Absolutism and relativism in SA wine

By , 18 June 2010




Wine writer Neil Pendock has once again posed some provocative questions concerning the state of the South African wine criticism  in two of his recent columns (see “Are SA wines really getting better?” and “Is wine appreciation generationally dependent?”).

Pendock seems to be advancing a postmodernist perspective by rejecting the notion of progress (specifically he contends that many of the wines of the 1970s are just as good, if not better than what’s currently being made) and suggesting that the increase in top rated wines in forums like Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, Platter’s and WINE magazine has more to do with commercial interests of both organisers and participants than anything else (positive results mean more sales mean more entries). If I am reading him correctly, he goes on to imply that there is a critical old-guard that works hard to maintain its hegemony and exclude newer, younger voices.

Pendock’s arguments are worth paying attention to. Fundamentally, it would be reactionary to argue for an objective truth when it comes to wine assessment, and of course, there are various power relations at play when it comes to the contemporary South African wine scene.

However, precisely because livliehoods are at stake, we need to be careful about introducing outright relativism into the debate concerning South African wine. Here are my thoughts on some of the issues raised by Pendock:

1. The issue of “progress”
Was South Africa capable of making great wine in the 1960s and 1970s? Most certainly as anyone who has recently tasted GS Cabernet Sauvignon 1966 or Nederburg Cabernet Sauvignon 1974 (to name but two) will attest. It is interesting to ponder what made the reds of this time so good and two key factors seem to be that 1) the grapes were picked earlier meaning lower pH levels which facilitated longer ageing; and 2) the use of large-format, used barrels for maturation.

It can be argued, however, that the industry lost its way during the 1980s. The country was isolated from the international community as a result of its politics and winemaking stagnated. With transformation came the industry’s reengagement with the global community and local wines have got better and better, to this observer at least.

This is not in the sense of South African wines coming closer to some universal, absolute ideal of wine quality but rather the product of different winemakers shaping their products in accordance with a whole bunch of different dialogues occurring at different levels all the time.

Oxidative white blends are a case in point: They simply didn’t exist locally ten years ago and are now among our finest wines. Spoilage yeast Brettanomyces is another: Again, a decade ago, both critics and producers alike were just about oblivious to how it manifested, then it was a mark of your discernment to first spot it and then punish it, and now I would like to think that it is more a question of taking the presence of Brett on a case by case basis (do the related aroma and flavour characteristics marry benignly or stick out annoyingly?)

2. The “explosion” of high ratings
Writing in my capacity as WINE magazine panel tasting chairman, I feel that it is unnecessarily provocative to speak of an “explosion of five star stunners”. For the record, the magazine’s various tasting panels returned three ratings of 5 Stars in 2007, four in 2008 and nine in 2009. With tasting just finished for the August 2010 issue, this year has seen only four wines rated 5 Stars so far, namely Kleine Zalze Vineyard Selection Chenin Blanc 2008, Kanu Wooded Chenin Blanc 2002, D’Aria The Songbird Sauvignon Blanc 2009 and Crystallum Cuvée Cinema Pinot Noir 2008.*

Even so, I will admit that about 18 months ago, I was worried about a “glass ceiling” being in place whereby  it was impossible for any wine to get the magazine’s ultimate accolade no matter how good it was. If we weren’t seeing some lifting of standards according to generally agreed criteria, then we might as well all pack it in. Despite me exhorting the panel to be less parsimonious, despite the introduction of even more discussion and retasting into the process, a wine rated 5 Stars in WINE magazine remains a remarkably rare occurrence and I believe a worthy indication of quality.

3. Succession planning
Though Mr Pendock’s postmodernist argument is generally sound, I think he is guilty of introducing an unhelpful binary opposite in the form of hip Generation Xers versus. old fogey Baby Boomers (in the same vein that male versus female, straight versus gay, white versus black are problematic).

While the emergence of a new generation of wine commentators is to be welcomed, it would be ridiculous to suggest that the likes of Carrie Adams, Michael Fridjhon, Colin Frith, Tim James, Angela Lloyd, Allan Mullins and Christine Rudman don’t have some wisdom to impart. Once again, surely it is about entering into a dialogue between the veterans and the rookies?

The notion that anybody’s opinion is as good as anybody else’s must be resisted. Where I to have put my heart and soul into making a wine, I would far rather that it be reviewed by someone who could bring knowledge and experience to bear, both attributes acquired over time. This poses the question as to who’s training up the new generation (not indoctrinating them with ideologies but making sure they are both technically competent tasters and have a coherent aesthetic vision?)

The Wine Judging Academy, run by WINE magazine in conjunction with Michael Fridjhon, is now in its fourth year. It takes place over three days every January and while it is impossible to turn an individual into a senior competition judge in such a short space of time, it does identify those who can tell their Paarl Riesling from their Weisser Riesling and those who can’t.

Students that have passed through the Academy and are now sitting on panels include: Trizanne Barnard of Trizanne Wines, Ginette de Fleuriot of Wineworx, Southern Sun sommelier Miguel Chan, Michael Crossley of Reciprocal Wine Trading Company, Singita’s Francois Rautenbach, Steenberg sommelier Higgo Jacobs, James Pietersen, beverage manager of Balducci’s and Belthazar at the V&A Waterfront and Haskell’s Rianie Strydom. It’s not going to transform an industry overnight, but it’s a start.

*This posting originally stated that there had been only one wine rated 5 Stars in the issues of WINE magazine from January 2010 to August 2010, whereas there have been four. The error is regretted and has been corrected.


1 comment(s)

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    Christian | 19 June 2010

    Outed. Before posting this, I could have referred to my university text books of 20 years ago but instead brushed up on my theory by accessing source of all sources Wikipedia as has been pointed out elsewhere. To quote Nietzsche, “It is hard enough to remember my opinions, without also remembering my reasons for them”. Other binary opposites: rational vs. emotional, sighted vs. blind, Old World vs. New World, etc.

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