Shiraz and the dear departed Widow

There’s something about Wine mag’s Shiraz Challenge that brings a little tear to my eye as the memory of The Widow comes to mind. It was always one of her favourite disasters. Some of you might remember her – her malicious gossip just survived into the online age, but she was a continuous presence on the back page of Grape in those scarcely believable days when we struggled to establish ourselves as a bichrome print magazine with none of the advertising that we believe compromises independence. (Can you believe our naivety!)

The Widow led to pretty serious near-lawsuits against me (as her editor…) from journalist/advertorial writer Graham Howe, lawyer John van den Berg, and the KWV in the person of their now-abandoned chief winemaker Sterik de Wet; as well as threats of lawsuits from, amongst others, a minor journalist/PR consultant and a major winewriter/blogger. It was a list of … er, people  that she was quite pleased to have displeased, but it all helped towards her untimely death – she was just 96!

As I say, I thought of her today, at the excellent lunch (at Catarina’s in Constantia) that accompanied the revelation of this year’s Shiraz Challenge results, and while subsequently browsing Wine mag itself. The winner, you might already know, was Saronsberg Provenance Shiraz 2007, a perfectly pleasant, fruity and unpretentious wine of no real significance – as probably Saronsberg would agree, as they have it in their second-level range. Their top-level Shiraz was not entered, apparently because they thought (correctly as it turned out!) that simple fruitiness was the best way of appealing to Wine’s judging panel.

The Top Ten mostly consisted of wines of little renown (which is fine in itself, but would be finer if more of the country’s top shirazes had entered the competition – the fact that so many stayed away should surely give Wine mag reason to be a little worried, unless it wants to end up like Veritas as a competition avoided by most of the top wineries). One could, in fact, as so often, construct a more exciting Top Ten list from wines at the bottom end of the results: how about the following as a Top Ten somewhat more plausible than the actual one (in fact, they all scored 2.5 stars or less, and there are more of this quality at that humble level):

  • Cederburg 2007
  • Kevin Arnold Nadine 2007
  • Lammershoek 2008
  • La Motte 2008
  • Neil Ellis Vineyard Selection 2006
  • Quoin Rock 2008
  • Rijk’s Estate 2007
  • Rustenberg Stellenbosch 2008
  • Stark-Condé Three Pines 2007
  • Vergelegen 2006

Interestingly, of the actual Top Ten, four declared alcohol levels of 15% or more (and only one was less than 14.5); while six had more than 3.3 grams per litre of residual sugar. Show wines winning shows? What a surprise!

Where, by the way, were the producers of last year’s two top-scoring wines, Diemersdal and Kango? – the latter vigorously defended at the time, in the face of my shocked disbelief, by panel chair Christian Eedes, but more recently dismissed by him (along with the Diemersdal) as worthy of a score of 14.83 (equivalent to 2.5 Wine mag stars) and as “eminently approachable but [not] very substantial”.

How mirthlessly the Widow would have chuckled. But what would the old bag have made of the rather incoherent editorial about shiraz in the magazine itself? Not just the style and meaningless obfuscations (“Syrah has been widely recognised as the Old World name and depicts a ‘French’ style”; etc), but the mistakes too: “James Bushby” for James Busby, and the assertion that syrah, apart from being “essential” to Hermitage is also “vital to the production of Châteauneuf-du-Pape” – which would seriously disconcert the pre-eminent Château Rayas, for example, which is not untypical in being made (virtually) entirely from the grape that is, in fact, the dominant one of the region, grenache, while syrah/shiraz is comparatively minor.

It is, of course, entirely possible to have an excellent editor of a magazine who’s not very adept at English prose and doesn’t know much about wine – but surely such an editor should know when to employ a ruthless and knowledgeable copy-editor? But that’s the sort of remark the Widow would have made, so I withdraw it unconditionally, except as an illustration of the sort of uncalled-for nastiness that got her into trouble so often and makes her absence so regretted by a few.


The results of the Shiraz Challenge are available on the Wine website

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