Tim James: Cultural cringe and Syrah

By , 4 December 2020

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There’s something to be said for a touch of cultural cringe on occasions – I’ll come back to that claim. Unsurprisingly, the term came up in Christian Eedes’s think-piece on the best name for Bordeaux-style red blends in South Africa, and the interesting discussion which followed it. (A lively and largely courteous discussion of a matter of some significance it was, and I can see no reason for Greg Sherwood to peevishly dismiss it as part of his diagnosis of an “introspective and insecure” industry; actually, it would also be possible to diagnose parts of the industry as brilliantly confident and also as happily integrated into the wider world of wine – it depends on where and how you look.)

There was no conclusive answer in that BB debate, inevitably, but I can’t see any reason to worry. It seems fair enough to me that if a wine style originates in a particular place, that place name should be widely associated with it. And if we prefix it with “Cape” to assert the new displacement, so much the better. I don’t think referring to the origin diminishes any claims to excellence or distinctiveness by later users. Similarly, l see no reason to not refer to the white equivalents as “white Bordeaux-style” wines – though, as Christian points out, it’s easy enough to, rather, speak of sauvignon-Semillon blends, which is what they invariably are here.

Of course, origin-place-names can be used only for useful categorisation or description, not officially. South Africa wine labels can’t invoke the name Bordeaux any more than they can Port or Sherry or Champagne. Cape Bordeaux Blend or Cape Claret could never become an official category like Cap Classique or Cape Vintage or Cape Blend. But a guide like Platter’s easily and usefully talks about “Cape Bordeaux”, “Rhône-style blends” and even “port” (though the latter always with inverted commas, unnecessarily in my opinion).

But it’s not only for traditional foreign blends that it’s hard to find an accepted name (or recipe). Witness the uncertainties over the use of “Cape Blend” for reds with a certain percentage of pinotage. And one of modern Cape wine’s greatest achievements – the sort of warm-country white blend including chenin, of which Sadie Palladius was the pioneering serious example – remains unnamed as a category. Some people call it “Cape White Blend”, which seems fine to me. Others have suggested “Mediterranean Blend”, which is nonsense in all ways, especially given the paucity of chenin blanc in southern Europe. On the analogy of Bordeaux, I’d prefer calling it a Swartland blend, even if it comes from Stellenbosch or Paarl (or Languedoc or Western Australia or California, for that matter) – but that wouldn’t work officially here, given that Swartland is the protected name of a district, not to mention the appalling fact that it is allowed to be a registered trademark of Swartland Winery.

Chenin blanc is in some ways the category most at ease with itself in terms of cultural cringe. It’s probably a good thing that Loire chenin is so little known in this country, meaning that there has been little deferring to it. In fact, so confident is this category that just about everyone is happy to accept that the Cape could never produce high quality Loire-style chenins, just as the Loire could never produce the likes of South Africa’s best. A highly satisfactory solution, with the triumph of terroir and mutual respect!

“Rhône-like” or proudly Polkadraai?

With syrah, however, there’s still a bit of a problem. Too often (and I’m quoting from Platter’s in these examples) tasting notes about local syrah include phrases like ”showing classic Rhône violets”, “Rhône-like”, “has Rhône spiciness”, “distinctly Rhône style”. Such notes are, I suppose, intended as cringeing compliments. But really they are the opposite, given that syrah producers have been at the forefront of trying to offer wines that express local conditions. At best, such remarks are meaningless nonsense (especially given that most local readers will have no understanding of what “Rhone-style” means).  There will inevitably be similarities to syrahs from the northern Rhône – but that must because of variety rather than terroir character. Reference to the Rhône would have had more significance when there was more of a perceived battle between “Barossa-style shiraz” (big, ripe, oaky) and a more French, “syrah”, alternative. Nowadays, we can, surely, see both styles as valid Cape expressions of the grape.

Which actually, and perversely, brings me back to my initial mention of a possible defence for some cultural cringe. Firstly, I would say generally that it is suitably modest to recognise superiority in others, when appropriate, just as it is correct to make grand claims when appropriate. The idea of cultural cringe (Australian in origin, I think) inherently includes comparison to the metropolitan, culturally powerful “colonising” country (mostly France when wine is in question).

South African winemakers’ element of deference to classic French styles were, it seems to me, what allowed for the great wine revolution in this century. In the latter 1990s, when we rejoined the world, big, ripe, oaky wines were on the advance, especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries. The modern Australian style was immensely successful internationally, and seen as relevant to South Africa, given similarities of climate. And there were strong forces in this country that were pushing that style as the answer to the undoubted problems of quality and marketability then limiting Cape wine’s appeal.

The failure of South African wine to measure up to Australia’s in the “Test match” of 1995 was seen by some as indicating both the problem and the solution. The reluctance of many producers to accept this analysis was not, in fact, necessarily a stupid, blind assertion of self-satisfaction – it was an assertion that this was not the sort of wine that they wanted to make, however successful it might be in the UK market. I think if the test match had been against France (I wonder why it wasn’t), the result and the lessons would have been accepted more gracefully – cringeing to France being more ok than cringe to Australia, perhaps.

That style of sunshine-and-oak-in-a-bottle wine didn’t stay fashionable for long, even in Australia (which was able to adapt, to an extent, quickly). If the Cape had widely adopted it, it would surely have, at the very best, delayed the development of the wine revolution here. Cape wine was saved and taken forward by basing its revolution on its own best traditions, its own terroir – and the guiding light of classic Europe. A dose of appropriate cultural cringe, in fact. Happily less needed now.

  • 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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  • Kevin R4 December 2020

    “Rhone… Aussie” – sorry Tim! 😉

  • Gareth4 December 2020

    Hi Tim,

    When it comes to Cape Syrah/Shiraz I find the distinction in style very useful. As you mention the lighter Rhone type Syrah is different from the bigger Aussie Shiraz and understandably consumers will favour one over the other. Without that distinction there can be disappointment when expecting one thing and finding another in the glass.

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