after the 100 points release. The fact that it was MF doesnt surprise, his articles always carry a foreboding tone; this one is also laced with a tinge of bitterness, which is new.

    Obviously, 100 points is no panacea. I don’t think anyone actually thinks that. But it is better than not to have had it. And should anyone think this will enable complacency amoung SA’s elite winemakers, well, I won’t bother continue.

    From a bottom-down, no-one besides the biggest of wine companies (?) is trying harder to elevate brand SA. Perhaps we should also be considering the oppression from the top, that was so eagerly ignoring, and now, antagonising the SA wine industry?

  • Derek19 September 2018

    Kettle: Hello Pot, This is Kettle. Over.

    Pot: Hello Kettle, this is Pot receiving. Over.

    Kettle: You’re black. Over.

    Bitter much?

  • ALEXANDER DALE19 September 2018

    Are you judge or jury, Michael ? If you are a credible wine-writer or journalist (judge in this example), your commentary carries a certain relevance. When you are simultaneously a competition owner or organiser (jury), handing-out droves of medals and trophies, it appears unseemly to then call-out another commentator who outshines your accolades with a shinier one than yours. Chose: judge or jury. Then your condescension of a peer will have credibility and relevance. Until then : Pot, kettle, black.

  • Tim Atkin MW19 September 2018

    The annual piece by Michael Fridjhon criticising my South Africa Special Report is as predictable as the date of the spring equinox, if a good deal less welcome or enlightening. I have no wish to engage in ad hominem attacks on a fellow wine writer – they remind me of that Jorge Luis Borges quote about “two bald men fighting over a comb” – but I would like to respond to some of the inaccuracies and misrepresentations in his article.

    1. “Five years ago, Atkin’s highest score was probably 93.” Actually in my first report, I gave two 97 point scores – to the first vintage of Chris Alheit’s Cartology and to Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage – and 38 wines out of 700 scored over 95 points. This year I tasted 1,986 wines and gave 160 95+ scores. The relative percentages are 5.42% and 8.84%. Score inflation? Actually, the percentage is down on my 2017 report. I also argue, I believe correctly, in my 2018 report that 2015 and 2017 are two of the best-ever Cape vintages. There are way more wineries making good wines than there were five years ago. Van Loggerenberg, Metzer and Lourens Family Wines, to name only three that did well in my 2018 report, didn’t even exist back then.

    2. “40%…is the increment from Atkin’s base score to the highest score five years ago, versus today.” Again, incorrect. In 2013, as I’ve already said, my highest score was 97, the lowest 70 (for one wine). This year, the numbers were 100 and 78. So, a 27-point gap in 2013, and a 22-point gap in 2018. I’m no mathematician, but that’s an 18.5% difference. And I would indeed argue, without colonial condescension, that South Africa is making much better wines than it was in 2012/13. This statement is based on a month’s worth of tastings and visits every year, walking through vineyards and talking to producers. You should try it, Michael.

    3. “It’s a little too fairy tale, a little too fake, a little too self-serving.” This of the 100-point and two 99-point wines in my report and my allegedly “cynical” focus on three amazing winemakers. Again, incorrect. I have been writing very enthusiastically about all three from the very start. Chris Alheit made my highest scoring white in 2013, 2014 and 2015, Eben Sadie was my overall winemaker of the year in 2015 and made my 2017 white of the year, Abrie Beeslaar was my winemaker of the year in 2016 and made my red wine of the year in 2017. I gave all three of their wines high scores this year because I fervently believe that they are world class. No cynicism, just a desire to recognise brilliance. And, unlike Michael, who (quite astonishingly for a top South African wine writer) has never visited his cellar, I go to see Eben every year.

    4. “These, incidentally, were wines which Atkin had scored 94 and 96 respectively” (of 2015 Léoville-Las-Cases and Château Pichon-Lalande). This at least is true, but if Michael had read my extensive report on the vintage in Bordeaux (again, on my site), he would see that I considered it a mixed year. Personally, I prefer 2016. I also believe, obviously, that the 2015 Paul Sauer is a much better wine than both those 2015 Médoc Second Growths. Time will be the judge.

    Michael is welcome to his views on my report, although I wish he’d read the whole thing for once. But to accuse me of a “cynical exploitation of our own frailty” is insulting both to me and to his fellow countrymen. I love South Africa and I love its best wines. But to suggest that I would compromise a reputation built on 33 years of tasting and journalism (winning 34 awards in the process) and 30 visits to South Africa over 27 years to cash in on the industry is risible.

  • jonathan snashall19 September 2018

    If 2015 didn’t produce a 100-pointer we never will? So what if it’s score inflation, how much of wine marketing isn’t about smoke and mirrors? Meanwhile, Mr Fridjhon is trying to protect his (lucrative) turf. I’m with Alex and Derek and erm ..not sure about Ms Ballsack.

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