In Veritas veritas? I don’t think so

Some people this year seem to be taking the Veritas results a bit too seriously or a bit too sentimentally. Veritas is the most important of the local wine competitions I agree: those little metallic circles sell more wine than any other competition awards do, but that doesn’t mean much in itself. I attended the tasting of golds and double-golds put on in Cape Town (clearly some think the opposite, but it seems rather more useful as a basis for making comments to actually taste the winning wines than put on the dinner jacket I don’t possess and go to listen to the speeches at the awards ceremony!), and two things immediately struck me.

Firstly, just how extremely and embarrassingly white the wine culture of the Western Cape still is (at the fancy level, at least). Secondly, more a propos, just how few of the wineries one might expect to see winning double-gold and gold were actually there. Veritas is still the biggest of the competitions, but for various reasons it seems that a larger and larger proportion of the entrants are from the less grand section of the Cape’s producers. Which means that fewer and fewer of the winners are too. Of course there are still some of the big names: Ernie Els, Buitenverwachting, Cape Point, Jordan, Tokara; and more of  the middle-ranking ones, which is where the weight seems to be. (I realise I am flying a rather provocative and fragile kite here, but let it try to soar for a moment.)

Vergelegen and Kanonkop both participated in Veritas a few years ago, as I recall – and seem not to do so any more (unless they didn’t even make bronze). Significantly, for example, Dombeya was present but not Haskell (two ranges by one producer), whereas a Haskell wine was entered in the Trophy Wine Show. And Woolworths seem to enter more of their more “popular” wines (the Longmarket range crops up often amongst the medallists) than their most expensive ones. Of course there may be all sorts of reasons for such choices other than thinking of Veritas as a slightly more downmarket event, but the fact remains that you are likely to see rather more cheap wines among the medals (that is, wines not aimed at the most demanding sectors and not commanding the prices usually accorded to serious wines) than at the Trophy Wine Show or Michelangelo. (I am not an admirer of those, or any such competitions either, by the way – the conditions of judging make them all more or less equivalent to games of roulette.)

And the preponderance of co-ops and second-labels is not only because Veritas seems to have a very soft spot for muscadels and the like (20 of the 149 golds and double-golds went to fortified wines!). Whether it matters or not is another question entirely. I’m aware of the fact that price is not a reliable guide to quality but, the market being what it is (and heaven knows I am hardly an admirer of the free market) the tendency for the highest quality products to claim the highest prices is there. So too is the fact that really good wine is expensive to produce – through lower yields, more labour-intensive viticulture and viniculture, expensive oak, etc).

For those who think that high honours should be awarded to only the best wines, Veritas is perhaps an even more dubious proposition than, say, the Trophy Wine Show or Wine magazine’s tastings. And though I think that point could be made on the basis of a reasonable general knowledge of the Cape wine industry, I actually tasted some of the more modest wines. I also tasted some of the more expensive, and I can assure you that I preferred Bon Courage Hillside White 2009 to Glen Carlou’s pricey, overwooded and oversweet Quartz Stone Chardonnay 2008 (both got gold medals). The Hillside White is a most attractive, easy-drinking wine, and excellent value – but I don’t think it is gold-medal quality. Even less do I think that Bonnievale CCC White is, though it’s pleasant enough.

Still in the blended white category though moving to wooded versions, both of those scored higher than Cape Point Isliedh, Nederburg Ingenuity White and Tokara White, and much higher than Val de Vie’s GVC. My problem, it should be clear, is not a question of price or reputation: if there is any meaning to the concept of high quality in wine according to the standards vaguely accepted by experienced and devoted winelovers around the world, then the silver and bronze medal winners listed above are, quite simply, better wines than than the two gold medallists mentioned. I’ve drunk all of them and I am quite sure of this. Not because they are more expensive (to different degrees) – in this case the price difference is consequent upon the quality difference. I don’t think Windmeul deserves to have three red wines scoring gold or double gold, or that Du Toitskloof Nebbiolo should be there – not because they’re modestly priced but because they are of, at best, modest quality (even if the last of them has oaky ideas far above its station!).

And when Alexanderfontein NAd Table bay Sauvignons get double gold while the fine Lomond and Nederburg Private Bin versions get bronze, it might be seen as triumph for populism and of the democracy of blind tasting – but it is not a triumph for quality. It is as laughable as some of the ratings in Wine mag’s recent sauvignon tasting.

This sort of problem is common to all competitions. So please let’s not get too sentimental or respectful in relation to Veritas.  It is more likeable than the other competitions because its aim is less about making money and it’s generally less pretentious. But the results are as randomly sensible/nonsensical as they always have been (remember the long and glorious double gold run enjoyed by Bon Vino?). I do suspect, though, that the judges each year have a rather smaller selection of the Cape’s best wines to choose to either reward or ignore.

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