Redeeming the concept of the rock star winemaker
By Christian Eedes, 20 April 2021
Most winemakers baulk at being seen as “rock stars”, preferring to portray themselves as humble tillers of the soil, dedicated to using grape to reflect place, wine always made according to environmentally and socially sustainable principles. It’s just plain wrong, however, to deny that there are a few individuals that do acquire the status of celebrity, their work inspiring fanatical devotion at least among dedicated wine enthusiasts and if not “rock stars” then what are they?
I was given to pondering this after a recent visit to Kalmoesfontein, the Paardeberg farm of Adi Badenhorst, a drive of more than an hour northeast of Cape Town. The new releases from this producer had occasioned wine trade and media setting off into the Swartland in two groups, one received at 10 o’clock in the morning and the other at four o’clock in the afternoon. What, someone outside of wine asked me, was the particular attraction?
One element of it surely functions on the level of prophet and disciple. In this increasingly a-religious and secular world, the winemaker comes to be regarded as someone in contact with metaphysical if not quite the divine. Wine, in turn, facilitates the journey in search of expanded meaning.
That might sound fanciful, but I had to laugh at myself as I stood in the old Ramnasgras Cinsault vineyard on the slopes of the mountain waiting for Badenhorst, sporting as he does a beard that properly recalls the Old Testament seers, to dispense a few drops of the 2012 vintage…
There is also an inherent sporting element to wine appreciation, subtle but significant competition and rivalry driving endeavor. Districts pitched against districts, farm against farm, fans following the fortunes of their chosen producers over the years and decades. And of course, there are numbers involved, no more so than when it comes to scores, wine enthusiasts obsessing over these like cricket supporters and batting averages – ratings for the new Badenhorst wines here.
You also can’t overlook the trophy hunting mentality that’s at play, collectors going to great lengths to track down the highly rated and rare. If the killing of animals is a distasteful analogy, then think of the effort and expense music fans will go to get tickets to see their favourite band in concert or what foodies will do to dine at whatever restaurant is currently du jour.
Ultimately, however, why some producers come to be more lauded than others comes down to excellence. Badenhorst and team have always been studiedly nonchalant about their winemaking – you will find the website somewhat incomplete if you are looking for fact sheets, back labels are only approximate and answers to questions are usually vague – but it’s when you actually drink the wines that things become clear. Much is made of how difficult it is to articulate taste – some wines are plush and others are lean, some light and bright, others dense and powerful – but when you drink the good stuff, you tend to just know. It’s not unlike listening to a really great singer – there’s an expressiveness and surprise that overcomes how we usually deploy our senses.
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