A sideways look at Tim Atkin’s South Africa Report

Of the few wide-ranging annual reports on South African wines the one that I probably take most seriously is Tim Atkin’s. In fact, I suppose there are only three individual big surveys: Tim’s, Neal Martin’s for Wine Advocate, and James Molesworth’s for Wine Spectator. All foreigners, you notice. Possibly Michael Fridjhon for his Wine Wizard website gives the most widespread, detailed local coverage in terms of tasting notes, but his largely derive from blind tastings, unlike with the foreign guys – and they come out in dribs and drabs rather than an eye- and mind-catching report.

Tim (whom I suppose no-one would accuse of false modesty) points out that he visits the country “twice a year and, I believe, taste more of its wines on a regular basis than anyone outside the Cape”. I’m sure that’s true, and in fact I think he’s politely over-generous in suggesting the possible exception of those “inside the Cape”. Excluding the experience gained by blind tastings (from which I think its fair to say that no taster learns anything really useful) it’s probably true that no local taster has anything aproaching the breadth of tasting experience that Tim (and the few other foreigners) do.

That said, there are some curious gaps that a quick look at his report reveals – even well-known wineries, like Colmant, which some would put as the leading Cape bubbly producer. Less well-known ones missing, ones that I would have thought deserved to be tasted, would include Restless River, Intellego and no doubt a few others.

I would suggest that perhaps the few of us Cape-based critics who make some real effort have greater depth of experience in many cases than the foreigners – in my own case I probably visit more vineyards than Tim Atkin does, do repeat tastings of some wines much more, speak to a few winemakers and viticulturists more often, at greater depth, etc etc. But I don’t each year taste through so many wineries’ complete ranges. It’s two years since I tasted Keermont, for example, (a “Third Growth” for Tim), longer for its neighbour De Trafford (two rungs lower in Tim’s scale). I’m not sure I agree with the ratings for these wineries – but I’d have to do a bit of work to justify the disagreement.

Many of the judgements made by the foreign critics who come here are the result of big tastings. Of course, there are also many winery visits, but there are also mass-tastings. Making important judgements based on them is not something I’d be keen on doing myself (though I accept that TA’s concentration is better than mine, and just maybe also his ability to disentangle the tannins of wine number 50 from those of wine numbers 49 and 51).

But I’m pretty sure that there’s no local wine journalist that does the amount of work that he does – all year round, the whole world round, I mean. On the other hand, his hard and excellent and well-communicated work makes him, I guess, one of the best-paid wine journalists in the world, which is certainly not true of any of the local contingent.

More to the point here, no local critics get the assistance received by the handful of important foreigners who pay attention to Cape wine. If I visit the Hemel en Aarde or Swartland, or go to the former’s Pinot festival, I pay for my own petrol to get there and my ticket and accommodation and must make my own arrangements. Whereas the likes of Tim only have to nod to WOSA to get visits and line-ups and more-or less whatever he wants arranged for him. We locals could get a great deal closer to tasting all the wines of South Africa each year with that sort of back-up! The point is, I suppose, that the prestigious foreigners sell more wine with their recommendations (at least overseas) than we do – few local wine journalists have any sort of international reputation or exposure.

***

Another “sideways” point occurred to me. Have the big, important foreigners (Atkin, Martin, Molesworth), with all their international expertise and experience, even been the first to notice an important trend in Cape wine? Or identified an important new producer before the local critics have done so? Not that I’m aware of. Not that it matters, and it would be a bad indictment of local wine-judging and wine-comment if it were the case. But let’s give credit where it’s due

***

So. It’s an undoubted advantage to the Cape wine industry to have these enthusiastic and wide-ranging international reports being prepared – a  pity there aren’t more, in fact. And Tim’s report is beautifully and enthusiastically presented. And thoughtful – his introduction and “ten things you need to know about Cape wines” is an excellent summary of the state of play.

Of course, I don’t agree with all of Tim’s rankings or ratings – he wouldn’t expect anyone to necessarily do that. It’s a totally plausible effort, and one that, as I’ve suggested, he is more qualified to make than most (let’s leave it at that) people.

The one area of the report that I find actually problematical, however, is a lack of clarity as to how he arrives at his rankings into his six categories (First to Fifth “Growths”, on the Bordeaux 1855 Classification model, plus the rather confused Cru Bourgeois thing).

He’s brave about rewarding wineries with only one vintage to their credit – so that in 2013, for example, Savage Wines was placed as a lofty Second Growth. Yet this year, Beeslaar is one of only a handful of wines scoring 96 points (higher than Duncan Savage has got for his two wines) – but Abri only makes it to the Cru Bourgeois level. Why?

Crystallum is this year promoted to the very highest category, with wines scoring between 92 and 94 points, and Raats is promoted to Second Growth status with scores of 91-93. Yet Mount Abora (with 91, 93 and 94 for its three wines) languishes near the bottom. Huh? is this fair?

