Michael Fridjhon: How well does South Africa’s best wine compare to its international counterparts?

By , 20 February 2019



It started as a half-frivolous question posed by foreign investors already involved with the Cape wine industry: How well do SA wines stack up against international icons? This is not as simple a question as it looks – and as the wide range of scores from influential critics attests. For example, new-wave South African wine rated on Jancisrobinson.com last year comfortably rivalled the average scores of prestige producer Burgundies from the 2002 vintage reviewed recently on the same site. Realistically, it would be more of a question for the bookies: if there were to be a Judgement of Paris tasting, what odds would they offer of at least one of our wines finishing on top against the Rest of the World, on a class by class basis?

We already know from annual competitions such as the Six Nations Challenge that while we don’t have the depth to win many categories outright, we often win the class trophy, or finish up in the runners-up slot. But we also know that our strengths are not evenly distributed across all categories, and all styles – and this, in turn, raises the question of whose benchmark are we expected to perform against? In the case of cabernet for example, is it Bordeaux or California? In pinot noir Burgundy, Oregon or New Zealand? What about the less obvious comparisons: if our strengths are in appellations like the Swartland who are our competitors? This can’t be an Olympics where our jukskei team has to compete against the Swiss steinstossen champions.

Some of the answers seem obvious enough. In any Chenin showdown, we would be odds-on favourites. Of course, there are some extraordinary wines from the Loire, stylistically different, capable of long ageing, so the Cape’s claims don’t bring with them racing certainties. But taking a range of styles from Sadie to Alheit to the FMC, looking at the depth of talent (it would be hard to pick the top ten because there are double that number of worthy candidates) my money would be on South Africa.

DRC Montrachet

DRC Montrachet – does SA come anywhere close?

Chardonnay is less certain and is much more a matter of stylistic preference and bottle age. It would be naïve to assert that we can take on DRC or Marquis de Laguiche Montrachet, Coche Dury Corton Charlemagne or any number of top-end producers in Puligny or Chassagne. But we do have several wines that wouldn’t look out of place in such a showdown, and could probably trump many of the high profile New World examples, whether from California, the Yarra Valley or Margaret River.

We’re seeing the emergence of world-class single site syrah/Shiraz from the Swartland, notably from Mullineux, Porseleinberg and Leeuwenkuil (to mention only a few). These are largely built to the Northern Rhone mould and they can be at least as expressive as many icon wines from Hermitage. If they have a shortcoming, it is that they don’t always show the fruit intensity delivered by the old French vines, or the freshness to sustain long ageing. We’re getting there and our young wines may even have the edge. We don’t compete in the Southeastern Australian style – though that’s more a matter of choice: the famous Stellenzicht 1994 beat Grange on more than one occasion, so there’s no reason why it couldn’t be done again

Sauvignon blanc is largely a question of style: Oz Clarke argued a few years back that the Cape’s claim to sauvignon fame rested in the breadth and versatility of our offering, with wines which sat comfortably alongside Sancerre, and others which met the expectations of consumers weaned on Marlborough fruit. We certainly have a range of world-class examples as well as our own particular expressions which defy categorisation. On a good day, we have a chance in the unwooded class, a better chance in the oaked Sauvignon category, and we’re not out of our depth against dry white Bordeaux from the Graves.

As I’ve already indicated, the comparison with cabernet and cabernet blends will founder on the breadth of credible international styles. We make some pretty smart wines, but the best of them are clearly Cape expressions of the variety. On average we’re closer to modern Bordeaux, but with an extra generosity of flavour which has a new world exuberance to it. We also have wines like Vilafonte which are clearly positioned on the Californian side of the spectrum.

Probably our greatest weakness at present (NB) is pinot noir: we have little that would threaten a well-made village Burgundy, or even a typical example from Central Otago, Yarra or Oregon. The few that would live up to the challenge are unlikely to unseat any of the classics. (Here I risk the wrath of any number of our pre-eminent producers – whom I would happily challenge to a taste/value test).

We have great strength with our dessert wines, fortified and unfortified. Our best noble late harvests sit comfortably alongside anything made with the same cultivars produced anywhere in the world. Our great fortified, whether port-style or Muscat, can be simply breath-taking.

At one level, however, this is a fool’s errand, like choosing your favourite child or comparing the greatest leaders or villains in recorded history. So much depends on context, circumstance, perspective, cultural baggage, a frame of reference, world view. What we do know is that if it were a motor race, it’s not Lada versus Ferrari, so the outcome wouldn’t be as easy to predict.

  • Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is the 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.


7 comment(s)

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    Dubes | 23 August 2019

    Hi Michael
    You raise a lot of valid points .In terms of quality SA wines do measure up quite well against most international wines as evidenced by the increasing awards our wines have been winning in international blind tasting flights.I do think our weakest point is our indecision on what identity our wines should carry e.g. what is a typical Swartland Chenin style (is it going to be oaked or unoaked).I feel there tends to be too much variations even within a small ward.To steal your example sometimes it feels like we are pushing out Toyotas and Ferraris from the same factory.But some will argue that losing that unpredictability will make our wines lose their mystery factor but it may make these comparisons slightly easier

      Michael Fridjhon | 26 August 2019

      The problem in part is that we’re not yet sure if we want to be in the Ferrari or Toyota business. To be fair it doesn’t have to be and either/or choice. We’re also expecting that stylistics which took decades (perhaps even centuries) to evolve in the Old World can be finalised more or less instantaneously in the New. Most international consumers couldn’t even place the South African wine lands on a map. It’s too much to expect that they have a clear idea of Swartland versus Stellenbosch Chenin Blanc

    Keith | 26 February 2019

    Also 40+ years of SA wines (and all other New World; not so much old world). Largely agree with your evaluations. Couple of points though. As you alluded to most varietal can be made “punchy” or “soft”. I found this out with a world tasting of Pinot Noir (California, Chile – punchy, Oregon, France, New Zealand, South Africa – soft). It is unfair to compare a soft to a hard as it comes down to personal preference. As you say SA Pinot Noir struggles as does SA Shiraz (blended hard) compared to Barossa Valley. BUT bring it the value (remember taste/value challange that you issued?). SA wines could compete with anyone a few years ago. Now (2019) that every export winery in the Cape is pricing in USD (I have been coming year every year since 1990 to taste the wines) I find that the value has sunk. For the first time: for the same price in USD a new world or old world wine will beat an SA wines in virtually all categories.

    Michael Fridjhon | 25 February 2019

    Thanks Gilles – I guess people are more worried about Eskom, Brexit, the Mexican Wall and many other more pressing issues….

    Gilles P | 21 February 2019

    Feeling a bit sorry that nobody is providing any comments or reactions so I will.

    This is very well put Michael and I do agree in most instances with your analysis.

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