I have been lucky enough to visit South Africa’s winelands several times in the past ten years or so, to enjoy not just some of the wine world’s most ravishingly beautiful vineyard scenery, but to get to know the wines pretty well through extensive tasting and visits to wineries as they have operated in a decade of relentless change and improvement. Looking around the timeless, settled vineyards or strolling through the historic Cape Dutch farm buildings, it’s easy to forget that in very real ways, the South African wine industry is a young one. It was only with the collapse of the apartheid system that the Cape’s winemakers once more fully joined the international wine scene, and a world of both challenges and opportunities opened up.
After three decades of the new wine era, the task of modernising wines, refining styles, exploring new regions and improving quality has made tremendous progress. The photo shows the vineyard at Grande Roche in Paarl, looking to the Drakenstein mountains.
I was delighted when Michael Fridjhon, one of the Cape’s most experienced wine writers and judges, invited me to be one of three international judges for the 2012 Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, along with Anthony Rose of the Independent (and of course my buddy in www.thewinegang.com) and winemaker Brian Croser of Tapanappa in the Barossa Valley. We would join six local judges – wine industry professionals – to spend five days scrutinising 1,025 South African wines.
Michael (left) and the Trophy Wine Show are respected throughout the Cape wine industry, Michael for his searching palate, encyclopaedic knowledge and incisive mind and the show for the rigour with which its nine judges undertake their task: the average number of gold medals awarded is a miserly 2% of the entries, and wines have to be extremely good to approach bronze medal level, let alone silver or gold. My week spent judging was absolutely fascinating. Not only did it provide an opportunity for the serious, unhurried study of today’s South African wines in great depth, but the lunches and dinners spent discussing South Africa’s wine industry with local professionals were full of interest.
My conclusions by the end of my week? The infamous ‘burnt rubber’ note that many people have found off-putting in South African reds was barely in evidence, suggesting that leaf-roll virus and perhaps other viticultural and winemaking causes are being addressed. The Pinotages on show – and I judged over 40 of them – surprised with the generally very high quality given the grape’s less than stellar reputation. Sauvignon Blanc was good, though possibly some producers are pulling back from the pungently herbaceous style a little too far. The small category of sweet and fortified wines that I tasted was terrific, including the show-stopping 1929 ‘Port’ from KWV.
In all there was plenty of evidence here that the country’s more conscientious winemakers continue to refine both their wine making and their vision for what each variety is capable of, and what each terroir has the potential to say about South African wine.
the gold medal wines
The culmination of the week of judging is the trophy tasting. The gold medal winners in each class are gathered and retasted by all judges to find the outright best in class. Below are my brief notes on all of the gold medal wines that made it to this stage, as written during the trophy tasting. The trophy winners are listed first, and the tasting was, of course, blind.
Best Red Wine: Eikendal, Classique 2009
Lovely sense of freshness here, of graphite finesse. Does the palate lack a touch of fruit? Classic, structured stuff. Panel average score: 95.7/100.
Best White Wine: KWV, The Mentors Chardonnay 2011
Big, sweet-fruited, creamy nose. Loads of flavour and concentrated into a long, long juicy and clear finish. Panel average score: 95.7/100.
International Judges’ Trophy: De Grendel Shiraz 2010
Lovely stuff, so elegantly floral with its violet perfume. So pure on the palate, a touch of bloodiness and terrific fruit. Panel average score: 94.8/100.
Best Sparkling Wine: Villiera, Woolworths Vintage Reserve Brut 2007
Developed, rich, boldly fruity nose. Lovely palate richness and balance with racy, precise acidity. Panel average score: 94.4/100.
Best Dessert Wine (unfortified): Delheim, Edelspatz Noble Late Harvest 2011
Beautiful apricot and barley sugar nose and lovely Botrytis. Tangy fruit with lots of orange zest zing and clarity. Panel average score: 95.8/100.
Discovery of the Show: Secret Cellar, Sauvignon Blanc 2011
Slightly neutral. Pretty, balanced and quite fine. Panel average score: 93.7/100.
Best Cabernet Sauvignon: Jordan, Cabernet Sauvignon 2009
Touch of bloody, gamy character to the fruit. Developed, but ripe and minty. Big and dry on the palate but beautifully balanced. Panel average score: 93.8/100.
Best Shiraz: Painted Wolf, Shiraz 2009
More earthy, plummy and ripe. More bloody character here, ripe and sweet on the palate. Panel average score: 95.3/100.
Best White Blend: Thelema, Sutherland Viognier Roussanne 2009
High quality French oak smokiness and finesse. Serious palate but so delicate, refined. Panel average score: 94.2/100.
Best Chenin Blanc: Tokara, Chenin Blanc 2009
Fine, classic wet wool nuances to lime and lemon. Hint of sweetness persists on the palate. Is it a touch dilute? Panel average score: 95.6/100.
Best Chardonnay: KWV, The Mentors Chardonnay 2011
Best Bordeaux-style Red Blend: Eikendal, Classique 2009
Best Cape Port: Axe Hill, Cape Vintage 2009
Very Port-like, nice dried fruit character, not as sweet but more complex and layered. Panel average score: 94.4/100.
Best Museum Class Chenin Blanc: Jordan, Chenin Blanc 2007
A touch of toffee and nougat here is lovely. Very precise and fresh on the palate, very long and clean finish. Panel average score: 95.5/100.
Best Merlot: La Bri, Merlot 2010
Quite subtle, refined, graphitey stuff. Serious if a touch too dry on the palate. Panel average score: 93.0/100.
