Listing the best as best I can

SAtopWine-wise, it’s proved to be a challenging week of making lists. First, I’m in the middle of compiling the group-voted Top 20 Wineries of South Africa – a poll I’ve conducted four times since the first in 2001 (just as the fruits of the post-1994 Cape wine revolution were really starting to become apparent).

This year’s will be the sixth, and I’m sure it will continue to reveal that the top end of the Cape wine-scene is continuing to develop. The poll in 2012 saw only eight of the originally placed 20 wineries still finding a slot – and quite a few of the newbies hadn’t even existed in 2001. Of the top five in 2001, two had slid down the rankings and two had been pushed off the list. There were four new wineries compared with 2010 and, interestingly, one re-entry. (The 2012 Top 20 was covered by the Mail & Guardian, and is available here.)

I wonder if we will see as many changes this time round. Very possibly. Of course, the panel of wine professionals is not exactly the same every year. I’ve kept it at approximately 30, for manageability’s sake, but there are now more sommeliers and international judges (mostly from the UK). They join local critics, professional wine-buyers and retailers.

Try doing it. It’s not an easy list to make (two lists, in fact – I ask for a Top Five, and then a further fifteen to total 20; the order not important). Quite apart from the large number of plausible names in general, there are so many possible criteria. How to compare a tiny producer with a few small bottlings of excellent wines with a big producer that has access to vast amounts of fruit and makes a few top wines as well as a lot of more ordinary ones? How to rank a producer that makes one excellent wine, but the others in the range are much less good than they should be – does that rank lower than a winery with a higher average standard but nothing as good as that single wine?

What I’ve found in preparing my own Top 20 is that the initial dozen or so names come quickly. Even the Top 5 are fairly easy to do (though I leave out a few rather reluctantly). It’s the crowded space that then follows that is tough. How can I possibly omit X, I wonder, just as I think I’ve got it right? Maybe Y must yield to it. Or Z.

The other problem, it must be admitted, is that few of us have a continuing, wide-ranging knowledge of even the top end of the industry. How many people, for example, have tasted all of Eben Sadie’s wines for a few continuous years, or Tokara, or Vergelegen or Neil Ellis, or Keermont, or Arendskloof, or…. Let alone all of them, let alone the new wineries. Probably a few foreign judges (Tim Atkin comes obviously to mind) are in some ways the best positioned, as they come out here nearly every year and whizz through the whole lot, even visiting a good handful of the wineries. Though maybe some of the local people have pockets of depth that the whizzers-through don’t. But it does mean, I suppose, that the poll also becomes, partly, a gauge of the buzz. Many will vote for a particular winery (or not vote for a particular other), because of what The Word is about them.

We’ll see, in two or three weeks, perhaps.

The other lists I’ve been busy with this week are for Michael Fridjhon. He’s starting the process of selecting the 100-plus (I think) wines to compete in this year’s Six Nations competition. The choice is his (each of the judges from each nation is responsible for selecting that nation’s entry), but he’s asking around for opinions. There are 17 categories, generally according to grape variety or blend (for example: cabernet sauvignon; major red varieties; other red varieties;  Bordeaux blends; non-Bordeaux blends).

For some of these categories it’s much easier to find the list of ten suggestions that Michael asked for. But not only because there are lots of examples (the Malbec and Riesling slots are not going to be crowded), but because there is higher, more internationally convincing quality in some of the categories. I got to ten chardonnays pretty quickly, and could have gone on. Same with “White blends”. “Other white varieties” I could fill twice over with chenin blancs before even getting to semillon, let alone grenache blanc and roussanne.

I find it interesting but not surprising now (I’ve just gone back to look at my incompleted list) that my most crowded categories – that is, where a whole lot of first-class examples occur to mind quickly – are some of the white ones. For the reds, the blends categories are coming along OK, and shiraz; but I’m having to work at them more than for the whites.

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