Competition contradictions

Remember the aggressively defensive enthusiasm from Tim Atkin about the so called “Top 100 South African wines” following the competition of that name which he chaired? We were led to believe, not least by Tim and another British panellist Jamie Goode, that here at last was a credible team of judges to bring enlightenment to this corner of the Dark Continent. (The idea that a plausible list of 100 best wines could emerge from an entry of under 400 wines was airily dismissed.)

It’s always a little more than interesting to compare competition results, as contradiction is the rule rather than the exception, revealing the whole business as more a lottery than anything more definitive. But to look at how the Top 100 wines did in the International Wine Challenge (IWC) is even more interesting, as Tim Atkin is also in charge of the latter.

Comparison must be limited because neither competition tells us which wines didn’t feature among the awards. Despite this, a startling statistic emerges: of those 100 wines, no fewer than 9 couldn’t even scrape bronze medals at the London competition (they were listed as “Commended”). Another four, by my quick count, got bronzes. Incidentally, about 460 South African wines got medals at the IWC – more than the total entry for the Top 100.

These are the winners of Tim’s local competition that did poorly at his home one in London (as I said, we don’t know which ones didn’t even make it to the Commended level):

IWC Bronze

  • De Grendel Rubaiyat, 2007
  • Ghost Corner Semillon, 2009
  • Graham Beck Pheasants’ Run Sauvignon Blanc, 2010
  • Oldenburg Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, 2008

IWC Commended wines

  • Boschendal Reserve Collection Chardonnay, 2009
  • Edgebaston Cabernet Sauvignon, 2008
  • Grand Vin de Glenelly, 2008
  • La Motte Pierneef Shiraz Viognier, 2008
  • Oldenburg Vineyards Cabernet Franc, 2009
  • Oldenburg Vineyards Syrah, 2008
  • Paul Cluver Chardonnay, 2009
  • Paul Cluver Sauvignon Blanc, 2010
  • Tokara Directors Reserve [Red], 2007

A particularly noteworthy wine among these Commendeds is the Edgebaston – because the cheaper, “second label” from the same producer, The Berry Box, actually scored vastly better, getting a gold medal.  Some of the other IWC golds were not much more convincing perhaps. (The IWC, it seems to me, tends to go for notably “New World”-style wines – it’s always been a competition where Australia does very well, so it’s not surprising that Spier, for example, shone.)

Some of the other fourth-level wines you might have expected to see do rather better: like Paul Cluver Seven Flags Pinot Noir, Steenberg Magna Carta, Sutherland Viognier Roussanne (a Trophy Wine Show gold medallist) and Thelema Shiraz 2007 (Top red at the TWS).

I’d have thought this substantial contradiction would have troubled Tim Atkin – but he didn’t seem concerned when I asked him to comment. “Can’t they just have different opinions? This happens all the time. There is no “right” answer here.” (He also suggested that I am “a bit of stuck record on this theme”!, which is true enough.)

But if there is “no right answer” (if one team of fantastic tasters can say that Cluver Chardoinnay is excellent and the other can say it’s mediocre), then what actually is the point of the competitions? (Apart from making a lot of money for the organisers of course, and also giving producers a good chance for a shiny sticker: if they enter enough competitions they’re bound to win something sometime!)

At least thirteen wines which the Top 100 competition trumpeted as excellent were relegated to near-also-rans by the IWC, The pattern is repeated again and again. Frankly, it doesn’t seem to make much difference how eminent the judges are – it’s the methodology of the competitions that’s wrong. This is, quite simply, not how wines should be judged.

If this mixed set of signals to confused winelovers is acceptable to the judges, within acceptable limits of anomaly, then I still have to ask yet again (sorry Tim!): What use are these competitions to a consumer who wants to know if Glenelly Grand Vin and Oldenberg Cab Franc are at the top level of SA wine, or at the 4th level?

We don’t need to fly judges and wines around the world to compete, if the only lesson is that, as Tim Atkin says, it’s all just a matter of opinion.


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