Keet is only a Fourth Growth, with his wine scoring 95 (same score as Savage wines – is Chris penalised for having only one wine?), while Kershaw is two rungs lower, with the same score for his Chardonnay (the Kershaw Syrah not tasted, apparently). It would be nice to have an indication of the logic and thinking behind these rather random examples. Perhaps next year? Either way, we’ll all, no doubt, be looking forward to Tim’s 2015 Report.

– You can get Tim’s classification of Cape wineries for free from his website, here
– The full report costs GBP12, here

8 thoughts on “A sideways look at Tim Atkin’s South Africa Report

  1. Tim

    First of all, a huge thank you for bothering to read my report, rather than just repeating the moronic comments and inaccuracies posted by one local SA wine hack, and for recognising that what I write is based on a lot of hard work and experience.

    I’d like to make a few comments, if I may.

    1. My report is mostly based on visits to wineries and vineyards, not sit down tastings. Of the 14 days I spent in the Cape in January and early February, for example, only three (two of them Sundays) were spent doing what I call mop up tastings. That is tasting wines from producers whom I don’t have time to visit. I’d much rather see everyone in situ, but this isn’t possible. Otherwise, I’d have to spend two months in South Africa.

    I think I am different from the Wine Advocate and the Wine Spectator in this respect. I think they prefer to taste blind and spend way less time talking to producers. This is not to decry their opinions, just to point out a difference of approach. My latest visit to Eben Sadie’s cellar was my seventh, for example,and Eben is someone I’ve known since Spice Route days.

    2. I am happy to acknowledge the help that WOSA gives me while I am in SA, particularly in calling in samples. But, as you know, I am more than happy to share my mop up tastings with (most) local wine writers. The excellent and diligent Angela Lloyd took advantage of one such tasting. They are not exclusive events. I’d also be more than happy to pay for my ticket to the Hemel en Aarde Pinot event next time.

    3. International wine writers can be useful in sorting the stars from the rest of the Cape scene (what I call the Platter Four Star syndrome). I think it’s useful to have people who taste and travel widely selecting their favourite wines and scoring them accordingly. I can comment on, say, the quality of Steenberg’s Nebbiolo with authority because I’ve just spent three days (at my own expense) in Barolo and Barbaresco. The same goes for Peter Allan Finlayson and Newton Johnson’s Pinots. I have the experience to rate them against what’s happening in Burgundy Oregon and New Zealand. That context thing again. I also believe that I have the courage to back the people whom I regard as the best. That’s why Reyneke gets better scores from me than from Platter, for example.

    4. I’ll leave a discussion of my classification for another time. All I will say is that I don’t believe that wineries have to have a track record to be recognised. But where a winery has made only one release of one wine (Beeslaar, for example) even I want to wait until I’ve seen a second release. You mention a couple of wineries that I don’t know and I will taste them next time. The classification is very fluid, which is why I increased the crus bourgeois to 60 wineries and included many new names. It will change every year, and some new wineries will, I suspect, move up fast.

    5. It’s unfair to say that internationals haven’t recognised (or encouraged) trends. The Swartland Revolution, old vine Chenins, white blends, the work of Rosa Kruger, Elim and new wines like Newton Johnson’s Albariños have all been given a boost by overseas wine writers.

    Anyway, my apologies for a long reply. I respect your opinions and hard work, as you do mine. We are Tim 1 and Tim 1, not Tim 1 and Tim 2. We both love what we do and want to see the best Cape wines win greater recognition. Let’s drink to that.

    Tim

  2. So far this is definitely the best response to Mr. Atkin’s report.
    I must agree with Atkin in that his report is fluid in nature, is this not much better than just creating a system as the French did and then being very stagnant with changes? Big money being the only way to change ones status!
    All in all I am happy with how Tim has created his report and look forward to next years one, it really is great for our industry.

  3. Deat Tim 1 & Tim 1,
    While on holiday, I have seen some of the negative bluster surrounding the TA report and would like to chime in with a few random comments.

    Firstly, anyone willing to take the time, the energy and to apply the considerable amount of brain-power required to compile a South Africa report should be welcomed. That it is possible to do this without prejudice and at the same time earn a living should also be applauded. Bravo Tim A.

    Secondly, Tim A. you have clearly and repeatedly gone out of your way to define your comments, scores and classifications as a ‘personal’ opinion based on extensive experience. You have also been clear that your report does not attempt to be definitive. It is the responsibility of the reader to deduce the value (if any) which they will accord to your opinion.

    Thirdly, dialogue between local and international commentators has IMHO been quite limited in the past. It is pleasing and healthy that the local opinion forming community can engage with it’s international peers more freely.

