Sublime and ridiculous at the Trophy Wine Show

I have not the slightest doubt that I could, with a bit of time and formal research, justify the generalisation that all wine competition results (the ones that involve large-scale blind tastings) are a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous. Further, that I could generally construct out of the also-rans a more plausible list of winners than the actual list.

The three foreign judges at the 2017 TWS with owner and chair of the judges Michael Fridjhon

But I would concede that the better the judging process (doomed by the scale of the enterprise more than anything else – no-one can properly judge 150 wines in one go), and the better the quality of judge, the greater the proportion of sublimity in the results and the fewer absurdities. That’s why the results of, say, the Trophy Wine Show are likely to interest me a little more than those of some other local competitions. It is of course also the reason why, for example, the Michelangelo Awards version is going to attract more entries – in the expensive game of lottery that a competition is, any wine, however mediocre, stands a better chance of doing well in a competition like that, as the results amply testify each year.

Last week I was grateful as ever for the long-suffering Michael Fridjhon, owner of the TWS, inviting me to the “masterclass” where he, in undoubted masterly fashion, presents a tasting of the show’s latest trophy winners to an appreciative large roomful of “high net worth individuals” and other guests of his sponsor, Old Mutual. (Michael generously invites me, that is, knowing that I’m unlikely to not offer a touch or two of ridicule.)

It would be worth going just for the spectacular views across Cape Town from the 28th floor of the FNB building. But this last presentation had a very respectable number of sublimities, and not too many ridiculousnesses.

The whites were – inevitably? – superior to the reds and interestingly, all quite high-priced; I’m not sure that there’s anything under R100 here, and some a great deal more. The two best were the most expensive, and an interesting pair. Let’s give them both 18/20. With both Tokara Director’s Reserve White 2015 and DeMorgenzon Reserve Chardonnay 2016 my initial reaction was nothing to do with terroir or soul, but just an awareness of how beautifully crafted they are – in rather different ways. The Tokara has the serene aloofness, touched with elegance on the edge of austerity, that Miles Mossop does so well and characteristically. An aristocrat of a wine, if I may descend to class analysis, while the DeMorgenzon is more touched by nouveau riche overt charm, the oak a little showy in youth, but the generosity well controlled. A very fine wine that needs time more than the Tokara does to achieve perfect harmony.

At 17/20 I’ll put Stark-Condé Round Mountain Sauvignon Blanc 2016, an impressive example of  its type, though I personally don’t much enjoy its gently sweaty pungency. Neither tropical nor green, quite intense, rounded and not harsh, with a notably long finish. Credo Limited Release Verdelho 2015 (from Stellenbosch Vineyards) same sort of quality level. I noted: “Some spice, precise and clean, elegant. Very fresh, lively.  Fine. Good fruit. Good length.” And Constantia Uitsig Méthode Cap Classique Brut 2013 is a good example of warmer-country (in international terms) bubbly; fresh enough, but lightly fruity and ripely sumptuous, with fruit-sweetness.

Three whites at a notch down for me: Deetlefs Familie White Semillon 2014 has good varietal character and decent balance, but unexciting. Some oak on the nose but my problem with it was that I thought it basically a bit flabby, with acid piling in on the finish, achieving some sort of balance but not harmony.

Cavalli Cremello 2015 (from chenin, verdelho and chardonnay) I found rather odd, but my note is inadequate and I can’t remember why. Creamy, custardy aromas rather too overt. Quite rich, but also some nice tang. Darling Cellars Old Bush Vines Chenin Blanc 2016 is very pleasant, but is trying a bit too hard, especially with the oak. A bit rough on the finish I thought.

The reds

There were no real duds with the whites, but I thought the reds came closer. One wine at 18-point level: the Leeuwenkuil Heritage Syrah 2014. I wonder if this is the first time that a small volume, top end syrah from the modern Swartland has ever been entered into this or any other competition? This one, from a Riebeekberg vineyard, made for Leeuwenkuil at Reyneke by Rudiger Gretschel (probably the Cape’s least-known top-class winemaker). It’s a great wine: dry and spicy; restrained, even austere, light but intense savoury palate – and the only genuinely dry finish amongst the whole red line-up.

I also much liked the De Krans Tritonia 2015, a Portuguese-variety blend: Lovely forward fruit. Clean dry fruitiness, well managed. Savoury. Weighty but not heavy, firm, balanced tannins. Very good, convincing. Tannins great. Still young.

And the Paul Wallace Brave Heart Pinot Noir 2015 (an Elgin wine completely new to me): Typical pinot nose, red black cherry fruit, a touch burnt. A little fragrant. Fairly obvious oak. Good. Structured by acid more than the actually respectable, well managed tannins.

A few steps down in quality terms was the Secret Cellar Merlot Malbec Cabernet Sauvignon No. 702 2015. Certainly an attractive wine, at a very good price (best value gold medallist ) and with a lot of upfront malbec character – loganberry aromas and flavour. It has a decent tannic structure – but I wonder if there’s enough genuine intensity to see out the integration of the structure. Not a serious contender, I’d have thought.

The “best cab” award went to Landzicht Winemaker’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 another first, surely: Free State fruit vinified in the Northern Cape. Not bad, and pleasingly classic in style, but a touch too simple and obvious; again, these rather tough tannins won’t be matched by surviving fruit when they’re properly tamed by time.

The Bordeaux red trophies were all disappointing (but languishing among the bronze medallists were the likes of Delaire Graff Botmaskop 2015, Buitenverwachting Christine 2012, Kleine Zalze Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Morgenster Reserve 2013, Rustenberg Peter Barlow Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Tokara Director’s Reserve Red 2013… see what I meant earlier about constructing a more plausinble list of winners out of the also-rans?) But the more complex and interesting  Buitenverwachting Meifort 2014 was the least disappointing – though those who dislike the herbal character often found in cabernet will disagree and go for fruitier options. And a genuinely good value wine – the only one apart from the Secret Cellars blend at under R100.

One pinotage, Bosman Family Vineyards 2014. Plenty of fruit sweetness and a sweet finish that put me off, despite the presence of some good acidity. Plush, but also some delicate charm, and not oaky.

The dessert wines

Buitenverwachting “1769” 2014 I found too overtly muscatty for my tastes. But well made, pure and with a clean, dryish finish. Boplaas Cape Vintage Reserve 2015 also had the dryness of finish which I find important in a fine sweet wine. Plenty of intensity and well balanced, but as so often with local vintage “ports” I really want more youthful tannic bite to feel assured that the wine has a long, complex future as well as being undeniably lovely in youth.

The evening struggle

Round one tonight was a disaster. A walkover. A very nice new chardonnay from Mont Blois (of which more shortly but not today) had provided a few delightful preprandial sips. I thought it might survive a forkful or two of … Continue reading