We speak about “good” and “one of the best” pretty easily – but drawing up a list of what one thinks of as the top 20 South African wineries is not an easy process. Just try it. Chances are that, like me, you’ll start off blithely enough (so long as you don’t have to rank them). But once you get past the ten that are obvious enough (to you, anyway) things become tricky.
Anyway, every few years for the past decade or so I’ve rustled up a team of wine professionals as pollsters and asked them to bend their minds in just such a way, from which I’ve compiled an overall Top 20 list. (Here’s a link to the Top 20 of two years ago.) The process of producing the fifth such list is underway – such is the dynamism of the Cape wine industry that it is highly unlikely to be identical to the last: rankings will have changed, a few wineries will have fallen off, a few will have clambered on.
Obviously any claims for the definitiveness of such a list must be limited – different understandings, different tastes play a role, and other voters might give a different result. All just a matter of perception, one could scoff. Well, yes, indeed, but that it precisely part of the point. Looking at the change in perceptions (which do relate to reality, after all), since the first poll, is fascinating.
The idea is to pull in a substantial bunch of people with a good-as-possible overview of what is going on in the industry as well as a sound capacity for making a judgement: not only the usual wine writers and judges, but sommeliers and retailers too. This year, of the 30+ people I’ve invited to submit their lists, five are top international wine critics – with some serious foreign attention now being paid to Cape wine it seems a good idea to invoke their opinions too.
Problems…. Well, there are so many competing claims, so many possibilities. So many criteria. For example – how do you balance the claims of a small winery producing just one or two excellent wines in tiny quantities against a much larger concern managing to produce a whole range of very good wines in bigger quantities, even if none of them is absolutely top notch? What about a winery with one excellent wine, but also some mediocre ones – do the latter cancel out the former in an overall judgement or should they be ignored?
And the real problem: nobody these days can keep adequately up to date on a regular basis with all the possible candidates in the Cape. Meanwhile, everyone is subject to general hype (or the lack thereof) and this inevitably colours perceptions in those cases where we are not in a position to make a judgement ourselves.
So far, I’ve had responses from about half of those I invited (only one, Neil Pendock, has specifically indicated that he doesn’t wish to participate, though another is only “hoping to find the time”, and no doubt a few others don’t even have the time to tell me that!).
Of course, it is proving fascinating to enter the results onto a spreadsheet as they come in and start observing the patterns (previously, as I’m pretty illiterate with spreadsheet programs, I used simple tables in Word, and added things up manually – this is a great improvement).
Basically the final list will depend simply on the number of votes cast for the wineries. I actually asked the voters to give me two lists: a top five (but unranked) and then the fifteen others to make a total of 20. This strategy has already shown itself peculiarly relevant this year, in the most interesting of the few statistics that I can so far give.
Half-way through, the growing list shows 67 different wineries nominated altogether – many of them only once, some by the majority of voters. Of these, 24 have been nominated amongst the top five – again, some of them only once (so far). It is, of course, a good sign that there are so many producer candidates thought to be plausible finalists.
But, slightly oddly to me, only two producers have been nominated amongst the Top 20 by every single voter (will this number dwindle further?). One of these producers is also leading the Top 5 list. The other has not been named by a single person in the Top 5 – which shows a remarkable bit of consistent judgement.
Anyway – I’m hoping the list can be finalised by next week. It should be published in the Mail & Guardian newspaper on 6 April (on the 360th anniversary of van Riebeek’s landing, it occurs to me), and possibly on their website the same day; then I’ll post it on Grape with a longer commentary the following week.