Vivent les juges!

The French are, as we know, a rather odd bunch, but we forgive them because they make some great wine. As the awards ceremony for the Classic Wine Trophy winners revealed last Friday night, they can also be rather rowdy – and just a soupçon patronising. Christophe Durand, however, has been here since 1995 and wasn’t rowdy at all. He makes a couple of very good wines here under the Vins d’Orrance label, and he’s also the man who now runs this annual competition in which French wine people judge South African wines, supposedly seeking out those great French virtues of restraint and elegance that they seem not to think appropriate to awards ceremonies. Christophe himself was an excellent MC, not rowdy at all, but urbane and handsome and, I dare say, chic.

The best of the (impromptu, I trust) speeches on the evening delivered by some of the 15 or so French judges, came from the very attractive Laure Gasparotto, who only had about 20 words of English, deployed with great charm, which meant it was a delightfully incomprehensible as well as brief interlude. Like all the French people’s speeches it was greeted with loud and good-humoured interruptions and cheers from all the other French people present, and a good deal of rushing about between the tables.

It was actually quite difficult to know who’d won what (especially as most of the wineries, with winemakers exhausted by the harvest, sent along less easily recognised people to pick up their certificates and, it looked like, medals on ribbons). But there were some of the winners on the tables (we were having dinner in a private room in the splendidly smart new Taj Hotel in Cape Town, which is carved out of old bank buildings and the like), and there was a press release afterwards, so I can confirm the golds and trophies, and will list them all at the end.

It must be said that, however rowdy they are, the French judges proved, as usual, to do perfectly adequately what wine competition judges seem to do around the world, whether they’re French or Swedish or American or Chilean. That is, when confronted by their absurd task of sipping and sniffing a great many wines in a short time and saying which are the best, they make some choices which seem fair enough, and some which don’t. And like everyone else, they’re often seduced by the  residual sugar, or showy oak, or alcoholic power which, when appraising a wine in a more sensible manner, they recognize as far from French classicism.

So, golds to elegant, classy wines like Hamilton Russell Chardonnay and La Motte Shiraz (first time I’ve had this for ages, and the 2008 is a stunner), but also for Rietvallei Estéanna, a delicious, ripe and rather simple Bordeaux blend, but with 3.5 grams per litre of sugar (and 14.1% alcohol) which might be fine, but certainly isn’t classic.  Warwick Trilogy 2006, which was the overall winner, is a suave and good wine, but surely more Napa Valley in style than Haut Médoc? Do we really need to have French judges coming out here to make a smooth, 14.5% alcohol wine the “best of show”?

The most controversial of the winners in our little circle was the “Best red wine” (presumably second-best to the best wine overall?), which was Vriesenhof Pinot Noir 2007. It seemed to us the slightest touch funky, and a little, er, rustic. The judges liked the pinot noir class, however, and their other two choices, Oak Valley and Sumaridge, were much approved by the carpers on the sidelines.

What the judges didn’t like this year was Sauvignon Blanc, which, given that they must have had some top examples from the widely applauded 2009 vintage, is rather strange. No golds. “Too green”, seemed to be their bottom line. Maybe they’re were just trying to play a bit of “vive la difference” because everyone else likes them. But on the whole, the French (or these ones anyway) seem to think we’re doing jolly well down here.


Santam Classic Wine Trophy (Overall Winner)

  • Warwick Wine Estate

Best White Wine Trophy

  • Hoopenberg ‘Integer’ Chardonnay 2006

Best Red Wine Trophy

  • Vriesenhof Pinot Noir 2007

Best Sweet Wine Trophy

  • Klein Constantia ‘Vin de Constance’ 2005

Gold Medals – White Wines

  • Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2009
  • Rudera Chenin Blanc 2008
  • Villiera ‘Traditional Barrel Fermented’ Chenin Blanc 2009
  • Vriesenhof Chardonnay 2009

Gold Medals – Red Wines

  • Cederberg Shiraz 2008
  • Chamonix ‘Greywacke’ Pinotage 2007
  • La Motte Shiraz 2008
  • Oak Valley Pinot Noir 2008
  • Reyneke ‘Reserve Red’ 2007
  • Rietvallei ‘Esteana’ 2007
  • Sumaridge Pinot Noir 2008
  • Veenwouden ‘Classic’ 2006
  • Warwick ‘Trilogy’ 2006

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