Tim James: Looking back at 20 years of “World of Fine Wine”

By , 3 June 2024



The World of Fine Wine, Issue 83, 2024.

Perhaps I was predisposed to reminiscence after my piece a few weeks ago about resigning from Platter’s. Anyway, when I submitted my column for what I learnt was to be the 20th anniversary issue of the British-based journal The World of Fine Wine (WFW), thinking back is what I did. I hadn’t contributed to the first issue, and in fact didn’t do so till a few years later, in 2006. So, just 18 years of trying to chronicle for an international audience the emerging revolution in South African fine wine, in the hospitable pages of a prestigious journal.

That first article was titled “Adventures in Cape Terroir: Swartland”. It was a rather broken-backed thing, over-conscious of how little the rest of the world knew about South African wine. Remember that in 2006 not even many local wine-lovers had much idea about what was fermenting in the Swartland, let alone foreign ones (if they’d heard of Stellenbosch it was probably all that could be hoped for). I’m pretty sure that no international magazine had ever had a substantial feature with either “Cape terroir” or “Swartland” in the title, let alone both! WFW has been good to South Africa. I felt obliged to describe the Wine of Origin system, as well as report on an increasing concern to understand Cape terroirs and start applying that understanding practically. Mostly, I enthused about what was happening in the Swartland, talking about vines and wines at Spice Route, Sadie, Lammershoek and The Observatory – pretty much all there was to report about back then (with Mullineux at Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards, Badenhorst at Rustenberg, etc). Realising things like this is perhaps why it’s useful to look back in this way.

Sadie and the Swartland were important in a feature a year later, about white blends in the Cape. A salutory reminder that before Vergelegen’s 2001 there were no significant sauvignon-semillon blends made here. And that Sadie Palladius 2002 was a brilliant invention – a blend that was a response to the grapes, soils and climate of the Swartland: a chenin-based but otherwise varietally diverse warm-country blend has arguably proved to be the Cape’s greatest unique contribution to world wine, apart from the local expression of chenin itself. Both these blends revealed new possibilities for South African wine, as was quickly realised. Incidentally, I followed this up a few years later with a report on a double-vertical of those two wines up to the 2007 vintage.

Never fear – if you’ve indulged me by staying so far, I’m not going to go through all my articles in WFW. Most were, of course, about South African wine (one about tourism; a few about Constantia’s past – including the mystery of what “Frontignac was; another grape mystery that was starting to becoming relevant: red semillon; the story of American women winemakers in the modern Cape, especially Ginny Povall and Samantha O’Keefe; an enthusiastic but no doubt much-ignored article about South African brandy; more newsy stuff, like one about the drought and the revenant vines on the newly revealed bottom of Theewaterskloof Dam, with a great photo by Jaco Engelbrecht).

The best of my articles, I think, was a substantial portrait of Eben Sadie, in 2016. It was also the one that caused me most difficulty. I remember struggling with it for about a year, until it suddenly came together. Over 5000 words it was – no other wine journal is going to carry articles of that length. Nearly as long, somewhat more abstruse, and not about South Africa except briefly, was “Wine, kitsch, and the avant-garde”. Someone who usually read all my stuff said that he’d started this article three times and no managed to get beyond a few hundred words.

But the WFW article that gave me rare pleasure to write was much shorter, and also not about South Africa: a piece entitled “Maigret and the case of sauvignon blanc”, looking at the many references to wine in Georges Simenon’s detective novels with Inspector Maigret. It is, at least, now less out of date than the Sadie portrait. That’s the great advantage of writing about something firmly in the past, about a finished story – very different from the story of South Africa wine.

That last point could take as witness what was, I think, the first of the bi-annual columns (under the rubric “Good Hope”) that I write for WFW. Written in early 2016, it was about the renaissance of cinsault in the Cape and, although it does also include reference to the like of Pofadder and Badenhorst Ramnasgras and the emerging use, once more, of cinsault in blends, it starts off talking about Mount Abora Saffraan. That was then, as I wrote, “one of the most successful new lighter-style Cinsauts” but is sadly no longer with us. Also disappeared from the local scene is the then winemaker for Silwervis, Ryan Mostert, with whose words I concluded that column: “There’s a lot of joy for people to have drinking humble old Cinsaut.” Indeed, and it’s good to be reminded.

The latest in the Good Hope series is, then, appearing round about now in the 20th anniversary of World of Fine Wine. I wish this brave magazine and its great editor from the start, Neil Beckett, another 20 years and more – heaven knows what minor proportion of them I will be contributing to, accompanied by the same drawing of me with a delightfully dark beard and comparatively generous head of hair. (I should mention, before concluding, that there are four hefty issues of the magazine per year, at an equally hefty 30 quid each; less for digital-only.) My latest piece, quite coincidentally, returns to the theme of lighter Cape reds, but concentrates on pinotage.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. His bookines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


3 comment(s)

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    Kwispedoor | 3 June 2024

    I understand that the owners of Mount Abora have been embroiled in legal proceedings with someone who’s been stepping on Saffraan’s intellectual property turf, but surely the wine is still with us, isn’t it? Please tell me it is?

    I’ll be looking into Inspector Maigret’s exploits.

      Tim James | 4 June 2024

      Sadly, Kwisp, the last vintage of Saffraan I can find mention of online is 2017….

        Pieter de Waal | 5 June 2024

        Hi Kwisp and Tim. The good news is that the 2022 Saffraan will be launched in the next few weeks as the labels have just been printed. It was reviewed in the latest Platter Guide by Angela Lloyd and received 4 stars (the 2022 Koggelbos Chenin Blanc was again nominated for 5 stars). Aaaah, what a fantastic reference the Platter Guide is in times like these, even beating an online Google search for accuracy (OK, I’m being naughty!) The Mount Abora wines are still under the stewardship of Krige Visser who envisaged and produced the first Saffraan in 2012 with Johan (Stompie) Meyer, with myself looking after logistics and admin. When Stompie left the Hermon cellar, Mount Abora took a short break that ultimately stretched a bit due to Covid (and the fact that we produced quite a lot of 2017 Saffraan that we needed to sell first.) Regarding the Cape Wine Master who has nefariously decided to appropriate the Saffraan trademark for his self-indulgence, that is another story that I have been long contemplating to discuss with Tim as it will make a very good article on trade mark law and even going back to a famous court case between two well-known Stellenbosch producers about an identical issue where the high court ruled in favour of the original owner of the trade mark (i.e. us in this case).

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