The aesthetic of the Trophy Wine Show trophies

TWSIt’s curious; or at least I find a bit curious. On Wednesday evening I was privileged to attend what Michael Fridjhon calls a “Masterclass” for guests of the sponsors of his Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, where fourteen 2016 trophy winners were tasted at a sit-down function. I go to such things keen to taste, but entirely sceptical, as ever, about the value of a bunch of judges setting down to taste a hundred and more wines a day and coming up with results that are convincing more often than they’re not. And nothing happened to shake that long-formed opinion at this tasting: there were, in my opinion, a few excellent wines, and at least a few that were little more than ordinary, and some in between (and the competition’s list of bronzes inevitably included a few that merited being amongst the gold medallists and trophies than some that got there). But there was a definite, and rather impressive pattern to the trophy-winners: they didn’t, for the most part, fit into the mould of “typical” show-winners – big, bold, sweet, oaky.

FridjhonQuite the reverse, in fact. Michael Fridjhon likes to say that, as per his guidance to judges, the TWS tends to reward elegance, etc rather than power, etc – and this year that seems to have been largely the case (at least as far as the trophy winners are concerned). It might even be said that the avoidance of oaky power went to an opposite extreme, as at least a few of these wines were light on substance, I thought, as well as lighter in style.

Another, unquestionably  happy, factor worth noting is that at least half of the trophy winners retail at around R100 or less. There’s a connection, of course, in that it’s wines designed to have expensive grandeur that tend to have ultra-ripeness and lots of new oak foisted on them. I remember in the 1990s when Australia was all the fashion (in a style that it’s now growing out of to an extent) that I always preferred the “second-label” or lesser-vintage or anyway cheaper stuff – precisely because these were the wines that hadn’t suffered from the full treatment.

A neat illustration of exactly this point (and its relevance to the TWS judges) was present in the trophy tasting in the form of the Gabriëlskloof The Blend 2013. This is, in fact, the producer’s second-label Bordeaux-style blend; the top one, Five Arches 2012, was also entered in the competition and did well, getting a silver medal, but scoring 12 points less than its “little brother”. (This sort of thing happens all the time of course, and elsewhere I might adduce it as an indication of the judges getting things wrong, but here it helps my point, so I won’t!)

As it happens, I had tasted Gabriëlskloof wines for Platter, and noted the heavy oaking on the Five Arches, and said of the Blend that it was “less oaky so fruit shows more, though less intense in fact.” Incidentally, I scored the Blend 3.5 stars (half a star less than Five Arches), which is pretty much what I thought it deserved at this tasting. A nice wine, but hardly a leader.

The cheapie that I thought showed best, and that I much appreciated, was the 2015 Chenin  Blanc from Ultra Liquor’s Secret Cellar Range – R33 I think it is. We’re not allowed to know the origin of this wine, but I gathered from something said by Mark Norrish, the immensely talented wine selector for Ultra, that it is not a grand origin (unlike last year’s Secret Cellar gold medal winner, a Bordeaux blend that was eventually revealed to have come from DeMorgenzon).

Another decent enough inexpensive wine is the Brampton Pinotage, 2014: “Good restrained nose, nice pinot noir character. Quite elegant and restrained, juicy, tasty, easy and very pleasant”, my tasting note read. But surely not more than that!

And another: Stellar Organics No Sulphur Added Shiraz 2015. “Delicate fragrance, lily herbal quality. Ripe, no obvious oak. Quite light, not a lot of substance really. Well balanced, quite fresh, with sweet fruit. Savoury too”.

On the other hand, I didn’t much care for Zonnebloem Shiraz Mourvèdre Viognier 2014. As for Landzicht Wit Muskadel 2015, well, I confess I like muscadel poured over vanilla ice-cream, and not much any other way. But I did think it was more enjoyable than the vastly pricier Nederburg Eminence NLH 2012, and less egregiously muscatty.

Groote Post Merlot 2014 is something over R100, and can stay on the shelf as far as I’m concerned. Usual ripe plum combo with herbal trim; a savoury element, but sweetish on the finish. Probably my least liked of these trophy wines, and I can’t conceive how it got there. Franschhoek Vineyards Semillon 2014, a bit cheaper, is a very decent example, but hardly benchmark stuff.

Trophy winners I admired more? Well, Vrede en Lust Artisan Cabernet Franc 2014 from cool Elgin is pretty nice. “Quite light colour. Fresh nose, not green, but lightly spicy. Quite elegant and light, though with a touch of sweetness. Probably will develop well. Nice dry tannic structure.”

More emphatically I liked Nederburg Heritage Heroes The Young Airhawk Wooded Sauvignon Blanc 2015. “Subtle oak on nose. Touch of florality. Very good acid, reasonable length. Actually quite a forceful acid, rather than really vibrant. Beautifully oaked, giving texture. Correct and very good rather than thrilling, though.”

I admired very much, more than I actually liked (not my style) Rustenberg Five Soldiers Chardonnay 2013. “Attractively youthful oaky nose, with genuine early complexity. Exuberant, showy, NW style. Very good of its type. V well balanced, with convincing acid. Quite rich, sumptuous. Youthful, should develop nicely.”

And I really didn’t much care for Tokara Director’s Reserve 2014 (White), although I’ve always enjoyed this wine in the past. But this is very showy, with powerfully blackcurrant and sweaty tropical flavours – almost monolithic in its fruit intensity. Some nice succulence, though a touch soft. Maybe better and less vulgar than it seemed to me last night.

DelairegraffcabBy quite a way, my top wine of the tasting was the impressive, superbly poised Delaire Graff Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2013.  Along with the Nederburg Sauvignon (with maybe the KWV Classic Collection Cape Tawny NV not too far behind), probably the only wine in the line-up that I think anywhere near the head of a list of South African wines.

But, of course, the majority of the leading Cape wineries don’t enter competitions. Unless they scored even below bronze level (entirely possible of course) it looks like about three-quarters of the Grape Top 20 South African Wineries list didn’t take part in this one.


• These winners and many more winners can be tasted at the OMTWS public tastings.

  • Cape Town: Friday 3rd June, Cape Town International Convention Square, 6pm.
  • Johannesburg: Friday 10th June, Sandton Convention Centre, 6pm

For more details, as well as all the results, go to the TWS website


2 thoughts on “The aesthetic of the Trophy Wine Show trophies

  1. There is always a temptation to reward what is not there, rather than what is during such large brackets and intensive tasting full of aspirational wines.

    This is usually the job of the roving chairperson/s to mitigate.

    I hope M Fridjhon did his duty. 🙂


  2. This has become a trend in various Australian shows too. The attempt to reward ‘elegance’ has often resulted in dilute flavored, unambitious wines getting pushed up to the gold/trophy section. Would be interesting to have a tasting of all the trophy wines five years down the track.

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