Competition problems and pleasures

Michael Fridjhon, Chair and Convenor of the Trophy Wine Show (and also part-owner, which doesn’t usually get mentioned), actually raises part of the problem with competitions early on in his introduction to Icons, the book giving the results of the Show. He points out that: “Research conducted at a number of American wine shows reveals that many of the so-called experts are at best inconsistent, and at worst simply incompetent.”

He then proceeds to intelligently argue the case for “a formal screening process”, for “critical interpretation”. Fair enough, and I would agree with him. Up to the point, that is, where sheer bluff takes over and he asserts that “the competition has acquired an enviable reputation for the prescience and accuracy of its judgements”!

But I do have severe doubts as to whether these big tastings (often well over 100 wines tasted in a day, many of them retasted at least once) is the best way of doing it.  Blind or sighted is not the point, nor is the abstract “competency” of the judges: the problem is the sheer stress on the palate, such factors as the build-up of tannin on the palate, tiredness from the necessary concentration, etc that make the task an impossible one for even the most gifted palate. As well, of course, as the artificiality of the whole process.

Hence some very odd results (as well as some good ones) in all competitions, and hence inconsistency – however good and respectworthy the judges may be. I would genuinely value the considered opinion of the TWS judges (well, not quite all of them, but most) on Blankenberg Shiraz 2010 if they pondered it over a slow glassful. And I’d pay attention to their view after tasting it in a moderately-paced line-up of 20, even 30. But I don’t give a damn as to what they think of the wine, having swirled, sniffed, sipped and spat it when it arrived at number 100 on their line-up….

Some odd results, as I say. Not only in the top-scorers – and most of these were decent-enough wines – but in the also-rans. Of course, the wines that score outside the medal table don’t get mentioned (it doesn’t encourage producers to enter if they know that they could really lose out if consumers are informed of a total failure – rather leave it uncertain whether they entered the wine or not).

So we don’t know, for example, that The Foundry Roussanne was entered, because it failed to get even a bronze. Yet I would bet a lot of money that the majority of the judges, if I gave them a glassful of that wine now, would rate it as highly as I did (I wrote about the wine here). I would guess that the Glenelly Lady May was entered (as other Glenelly wines were), but if so it also didn’t get into the bronze medal league, though it is one of the loveliest and most elegant of our Bordeaux-style blends.

But we do know from Icons that, for example, Kanonkop’s magnificent Paul Sauer 1995, which many would reckon as one of the Cape’s finest red-wine achievements in recent decades, scored a mere 74 out of 100 (so did the 2008) – rather less than some pretty dubious stuff (in my opinion). And we know that the 2005 vintage of Graham Beck Cuvée Clive, widely reckoned as amongst South Africa’s best bubblies, scored a little bit less than that – and rather less, in fact, than Tulbagh Winery Pinotage Doux 2010, a sweetish carbonated wine (which I haven’t tasted).

Etc, etc, etc.

Anyway, I was grateful to Michael for the opportunity once more to attend his so-called “Masterclass”, where he presents a tasting of all the gold-medallists (except for the Museum Class ones, which are usually in short supply), largely to what I think must be “high net worth individuals”, who are guests of the competition’s bank sponsors.

The wines are presented at a great pace, unfortunately, giving insufficient opportunity to taste, reflect and make a few notes. I did try, and give those notes below, but I probably wouldn’t utterly swear by all of my judgements.

It is clear from my scores that I thought rather less highly of most of the wines than the TWS judges did (or thought at the time that they did!). I’d have certainly swopped many of them, with the greatest pleasure, for The Foundry Roussane, Paul Sauer, Lady May, or Cuvée Clive….



Notes on most of the gold-medal (including trophy-winning) wines at the 2011 Trophy Wine Show

Scores are out of 20

Tokara Zondernaam Sauvignon Blanc 2010 Nice perfume, some pyrazene notes, also pasionfruit; plenty of flavour, fairly soft and lightly rich, easy-going, with moderate fruity length and not much prospect for development. 15.5

Buitenverwachting Husseys Vlei Sauvignon Blanc 2010 More “masculine”, less showy than the Tokara. Full, deep, hidden power. Has some genuine character, and a potential for acquiring more interest with a few years. 17

Delaire Coastal Cuvee Sauvignon Blanc 2010 Shows good acidity, beautifully balanced, combining authoritative, elegant austerity with subtle fruit. Good rich mouthfeel helped by a little semillon and tiny oak influence. Very long finish. 17