Best Pinotage: Rijk’s, Private Cellar Pinotage 2008
Slightly more lifted style here, creamy, gamy, perfumed. Big and dry, terrific tangy fruit and balance. Panel average score: 94.8/100.
Best Pinot Noir: Chamonix, Pinot Noir Reserve 2010
Dark. Plenty of spice and charry oak. Lovely floral nuances emerge, but perhaps lacks a touch of flesh. Panel average score: 94.3/100.
Best Sauvignon Blanc (wooded): Nederburg, Two Centuries Sauvignon Blanc 2009
Is this just a touch dilute beneath a big, smoky, green bean character? Fine effort at the style. Panel average score: 94.5/100.
Best Sauvignon Blanc (unwooded): Kleine Zalze, Family Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2010
The green streak here is arguably slightly raw, but so clean and punchy on the palate. Panel average score: 94.3/100.
Best Sauvignon Blanc Semillon Blend: Vergelegen, GVB 2010
Lovely balance. Creamy, but the oak is so nicely judged and this has massive freshness. Classy. Panel average score: 95.5/100.
Best Museum Class Sauvignon Blanc Semillon Blend: Vergelegen, 2007
Creamy, custardy character but full of flavour. Well balanced, fresh. Panel average score: 94.7/100.
Best Semillon: Ormonde, Ondine Semillon 2010
Big thiol nose is all grassiness and pungency, but the palate has lovely zest and precision. Panel average score: 94.4/100.
Best Museum Class Semillon: Cape Point Vineyards, Semillon 2008
Nicely developed toast here, very classical. Juicy lemon freshness and vitality on the palate. terrific. Panel average score: 95.2/100.
Best Museum Class White Blend: Lomond, Snowbush 2008
Restrained oak, creaminess over tropical fruit but so delicate and refined. Long. Panel average score: 95.8/100.
Best Museum Class Fortified Wine: KWV, Reserve Port 1929
Stunning stuff, layered with walnut and Seville orange. Fresh palate with mellow, sweet flavours balanced by precise acid structure. Panel average score: 96.8/100.
other gold medallists – sparkling and white
These are the show’s other gold medal-winning wines that were tasted, in their classes, alongside the trophy-winning wines above.
Du Preez Estate, Hendrik Lodewyk Méthode Cap Classique NV
Lovely freshness and finesse. A pretty wine but lacks some concentration. Panel average score: 93.3/100.
Buitenverwachting, Sauvignon Blanc Husseys Vlei 2011
Gentle elderflower pungency. Very precise, pithy palate. Panel average score: 94.0/100.
Strandveld, Adamastor 2010
Big, striking green aromatics, a hint of honeyed richness. Panel average score: 94.7/100.
Sumaridge, Chardonnay 2010
Not as fresh on the nose as some here. Lacks a little clarity for me. Panel average score: 93.7/100.
Eikendal, Chardonnay 2011
Young and rather pear-droppy nose. Lovely dry apple fruit on the palate. Panel average score: 92.7/100.
Fleur du Cap, Chardonnay Unfiltered 2011
Very refined French oak. Juicy lime and lemon style, long and precise. Panel average score: 95.4/100.
Rustenberg, Five Soldiers Chardonnay 2010
Subtle, really refined aromatics. Nice oak quality, lots of freshness and ripe fruit. Zesty finish. Panel average score: 95.4/100.
Fable, Jackal Bird 2010
A bit of floral and apricot lift here. Honeyed richness, delicious balance and really tangy finish. Panel average score: 94.0/100.
Manley Private Cellar, Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2010
Moderate style, nice use of oak here, if a bit less powerful, less concentrated. Panel average score: 94.2/100.
Remhoogte, Honeybunch Reserve Chenin Blanc 2011
Lots of lanolin quality here, the palate very bright and fresh, for me a touch harsh. Panel average score: 95.6/100.
Steenberg, Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2011
A touch sweaty – too much for me. Better on the palate, very nicely pithy and dry. Panel average score: 94.2/100.
other gold medallists – red
Boschendal, 1685 Shiraz 2009
Classic, very dry, arguably just too austere. Panel average score: 93.2/100.
Deetlefs Estate, Pinotage 2010
Not so svelte or refined. Lovely density of fruit and really supple tannins. Panel average score: 94.6/100.
Dombeya, Altus 2007
Big animal nose, for me verging into Bretty territory. Sweet, bloody palate – very Bordeaux-like. Panel average score: 94.5/100.
Le Joubert, 1070 2009
Delicious sweet richness, perhaps just verging on raisiny. Deep chocolate and plum palate edged with bloodiness. Delicious. Panel average score: 95.0/100.
Stellenzicht, Golden Triangle Pinotage 2010
Quite a coffee-ish, big mulberry nose. Beautiful fruit: sweet, plush and elegant. More commercial style. Panel average score: 93.4/100.
other gold medallists – sweet
Fleur du Cap, Noble Late Harvest 2010
Lots of toast and vanilla here, very alluring. Lime-like, Riesling character. Great clarity despite massive sweetness. Panel average score: 95.3/100.
Nuy Winery, Red Muscadel 1989
Brown sugar, tawny richness. Strong, powerful, lovely power and balance if a touch simple perhaps. Panel average score: 94.6/100.
Nuy Winery, White Muscadel 1997
A touch varnishy to me, nice and leafy lift and floral, but a little simple. Panel average score: 93.5/100.
For more information see trophywineshow.co.za.