    Fourthly; I feel that the local wine media/commentators can generally be overly focused on the new, the boutique and the small with a disproportionate amount of column inches focused on single barrel wonders where the real success in the wine industry is achieved when this can be replicated and expanded. The current Achilles heel of the South African wine industry is the lack of iconic international brands that are able to supply volume. I think that the TA report has an excellent balance between the new and the established without in any way sacrificing overall excitement.

    Finally; Forget biodiversity and Proteas – South African wines at all quality levels are globally recognised as being cheap. This is a moniker that we as an industry need to shake if we are ever to achieve universal recognition. I feel that the TA report and others like it will continue to drive the demand required for prices to rise.

    I too am able to define the above as my personal opinion.
    Mike

  4. Dear All,

    Firstly i can say that we deal with a very fragmented industry and that Tim A has the balls to give his personal opinion. It is based on many years of tasting, travelling and spending time with producers. This is something that I really admire because you need to talk to a winemaker to understand what he strives for etc.

    Tim A, no one will ever release a report or tasting scores and please everyone, but you know that! However, I would like to suggest…why do you spend seven visits to Eben Sadie when you really know his wine and philosophy very well?? Why not spend that time tasting or spending time with new or lesser known producers?

    This is where the unhappiness comes when people read the report. They feel that they probably didn’t get the opportunity that many others get over and over again. WOSA does have some blame in this, but that’s a different story.

    Mike, I do agree with you on the pricing issue, but to me volume is actually the killer of raising prices. We get so caught up in ratings and scores that once a wine get recognised we want to bottle double or triple the volume next vintage. Why don’t we learn that simple and plain economics of supply and demand will always dictate price!!!

    Tim J, what I would really like to see is our local media and trade spending more time with people like Tim A and other International Wine Critics. We should listen and learn from their knowledge, BUT we should also inform them of what we as South Africans know about our own producers, wines and potential. There are many marketers and winemakers who travel extensively, like Mike, and I used to when I was still with Rietvallei. We learn so much from the distributors, shop and restaurant owners when you taste your wines with them in London, Chicago or Beijing! This knowledge should be transferred to our winemakers and decision makers at production level.

    We shouldn’t just try to produce more Chenin Blanc because that’s what every one talks about. Is there a market for this and how much would be feasible to look?? Anyway, as you can see I am a passionate Marketer and believer in South African. Unfortunately we know that we struggle to stand together and even acknowledge each others achievements. However as long as the majority of us can believe and strive towards a common goal then our industry will benefit from it big time.

    Thanks for the report both Tim’s and I hope this gives our producers some food for thought!

    Cheers
    Colyn

  5. An excellent, thought-provoking set of suggestions and observations, Colyn. And from Mike. Thanks to you both. And to Tim No. 1 (I know my place, and am content with it!) – I’m sorry if I seemed to exaggerate the number of farm and winery visits you make; I know it’s extensive. And I do recognise the role the “foreigners” have played in furthering good trends, and raising awareness of good new and older producers. I’m just relieved no note that, as it should be, there are enough astute locals to generally get there first. (Often enough via the occasionally maligned Platter, I’d suggest. Columella and Cartology are amongst the wines that rated 5 stars with the maiden vintages from those wineries before most people anywhere had heard of them.) But what all of us locals hacks lack – some more than others – is the breadth and depth of international experience that people like Tim Atkin bring. It’s a very important perspective – as Colyn points out.

  6. Thanks, Colin and Mike for your comments. Colin, the reason I go to see Eben is because he’s the best winemaker in the Cape. Not going to see him would be like going to Burgundy and deciding to skip a visit to DRC. I do talk to a lot of winemakers and visit as many regions as I can. I went to Robertson and Wellington this year for the first time in a while. And I will do a trip up the West Coast next time I’m in the Cape. I am very keen to discover, meet and promote new winemaking talent.

  7. Civilized debate? What’s wrong with you people – this is the internet!!

    But seriously, us wine geeks have plenty to be excited about nowadays. And although a track record really does count for much, I’m with Tim A in sensing enough quality from some newcomers to give them good backing. I, for instance, don’t really see a brand like Thorne & Daughters releasing any bad wines anytime soon.

    When a winemaker actually has a real, personal passion for great wine (surprisingly, this is not quite as common as one would hope) and such a winemaker “meets” a great old vineyard, sparks fly! And the way the SA wine scene’s wheels are grinding right now, more sparks are flying than ever.

  8. A bit late into the debate. I do think that one needs to have a balanced view and as such opinion. Mike makes some really valid points, his family could claim to have some pedigree in the trade, Colyn, like many others has been exposed to the vagaries(sic maybe) of the trade in terms of regions, so yes we should listen to those that we maybe dont really want to.
    Tim A, respect, but, Eben is but one wine maker and I doubt he wants to be called the best wine maker the cape has, is he? No. Swartland maybe but….He has opinion, knowledge and a philosophy, much like other young turks,but what about Donovan Rall,young Jean Daneel, ??? DRC, its not about a person but place! mmm?

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