Spier Creative Block 2 (Sauvignon Blanc Semillon) 2010 Dominant sauvignon character complexified by semillon lemon and waxiness – especially on the palate. Smart, very correct; reasonably balanced acidity, but no real depth or character. 16

Chamonix Reserve Chardonnay 2009 Still showing plenty of spicy oak, along with citic richness. Needs lot of time for oak to integrate – the depth, weight of the fruit reveals how much concentration, allied with finesse, there is. 17.5 [ Later comment: If I’d been tasting blind, I’d probably have scored the wine lower because of its overt oakiness – but judging by older Chamonix chards, I know that this wine is likely to be at its peak in a minimum of five years, and the oak will become much less apparetn – though I do wonder if it is actually not too much….]

Paul Cluver Chardonnay 2009 Most beguiling aromas, a little nuttiness and oatmeal, beautifully integrated oak. Succulent acidity. Subtle, effortless, luminous. Suggestion of pure fruit sweetness on very long finish. 18

Sutherland Viognier Roussanne 2009 The subtlest of peach notes on nose. Interesting – big flavour, big acidity, nice flavours, broad, subtle oak influence. A country-style wine perhaps, rather than highly polished. 16 [Later: I see I tasted this wine for Platter last year and gave it four stars, and said it should the promise of complexity in a year or two – and I do think it’s getting there.]

Fleur du Cap Unfiltered Special White blend 2010 Very impressive, powerful, well-balanced, earthy note, with lovely peachy notes carrying the long finish. 18

Jordan Riesling 2009 Quite developed kerosene-earthy note on lovely, interesting nose. Fresh. Peach echoes, persistent, with great flavour. Very nice balance of acidity with touch of softening sugar. Will it develop further? I doubt it – and I wouldn’t want the petrolly character to get any stronger, which it surely will. 16

Meerlust Pinot Noir 2009 Plenty of charm on nose, with subtly earthy raspberry aromas and flavours. A real incipient complexity, with an edge of savoury forest floor adding to the lively, pure fruit. Very approachable as well as being already interesting in its youth. 17

Hillcrest Quarry Merlot 2009 Medium colour. A touch of pleasing herbaceousness along with good bright red fruit, very well balanced by the oaking. Quite elegant. A lightly firm tannic finish. Very well made, and delightfully unpretentious (just like its winemaker). 16

Hillcrest Quarry Merlot 2008 Sweeter, showier fruit on nose than the 2009, with choc edge. More herbaceousness on palate, but also more joyous, red fruit. Rather lovely and lively. Fresh tannin. 16.5

KWV The Mentors Orchestra 2009 Rather modern Bordeaux-style blend, fruity nose, sweet fruit, very commercial styling, with soft, lightly firm tannins. More deftness and charm than depth or real interest. 16.5

Rijk’s Pinotage 2007 Clear varietal character, with forward fruit, a lot of structure. Clean, fairly fresh, with sweet, but bright red fruit – cherry, raspberry. Attractive, appealing, plush, tasty. Very good modern style, though rather too big for my tastes. 17

Ormonde Theodore Eksteen 2008 Very ripe aromas, spicy/smoky nose; showy. Again the sweet, smokey notes (from rather heavy-handed oak, I imagine) dominate the big, rather heavy palate. My most unfavourite of the line-up. 15

Spier Private Collection Shiraz 2008 Ripe, showy palate. Big sweet palate, but balanced and with a bit of vibrancy. Good tannic support and well-balanced acidity. Combines showy vulgarity with a bit of seriousness. Persistent flavour. Good wine of its type. 16.5.

Lomond Syrah 2008 Rather appealing. With some peppery spice. An element of fine leanness, if not elegance. 16.5

Thelema Shiraz 2007 Best Red Wine Overall Most complex and interesting and fresh of the three. Good tannic structure, some claims to elegance. Good length. Savoury, with good, integrated tannic structure. 17 [I gave this wine 4 stars in Platter last year, and think I perhaps mistakenly under-rated it then – sorry !]

Nederburg Private Bin Eminence Noble Late Harvest 2008 Fragrant, gently herbal nose, rich, the sweetness well balanced by acidity. Surprisingly subtle with its fruit-filled intensity, and lacking cloy, with full, rich body. 18

Nuy White Muscadel 2005 Most remarkable character. Great interest. Huge, but subtle, lovely succulent intensity, fairly thrillingly balanced with acidity, flavours which linger forever…. 17

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