Misunderstanding Cape wine

Some recent descriptions, by two important critics, of two groups of Cape winemakers have me scratching my grizzled head. Either they or I am out of touch with the interest and excitement of what is happening in South African wine.

zoobiscuitsFirst, Michael Fridjhon refers (without any irony or humour that I can perceive) to the Zoo Biscuits group of winemakers at the recent Cape Wine event as the local wine’s “lunatic fringe”. He said: “The industry’s lunatic fringe persisted in doing things their way. Under the banner of The Zoo Biscuits, they presented their idiosyncratic creations in a uniquely South African format.”

What constitutes a “fringe”, I wonder? Is anything other than bulk wine in South Africa a “fringe”? But I don’t think that’s what’s Michael is getting at. As to lunatic – well, they’re not even all moonstruck biodynamists, in which case I’d be more inclined to side with Michael on this one.

If you’re very conservative and inclined to insult, it would, I suppose be reasonable to describe say, the exciting and rather marvellous “natural” wines of producers like Craven and Testalonga (not Zoo Biscuit guys) as “lunatic” (a fringe of a fringe?) – but the likes of the Alheits, Duncan Savage, Peter-Allan Finlayson (one of the Cape’s leading makers of pinot noir part of a lunatic fringe!)? And I can’t see that the others in the group, including well-known producer names like Thorne & Daughters, Blackwater, Trizanne, Fram, Momento and Crystallum, are bizarre in any way. JH “Stompie” Meyer making three single vineyard pinot noirs? In what way are these “idiosyncratic creations”?

What is the “their way” that sets these winemakers apart from the sane fabric of Cape wine? Is it the avoidance of inoculated yeast that’s somehow egregiously eccentric? A dislike for the flavours of new oak? A devotion to expressing terroir? Seeking out old vines? I don’t understand. I presumed that Michael must have experienced at least a representative selection of these wines, so I tried finding tasting notes for them on Michael’s website, but couldn’t find any, so no indication of what it is he finds so lunatic and fringeish about them. Maybe he tasted them for the first time at Cape Wine, to account for his shock.

A slightly different face of conservatism, and also possibly of narrow experience of what’s really happening in Cape wine these days, appears when James Molesworth of the American Wine Spectator writes about the crop of wines on the forthcoming Cape Winemakers Guild Auction. Every year, a few American critics get to taste the wines (sighted). Yet again, Molesworth’s scores are in the dull, non-committal band that the Americans favour for serious Cape wines: these all get between 89 and 94 points out of 100. Nothing really disappointing, nothing spectacular.

Fine, of course, if that’s his opinion, and if Mr M really can’t see a greater quality spread than that in what he’s tasted. But consider his introductory comment that “These wines are a result of the experimental and behind-the-scenes efforts of a cadre of South Africa’s best winemakers…. As a group … they represent the vibrant South African wine scene.”

No they aren’t, and no they don’t. Emphatically not, as a whole – even if there is one of the Zoo Biscuit winemakers (Duncan Savage) represented. Good or very good wines many of them are, there are some new and exciting wines among the CWG Auction line-up (though I’m not even sure that “experimental” is at all the right word, in fact, for such wines as Andrea Mullineux’s Semillon gris or Adi Badenhorst’s cinsaut), but they are few and far between. The majority are variations on the producers’ standard ranges, or even just barrel selections from them. To imagine that they represent what is exciting in Cape wine is to miss the point by a mile.

If you were to mix these two articles to say that the Zoo Biscuits gang “represent the vibrant South African wine scene” that would, in my opinion be an unarguable assessment (though it is of course a very small representation). But that’s clearly not the case for either Michael Fridjhon or James Molesworth.

9 thoughts on “Misunderstanding Cape wine

  1. Who cares about Michael Fridjhon?
    Maybe I would try and read some of his scribblings long time ago, but I don’t take hime seriously since a couple of years.

  2. Spot on once again Tim. We need the Zoo B’s et al. to shake and rattle the cage. Their wines are FAR from idiosyncratic. Some show immense purity and character…second to none, compared to the so-called traditionalists. Question though – how sustainable do you think are their (Zoo B’s)business model? How long would the buzz persist (if you had a crystal ball to gaze into….?)

  3. That’s a really good question, Will, about the medium-to-long-term future for members of Zoo Biscuits (and similar producers). Not having a crystal ball, I’m going to have to do a bit of thinking and enquiring about the matter. Then I’ll have a stab at responding to your question in a future blog.

  4. Tim

    You really have missed the point – at least insofar as my article is concerned. It should be clear – at least from its clear complimentary take on the wines described – that the term is used ironically. David Clarke seems to have grasped this if his tweet about my hairstyle is anything to go by.
    Some of the wines I did taste for the first time at Cape Wine. However I have several of them in my cellar – so it would be easy for me to defend myself against your suggestion that my comment was the result of my being in a state of shock.

  5. PS. Any event invitation which comes with a dress code of “no leopard print and speedos” takes convention off the table

  6. Well, Michael, I’m relieved to be told that you were being ironical. Despite quite a bit of training in learning to see irony in texts, however, I can’t see any signal of that in your article. And have just looked again and the “clear complimentary take” you refer to is also not apparent to me. I quoted your entire comment on the Zoo Biscuits group, and the “lunatic fringe” remark is complemented only by saying that their wines are “idiosyncratic” (and something about their presentation). In which bit of all that does a compliment inhere, please?

  7. Sorry you weren’t able to pick it up, Tim, and sorry I can’t help you to do so.

    Others – including Chris Alheit – seemed to have no problem. I guess it’s about agendas and expectations, and whether words like “idiosyncratic” carry negative or positive connotations for you.

  8. Perhaps this article should have its heading changed to ‘Misunderstanding Michael Fridjhon’.

    FWIW, I read Michael’s comments as ironic and thought the tone of his article very positive. Maybe Michael should consider using emoticons in his writing. (Irony)

  9. Just whistling past and wondering out loud how conservative a person or culture has to be to class ZB as a “lunatic fringe”, irony or no (to my highly attuned comedic sensibilities it reads as more jab than jibe, but as the kids say, ymmv).

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