Guilding the lily

It’s not really surprising that a couple of high-level American wine-critics differed radically from some mere locals in their opinons of some Cape Winemakers Guild Auction wines – particularly the reds (see the press release). Michael Fridjhon, Christian Eedes and I, tasting blind like the Americans, tended to be more critical of heavily oaked, ultra-ripe wines – which is precisely the style of [Robert] Parkerised wine that mainstream Americans like and reward. (See here for an overview of the local scores, and links to full tasting notes.)

To an extent it comes down to individual aesthetic (if a taster posesses one, and it’s pretty obvious that even some prominent commentators do not), and this is why individual judgements are so much more useful than the amalgamated scores of panels. If your tastes tend to coincide with those of the American School, you would be well advised to pay attention to what the likes of Stephen Tanzer and James Molesworth have to say (they’re the ones who wrote about the CWG wines). If you’re a reactionary like me, with older-style Bordeaux as your benchmark, I’d venture to suggest that my opinion of Boschkloof and Louis wines would be a more useful guide to you. Whereas if Eedes, Fridjhon, James, Tanzer and Molesworth scores had been averaged, the result would be even less meaningful than scores usually are.

A few other points emerging from the trans-Atlantic comparison interest me. One is that there was a little more consensus on the white wines, simply because the South Africans were more harsh on the reds. It’s not enough, of course, to say that we locals think that our white wines are better than our reds (the tasters in question probably do share that belief – I hold it pretty strongly). Why is this?

There are various reasons, but one of them, I’m convinced, is that the dominant type of ambitious winemaker is more determined to push harder with the red wines (demanding more ripeness, using more extractive winemaking methods, using more new oak) than with whites. In other words, South African winemakers tend to muck up their red wines more than their whites (in fact I suspect this is a common international problem, stemming from the Parker ueber-concern with cabernet and other red varieties).

Another interesting point of comparison is the comparatively high scoring of the Americans – something that the press release put out by the CWG  points out. I’ve just looked at Christian Eedes’s comments on the same subject as I’m dealing with here, and I do agree with him that the likely reason is, in my words, the naivety and prejudice of the Americans in this case. They have accepted the CWG spiel that these wines represent the best of South Africa, whereas anyone who knows the local industry well would have little trouble disputing that. Some of the CWG wines are among the best, some are far off it, and many other wines would rank as highly.

More importantly, I think, for Tanzer and Molesworth to both score all these wines within the incredibly narrow ranges they do (Tanzer 87-93 out of the inevitable 100; Molesworth 86-93) is, frankly, nonsensical, and surely argues a surprising degree of either cynicism or insecurity.

Anyway, the Auction goes ahead this coming Saturday, and I suspect that those involved are a little jittery. Partly because the always-implicit comparison with the Nederburg Auction is a bit more of a challenge this year, with Nederburg having rallied so well (as it should, with many of the wines it had on offer – last year was a shocking under-performance in relation to the quality then). Partly because the sagging economy might well affect the often absurd prices paid last year (especially for those wines which are little different from the winemakers’ more standard offerings, whatever the PR gush tells punters). If Alan Pick, the Guild’s patron saint holds back, as looks likely, and no-one steps into the breach, things could collapse. One CWG winemaker whose wine didn’t get selected this year suggested to me that this was, in fact, a good year to have not been selected. And I like to think (though without confidence) that things might go less well partly because more people will decide that half the wines on offer are not really worth paying very much for….

On the not-selected note, I can’t see that any of the members is due for the chop this year as a result of not having had a wine chosen for three successive auctions. But next year the pressure is going to be, according to my laborious computations, on Jan Boland Coetzee, Pieter Ferreira and Carl Shultz – who haven’t pleased the selectors for two years now.

We also have two new members – Rianie Strydom and Boela Gerber – who did not have wines selected this year. It is surely somewhat absurd that these two are welcomed to the self-proclaimed elite, and yet are then immediately told that they haven’t made a wine good enough to go on auction (in company with David Trafford and Marc Kent amongst others, of course). I do hear rumours of recognition amongst some members that the whole system is rather silly, in fact, and wouldn’t be entirely surprised if they adopt the rather more sensible idea that each member, having been adjudged a fine winemaker, should be allowed to put a wine on auction. Then leave it up to the much-revered market.

Even the more self-satisfied of the present regime must surely be cognisant that the very real risk next year of ignominiously sending off the country’s finest maker of bubbly and one of its finest makers of shiraz is going to reflect rather more on this problematic organisation than on the winemakers consigned to oblivion.

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