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Tim James: Highs and lows of the CWG Auction wines

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No Badenhorst wine on the Cape Winemakers Guild Auction this year, more’s the pity: a light, fresh cinsaut would have gone some way to redeem the excesses horribly lurking in the line-up. But for reasons I don’t know Adi has resigned (as has Bruce Jack), which leaves Andrea Mullineux as the sole representative of the Swartland revolution in the Guild – though we should perhaps include Marc Kent, as he frequently offers a fine example of Swartland syrah (this year it was blended with Stellenbosch), and even Duncan Savage in a spiritual sense (sadly no redeeming wine from him this year).

Clearly the worldwide movement towards restraint and freshness in red wines has been happening without disturbing the sleep of many CWG members. Excessive oak and ripeness are, thankfully, less the rule than they were, but are still very present. Yesterday, when I came away from blind-tasting the 47 wines on the 2018 auction, I remarked to someone that the last wine, a splendid 2015 port from Boplaas, seemed almost dry compared with some of the red table wines.

So common was the word “sweet” in some of my notes that I checked the technical details given in the Auction Guide, and even then was surprised. I usually admire the big wines of Dewaldt Heyns, even if I don’t much enjoy them, but his Saronsberg Shiraz Reserve 2015 shared my lowest marks with Cederberg Teen die Hoog Shiraz 2015, for similar reasons: the Saronsberg has 4.3 g/l residual sugar and 15.4% alcohol, the Cederberg 3.5 g/l and 14.8% – and the latter was also horribly oaky. I’d unquestionably rather drink water with a meal than either of these two. Bringing honour to syrah, however, are the truly excellent Boschkloof Epilogue and the very good Boekenhoutskloof.

Numbers don’t tell the whole story, and a few winemakers produced wines in this style, and with similar analyses, that I thought worked better. All these were from Bordeaux varieties. Spier Frans K Smit 20 Year Celebration I noted as “Ripe, rich, fruity, good supple tannins, big, bold but some finesse. Very good of its type.” And David Finlayson’s Edgebaston Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve (at 4.6 g/l RS almost off-dry by South Africa’s over-generous rules, and 15.3% alcohol) was even more successful. Nearly the opposite of elegant, but very well calculated and made, and valid – given that there still are many winelovers who admire and enjoy this sort of stuff. Johan Joubert’s Cab 2015 had numbers a bit lower, but seemed squishily overripe and sweet, though well structured. The Ernie Els 2015 blend is also sweet, at 3.6 g/l RS.

Even Kanonkop CWG Paul Sauer (I was scoring out of 100, and gave it a rare 95) has 3.3 g/l RS and 14.5% alcohol, though it seemed almost classic in this context. Etienne le Riche Cab Auction Reserve 2015 was ripe but blissfully dry-finishing (1.2 g/l RS – that’s the way to go!), with 14.2% alcohol, and also very good – or it will be when the oak integrates, as it should. Jordan Sophia also had respectable numbers and its ripeness was charming, partly thanks to the balance, the dryness and the excellence of the tannic structure.

Despite there being some successes, I think it’s rather shocking that a supposedly elite event like this should still be producing these overripe, sweet and alcoholic wines.

The pinots were better from this point of view, though there were still some real ups (the Newton Johnsons and, especially, Gottfried Mocke’s 2017) and downs (De Grendel Op die Berg, which shared my lowest score with the two aforementioned shirazes).

A special mention must be made of Bartho Eksteen’s Professore 2017, a tribute to Abraham Perold and Chris Orffer – “fathers”, as Bartho says, “of our very own Pinotage, Roobernet and Nouvelle”, the grapes from which his wine is made. It’s not very good, but is undoubtedly innovative (a sadly rare quality at the CWG Auction), and even quite interesting, if you can tolerate the herbaceousness from nouvelle.

A full third of this year’s auction wines are whites – I suspect that’s a higher proportion than usual. Their general standard was, as always, higher than that of the reds, though the prices reached will be generally lower. At that high level, my favourites were (all 2017): Bartho Eksteen’s wooded  Vloekskoot Sauvignon Blanc, Mullineux “The Gris” Semillon, DeMorgenzon Grenache Blanc, the chardonnays from Waterford and Paul Cluver, and the chenins from Rijk’s and Raats. The Raats Family Wines The Fountain Terroir Specific Chenin Blanc is one of the longest names on auction, and for me the finest wine of the whole lot, though still very young and a touch raw.

Overall the number of wines on offer this year is down, as are volumes. So I think we needn’t expect any new records. I wish, though, there’d be some record low prices for reds and some record highs for whites. But I suspect there’ll be a lot of rich punters who’ll prefer to overpay for sweet, fruity, oaky red wines than for a superbly elegant, deep-flavoured and fresh white.

We’ll see. The auction is at Spier in Stellenbosch as usual, on 29 September. Go to the CWG website for more details, including of various tasting opportunities.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Tim regarding the reds, it sounds like wines are being produced for less educated palates (and I presume because that’s the market at the moment – or to make “statement” wines?). Maybe South African consumers haven’t shifted from old school styles as much as anticipated (and we’d like) in recent years?
    Sad.

