What makes a wine “nerdy” – and for that matter, are these the same features which communicate authenticity? I recently – somewhat frivolously – wrote that “if you fancy yourself a wine geek, you dare not mention that you drank – let alone enjoyed – a bottle of Nederburg or even Diemersdal. You’re not supposed to mention anything produced outside the Swartland and in volumes exceeding the contents of a 228 litre barrel.” As for authenticity, Christian Eedes once suggested (also, possibly, a little frivolously if not controversially) that the aesthetic of genuine or craft wines did not include the concept of “smoothness.” He was, I think, implying that there was something “fake” about the opulent mouthfeel of wines which were clearly made to taste expensive.
It’s easy enough to shoot down both these positions: there are geeky wines coming from sites in the Klein Karoo. Likewise it’s hard to argue that a bottle of Romanee-Conti isn’t authentic, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not polished. However, when it comes to what we in South Africa think of as geeky, genuine, off-the-beaten track, we half expect that such wines must display rustic elements – whether in terms of texture (not so smooth), colour (oxidised hues) or aromatics (earthy whiffs). This also doesn’t stand serious scrutiny. Most highly regarded producers are hugely competent winemakers. You don’t expect a wine from Eben Sadie, Andrea Mullineux or the Alheits to be anything except perfectly assembled. To the extent that they have tannins on display, they would be in balance with all the other flavour and textural elements and appropriate in terms of the age of the wine.
But this is not the end of the debate: the more geeky wine aficionados would probably argue that the Sadies and Alheits are now pretty much mainstream. They’ve been around for some years, they run real wine enterprises, they have mailing lists, they undertake international shows – they may be smaller than, for example, Jordan or Cederberg, but they are hardly fringe.
This raises the less easily resolved question of what would constitute edgy in the minds of this slightly ill-defined group of wine lovers. Are they ultra-boutique and undiscovered, but potentially the next generation of Adi Badenhorsts and Mullineuxs? Are they financially marginal – and is this part of their appeal? Is the association with authenticity and the absence of polish really one of artisanal (and slightly unscientific) hand-craftedness? A barrel here, a cement egg there, all left to ferment “naturally” (naturally), free of pre-fermentation “adjustments” and with little or no sulphur added, even at bottling. In this event, Eedes’s “smoothness” is a kind of portmanteau term for evidence of technical competence – and the case against it is that it may have been achieved at the price of the unmediated expression of site.
If this is the case, I’m not sure that – to paraphrase Bertrand Russell – the open mind here is anything other than the empty mind. Those who believe that any intervention, from the judicious use of sulphur to flavour-neutral cultured natural yeasts, comes between the terroir and the consumer, find themselves in the reductio ad absurdum of having to accept that all forms of oxidation are desirable because they are an expression of the natural propensity of wine to turn to vinegar over time. The late Henri Jayer “discovered” a site in Vosne Romanee which earlier generations had largely disregarded, and in one lifetime, in an area already better mapped out than almost any other viticultural region in the world, lifted Cros Parantoux to much the same status as Romanee-Conti. He didn’t do this by allowing shabby winemaking to mask the precision of site: on the contrary, he coaxed from the grapes wines of extraordinary purity, expressions of place that elevated the perception of their pedigree.
There’s no easy resolution to these genuinely contradictory positions. Authenticity does require unmediated expression of site, but the wine must still have the potential to evolve if it is to achieve its fullest potential – and that means that it can’t begin life at the edge of a precipitate decline. I think sometimes we allow the pursuit of edginess to get the better of our judgement. This may not be a uniquely South African affliction, but we encounter it more frequently, possibly because our industry was constrained for so long by the dead hand of authority and by the aesthetic demands of the co-ops and the big wholesalers who determined what landed up on the wine shop shelves. If this assumption is correct, we’ll discover that the new vistas we now stumble across are not some undiscovered land but what would always have been there for us to see if our vision had not been blinkered by our past.
- 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.