Of the few wide-ranging annual reports on South African wines the one that I probably take most seriously is Tim Atkin’s. In fact, I suppose there are only three individual big surveys: Tim’s, Neal Martin’s for Wine Advocate, and James Molesworth’s for Wine Spectator. All foreigners, you notice. Possibly Michael Fridjhon for his Wine Wizard website gives the most widespread, detailed local coverage in terms of tasting notes, but his largely derive from blind tastings, unlike with the foreign guys – and they come out in dribs and drabs rather than an eye- and mind-catching report.
Tim (whom I suppose no-one would accuse of false modesty) points out that he visits the country “twice a year and, I believe, taste more of its wines on a regular basis than anyone outside the Cape”. I’m sure that’s true, and in fact I think he’s politely over-generous in suggesting the possible exception of those “inside the Cape”. Excluding the experience gained by blind tastings (from which I think its fair to say that no taster learns anything really useful) it’s probably true that no local taster has anything aproaching the breadth of tasting experience that Tim (and the few other foreigners) do.
That said, there are some curious gaps that a quick look at his report reveals – even well-known wineries, like Colmant, which some would put as the leading Cape bubbly producer. Less well-known ones missing, ones that I would have thought deserved to be tasted, would include Restless River, Intellego and no doubt a few others.
I would suggest that perhaps the few of us Cape-based critics who make some real effort have greater depth of experience in many cases than the foreigners – in my own case I probably visit more vineyards than Tim Atkin does, do repeat tastings of some wines much more, speak to a few winemakers and viticulturists more often, at greater depth, etc etc. But I don’t each year taste through so many wineries’ complete ranges. It’s two years since I tasted Keermont, for example, (a “Third Growth” for Tim), longer for its neighbour De Trafford (two rungs lower in Tim’s scale). I’m not sure I agree with the ratings for these wineries – but I’d have to do a bit of work to justify the disagreement.
Many of the judgements made by the foreign critics who come here are the result of big tastings. Of course, there are also many winery visits, but there are also mass-tastings. Making important judgements based on them is not something I’d be keen on doing myself (though I accept that TA’s concentration is better than mine, and just maybe also his ability to disentangle the tannins of wine number 50 from those of wine numbers 49 and 51).
But I’m pretty sure that there’s no local wine journalist that does the amount of work that he does – all year round, the whole world round, I mean. On the other hand, his hard and excellent and well-communicated work makes him, I guess, one of the best-paid wine journalists in the world, which is certainly not true of any of the local contingent.
More to the point here, no local critics get the assistance received by the handful of important foreigners who pay attention to Cape wine. If I visit the Hemel en Aarde or Swartland, or go to the former’s Pinot festival, I pay for my own petrol to get there and my ticket and accommodation and must make my own arrangements. Whereas the likes of Tim only have to nod to WOSA to get visits and line-ups and more-or less whatever he wants arranged for him. We locals could get a great deal closer to tasting all the wines of South Africa each year with that sort of back-up! The point is, I suppose, that the prestigious foreigners sell more wine with their recommendations (at least overseas) than we do – few local wine journalists have any sort of international reputation or exposure.
Another “sideways” point occurred to me. Have the big, important foreigners (Atkin, Martin, Molesworth), with all their international expertise and experience, even been the first to notice an important trend in Cape wine? Or identified an important new producer before the local critics have done so? Not that I’m aware of. Not that it matters, and it would be a bad indictment of local wine-judging and wine-comment if it were the case. But let’s give credit where it’s due
So. It’s an undoubted advantage to the Cape wine industry to have these enthusiastic and wide-ranging international reports being prepared – a pity there aren’t more, in fact. And Tim’s report is beautifully and enthusiastically presented. And thoughtful – his introduction and “ten things you need to know about Cape wines” is an excellent summary of the state of play.
Of course, I don’t agree with all of Tim’s rankings or ratings – he wouldn’t expect anyone to necessarily do that. It’s a totally plausible effort, and one that, as I’ve suggested, he is more qualified to make than most (let’s leave it at that) people.
The one area of the report that I find actually problematical, however, is a lack of clarity as to how he arrives at his rankings into his six categories (First to Fifth “Growths”, on the Bordeaux 1855 Classification model, plus the rather confused Cru Bourgeois thing).
He’s brave about rewarding wineries with only one vintage to their credit – so that in 2013, for example, Savage Wines was placed as a lofty Second Growth. Yet this year, Beeslaar is one of only a handful of wines scoring 96 points (higher than Duncan Savage has got for his two wines) – but Abri only makes it to the Cru Bourgeois level. Why?
Crystallum is this year promoted to the very highest category, with wines scoring between 92 and 94 points, and Raats is promoted to Second Growth status with scores of 91-93. Yet Mount Abora (with 91, 93 and 94 for its three wines) languishes near the bottom. Huh? is this fair?
Keet is only a Fourth Growth, with his wine scoring 95 (same score as Savage wines – is Chris penalised for having only one wine?), while Kershaw is two rungs lower, with the same score for his Chardonnay (the Kershaw Syrah not tasted, apparently). It would be nice to have an indication of the logic and thinking behind these rather random examples. Perhaps next year? Either way, we’ll all, no doubt, be looking forward to Tim’s 2015 Report.