Tim James: Big and small, geeky and otherwise
By Tim James, 28 August 2023
Size matters, as one says with a knowing wink. Or leer. Sometimes it matters in a surprising way. I only learnt fairly recently that the reason all those classical Greek and Roman images of male gods and heroes (and the Renaissance ones that they inspired, like Michelangelo’s David and Adam) had such modestly proportioned genitals was that this was supposedly a sign of spirituality. Big dicks were reserved for satyrs and other unrefined creatures. I suppose it’s perfectly possible that, art aside, Michelangelo was a size queen. But all fashions and practices are driven by what we can trivialise as “fashion”, as Michael Fridjhon remarked about wine in his recent article about size in wine producers.
It was an interesting and provocative article (I’m enjoying Michael’s more combative approach these days), and I was going to submit a comment, but then found I had quite a lot of yes-ands and yes-buts, so I thought I’d deal with some of them here, at greater leisure.
Michael’s basic point, apart from pointing to an alleged focus of Winemag.coza on “geeky” wines, was to dispute “the implicit prejudice that fine wine cannot possibly be made in a big cellar”. Though he did conclude by admitting that the best of the “small, artisanal cellars give their sites – and their single cuvées – more attention than would be possible in larger commercial wineries”. Given that he focused on wineries rather than vineyards, however, he didn’t point out that, crucially, the best small winemakers pay vastly greater attention to the vines than do most large wineries and the farmers that supply them. Most of the “geeky” Cape producers are making wine from vineyards that previously fed the vast tanks of very big producers, and it would be impossible to deny that their wine is unbelievably superior to what was made from those vines before.
But, yes, I’d agree with aspects of Michael’s point. When I reported recently on a vertical tasting of Boekenhoutskloof’s Chocolate Block, I did get a sniffy question from some geeky friends about how I could take a wine like that seriously. The question was, I have no doubt, based on scale; certainly not on any recent acquaintance with the wine.
There are, in fact, few local fine wines that are made in anything like the volume of Chocolate Block. Michael referred to Hamilton Russell, Klein Constantia and Kanonkop as “mid-sized estates”, as opposed to “the more fashionable boutique wineries”. The photograph caption in his article cited Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2022 at 66 000 bottles and the Pinot at 27 180. That’s less than I’d have expected actually, and it’s not such a lot. Kanonkop gives production of Paul Sauer at 42 000 bottles, and the Cab at 72 000.
Now, I’ve just checked with fashionable Chris Mullineux and he says that, while their single-terroir wines are necessarily limited, production of the Mullineux Syrah and White can reach 40 000 bottles in a good vintage. That’s pretty comparable to the established estate wines, in fact, and from what we presumably consider part of the “fashionista segment of the market”. Not that HRV, Kanonkop and Klein Constantia don’t also feature on this website, as do quite a number of their peers.
But yes, most of the new-wave producers that are, probably, the tasting-note-part of the website’s focus (but far from its sole concern), make mostly single-vineyard wines in small quantities. I think it important to understand two bases of this. Most of these people are newcomers to winemaking, without inherited properties or lots of money made elsewhere. Given legal restrictions on purchasing small sections of farms, they are at least initially bound to buy in grapes. I wonder, incidentally, if there’s any other wine area in the world where so many leading winemakers are in this position, where the leases and deals are mostly based on a handshake, and where there are so many joint ventures on farmer-owned vineyards with outside winemakers supplying capital, labour and expertise.
The other reason for the proliferation of small-volume vineyard wines is simply that the great model for ambitious young winemakers is not the Bordeaux that Michael cites, but tiny-parcelled Burgundy (and Germany), where terroir is the mantra. I dare say that David and Nadia could throw all their single-vineyard chenins together and make a much larger volume of the brilliant blend they already offer. But that’s not what they’re after – and I suspect the bigger wine wouldn’t sell as well as the total of the small-cru wines, precise because serious (and comparatively well-off) wine lovers, such as are catered for on Winemag, are interested in the same thing.
This pattern applies far and wide in the world. Michael also cites the famous Australian big-brand Grange – but I’d be willing to bet that the wines that sommeliers and critics and geeks there are interested in are very much closer to the South African ““fashionista segment” – which is, of course, a sneery term that doesn’t deal with the question of the basis for what is proving to be a fairly enduring fashion (even if the details might change occasionally).
I can’t see it as a problem to concentrate on such wines on this or any other forum. And I can’t find it easy, myself, to beat up editor Christian Eedes for not knowing enough about the mass-market brands – it’s hard enough for anyone to keep up with the smaller ones. Not to mention usually a great deal more interesting. Literary critics aren’t expected to read airport blockbusters, and serious music-lovers are not likely to be up to date with Shawn Mendes’s offerings. It occurs to me that it’s only film buffs that care for everything – from Hollywood and Bollywood to auteur austerities from Eastern Europe. Incidentally, I note that the the 2021 version of the Wolftrap White mentioned in some comments to Michael’s article was, in fact, reviewed by Christian a few months ago and given a (to me somewhat eccentric) score of 92.
As to the big wineries, as opposed to the middle ones. Well. Most of the wines from most of them are ordinary at best (and those are wines that don’t get sold off in bulk to delight the world on the lowest shelves of European supermarkets). Some of the producer wineries and merchants (and the occasional big private producers like Spier and Kleine Zalze) make some very good wines indeed, and these are worth paying attention to (and often are on this website). But the finest and most interesting of them are, as a rule, tiny production wines. Even if the roulette wheels of blind tasting competitions occasionally throw up the likes of Polla’s Red, or rank the lower-level wines of Perdeberg or Windmeul above the finer wines, or give Australia’s most prestigious award to Yellowtail.
I have occasionally on this website sought out cheaper wines – local and foreign – that I have thought would give genuine satisfaction to the serious, “geeky” wine lovers that Winemag caters for. I’ve just gone back to check articles I wrote earlier this year about cheaper reds, modestly priced pinot, and modestly priced Stellenbosch cab – and, interestingly, I find that my local recommendations come not from the genuinely large producers, but the likes of Villiera, DeMorgenzon, Saxenburg, Kanonkop, Kruger, Alto, Marras….
Perhaps that’s partly because of where I was looking, though as a Platter’s taster I do get to taste whole ranges from big producers and I’m not ignorant of what they can offer. But, on the whole, the medium-sized producers who make interesting expensive (and just occasionally geeky) wine are also the ones who make good cheaper wine. The “Cape Burgundians”, well, not so much. There are a few lower-priced ranges (Mullineux’s Kloof Street, Badenhorst’s Secateurs), but Sadie and Alheit both dropped theirs because the quality was too high and the wines were cannibalising those at the more profitable and pricey top level!
- 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.
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