    • Kevin, my guess is that the shift is happening a little less/slower in this particular market. I suspect that much of the buying is traditional, i.e. the same people staying loyal to a degree and buying year after year, regardless of the finer specifics of taste. Maybe some winemakers feel that they have to stay loyal to those customers by replicating the style each year or perhaps they are just stuck in a rut?

      If they’re doing this to please long-term loyal customers, perhaps it can be said that they may well gradually move to making more modern, balanced, fresher, less ponderous and manipulated wines, without losing those customers (they are loyal, after all, and arguably not overly critical) – and gaining new ones to boot.

      There could be another problem, though: the guild members taste the wines themselves to ascertain if a wine is eligible for the auction. What if they all think a more so-called ‘modern wine’ will just be overpowered by all the others in a blind tasting like that? They forfeit a nice chunk of cash if a wine doesn’t make the auction… Perhaps the guild should look at getting some external judges to have some input in that process?

      Anyways, I wish I could be more part of the conversation about specific wines, but the Guild only showed a few of them at their Johannesburg Showcase this year, which is really sad. I do agree though that the Le Riche Cab (much less minty/eucalyptus vibes than in recent vintages before the 2015), Gordon and Gottfried’s Pinots and Andrea’s The Gris were all superb, pure and exciting wines.

      • Re: What if they all think a more so-called ‘modern wine’ will just be overpowered by all the others in a blind tasting like that?… Perhaps the guild should look at getting some external judges to have some input in that process?

        Agreed. Wines on offer should cater to all buyer’s tastes which would give members more freedom to produce what they believe in.

  2. Thanks for your honest and frank comments Tim. Wish many others followed your lead.
    I absolutely loathe the big sweet reds that you describe and always think of Australia when this description is given. It’s a great shame that many winemakers in SA appear to be following this style, although as you state,you can bet your life that the usual suspects will snap up these alcoholic monsters
    SA whites are always far superior to the reds and I shall be making my usual bid for the Mullineux Semillon and one or two others

  3. Like Kwispedoor I too was disappointed at the Joburg event being a watered-down version of the real thing. Also, next year there will be no Badenhorst, Le Riche or Coetzee.

    Fewer wines, total number of auction cases down a third…is this the beginning of the end?

  4. I’ve long wondered what exactly the CWG’s mandate is. As far as I understood it back in the day it was meant as a kind of think tank for the best winemakers to get together, push the envelope with new wines, new winemaking techniques, a sharing of ideas for that matter, a collective brain meant to get the best of what the country can do into the market, thereby dragging the whole thing up with it.

    In recent times it is clear that it has simply become a commercial venture which, I might add, has nothing wrong with it. However – this doesn’t put these members at the cutting edge of where the industry is going. I can think of quite a number of the members – I’ll leave the names out of it – who simply do barrel selections of their normal release wines and put these up for auction. These wines garner great prices and it is a fantastic bit of money-spinning for said producer. However – why would I – as a bog standard consumer – fork out R1000 a bottle for a barrel selection of which the same wine released under the normal label costs maybe R300?

    I was extremely disappointed with the quality of the red wines this year – too big, too sweet, too soupy and I am sure many of them won’t age beyond 5 years before they start falling apart. I’ve had some older CWG wines in recent times – from 2005 and 2008 and they were all kaput in spite of being perfectly stored.

    Frankly to me the guild has become a waste of time and money. I will much rather spend my money with guys like Rall, Alheit, Craven, Hawkins, the 2 Sadies and on some of the guild members own labels before I go and throw R10k at a case of ripe, sweet, alcoholic wines at an auction.

  5. A bit more credit to Beaumont Family Wines Whole Bunch Mourvèdre 2016, DeMorgenzon Roussanne 2017, Raats Family Wines The Fountain Terroir Specific Chenin Blanc 2017, Mullineux Old Vines ‘The Gris’ Semillon – Old Vines 2017, Neil Ellis Wines ‘Amper Bo’ Tempranillo 2015, Villiera Drip Barrel Cabernet Franc 2016, DeMorgenzon Grenache Blanc 2017, Simonsig Die Kluisenaar Roussanne Marsanne 2016 please.

    Surprised to see praise to the Gottfried Mocke Wine Projects Pinot Noir 2017, I think the wine was almost faulty?

    • Hi, Udo

      I thought it was a real step up from the 2016 (Michael Fridjhon also scored it 93). What particular fault are we talking about? And did you taste more than one bottle of it?

  6. Yes, Udo – “almost faulty” is a strange description (like being almost pregnant). And I’m not sure why you want more praise for some of the wines you list when I say that that were amongst my favourites, and the Raats was the one I like most in the whole line-up?

  7. anyone is entitled to opinion that this should be made with respect. What is warping the industry is a number of guys who live on freebies and free tickets and then do not hold objectivity. The industry is forced to bow to them. If a critic reaches the stage where he lives on and benefits from his ‘individuality’ then he should pay for his ticket and for the wines he prefers to criticise. There is place for criticism and the industry has always allowed it – but let it be constructive and not just to promote agendas.

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