Local and foreign critics of SA wine

British wine writer Jamie Goode has made some interesting observations on the recently compiled Top 20 South African wine producers, for which he was one of 7 international (mostly British) voters. He also published his Top 20 list, from which it can be seen how many new producers he included. In fact, his was by quite a long way the most thoroughly “radical” of any of the submitted lists, whether from local or foreign voters; There were three newish wineries he voted for that did not receive a single other vote.

Jamie’s paragraph that interested me most was this comment on the “inertia” he sees in the final list:

“It takes time for local commentators in particular to recognize that traditionally excellent producers are no longer at the front of the pack. The bar has been raised, and some of the top names of 10 years ago are still making excellent wines; it’s just that there are new entrants who are making wines that are even more compelling. It’s easier to see this from a distance, I reckon. For this reason, I reckon the official top 20 list is a few years behind where things really are now, but that, of course, is my personal opinion.”

Some of that I could agree with easily, but I wasn’t sure on what evidence Jamie concludes that the locals are less alert to the new (or more willing to demote well established “great names”). So I thought I’d fiddle with the spreadsheet containing the results and see how different the overall local vote was compared with the overall foreign one, and see if it bears out his suggestion.

To a large extent it does. Taking just the locals, the only difference from the final list would be the replacement of Savage with De Trafford in the bottom position (this was a very close call in the final list anyway). There were of course also ranking differences, but nothing very remarkable. There were many more local voters (20 as opposed to 7), so obviously they played a bigger role in the final selection.

There was more divergence with the foreign list. If they had had their way, the following wineries would have been in the final list (mostly near the bottom of it): Keermont, Raats/Mvemve-Raats, Rall and Porseleinberg. The ones they omitted were: Delaire Graff, DeMorgenzon, Jordan, Vergelegen and Tokara. Their list actually totalled 19, because there were 5 wineries jostling for the final place: Beaumont, Craven, De Morgenzon, Jordan and Meerlust. The rankings of the foreign top 20 fitted in with this pattern of favouring the new.

That does certainly support Jamie’s suggestion that the foreign judges were keener on new wineries than the local judges were, even if the difference was not all remarkable, and even if the wineries concerned are not really all that new. In fact none of the four additional wineries their joint vote included in a top 20, counts as what Jamie calls a “new entrant” – except perhaps for Porseleinberg, and even they had their first release four or five years ago.

Is the difference to be accounted for by Jamie’s suggestion that we locals are slow to demote established producers? Well, we didn’t demote Vergelegen, but we did demote Hamilton Russell, Thelema and Meerlust this time round, so this is not an easy position to argue. On the other hand, perhaps we are slower to recognise the rise of newer entrants. Actually I suspect this is true, on the whole, but I think there is a rather more banal reason than our closeness to the situation.

Before getting to that, though, it’s worth wondering whether these international palates (which most local ones are far from being) are not sometimes almost unhealthily on the lookout (for both commercial and personal reasons) for the new and the exciting, and a little too prone to be bored with established virtues.

More importantly, however, It’s a most regrettable truth that not a lot of local judges, sommeliers, writers and retailers get the opportunity to taste as widely and frequently as do the top foreigners. Whether the locals take the opportunities they actually do have is quite another matter, and I have expressed before my surprise at how little effort most local commentators make to get around to trade tastings, wine festivals and the like. (For example, I doubt if there were more than three such people at the Swartland Independent Producers tasting last Saturday, which is arguably shocking and pathetic, given the importance of the occasion).

But when Jamie Goode, Tim Atkin and the like come out to South Africa, they are (as a general rule, I think) brought here and housed and entertained and whizzed around at the industry’s expense, and drivers and visits and tastings are arranged for them. That doesn’t happen for the locals, who as a rule don’t have anyone organising large tastings for them, and have to pay for their own transport and time, and make their own arrangements – and then have very few opportunities to recoup by journalism any of their expenses.

I’m not complaining about this here (and we do, if we choose, have much greater chances to acquire depth of knowledge and understanding), merely pointing it out – I think it does have a significant retarding effect in allowing local commentators to keep up to date. The bottom line is that there will never be much of a strong local culture of wine commentary while there’s so little money in it, and the function depends almost entirely on the enthusiasm of a few individuals, and their willingness to spend their own money on increasing their understanding.

It’s fairly remarkable, in fact, that I do doubt very much if there have been any significant new wines and wineries which have not been noted and rewarded locally before the foreigners got in with their applause. It’s clutching at straws, but nonetheless I’m quite proud of that.

5 thoughts on “Local and foreign critics of SA wine

  1. Well written, Tim. It’s an interesting question. It’s undoubtedly hard for locals to be as up to speed as some foreign critics, for the reasons you cited and the weak Rand. And I think foreign critics are useful in bringing a fresh perspective and the ability to call it like they see it. That said I’m not sure this type of competition should ever be more than 50% foreign judging.

    Spain’s the country I know best and here there is also a lot going on. Millions of new producers and often coming from remote regions that nobody had heard of 5-10 years ago. Are they fresh and exciting, yes? Are they better than the established big names? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I suppose the key thing is they force the big names to keep on their toes and to continually re-evaluate their styles.

    Wine’s a funny thing. You can get double golds across the board, yet if you make the exact same thing 10 years down the road, it seems old hat.

  2. Surely this exersize just captures the zeitgeist?

    Thus the results will be different depending on market forces, availability etc.. Sure there will be producers whose reputations are unaffected by such things, but I’d wager the results would be different if more continental European, Asian and American scribes were included.

    Perhaps producers such as Raats has a bigger footprint in the US than UK?

  3. Love the analysis Tim. As a buyer for a global range covering over 2000 sku’s… I get to taste a lot. But I don’t get whizzed around by WOSA and get massive tastings laid on for me. I just make the effort, often at my own cost. There are actually more opportunities than I realised to do benchmarking exercises in SA. I don’t think international judges are purely more desperate for something new. There’s plenty of respect for the old greats like Hamilton Russell, Meerlust, Etc. It’s just that within an international context, some foreign judges feel some of the new guys are closer to the global top-table than some of the older names. I genuinely think it’s a quality thing. I included several established names that just missed out but only because I get to taste their young and old wines and genuinely feel they are world class. Some styles just need to be aged a little longer. Anyway, I think local commentators drink more Vergelegen and Tokara etc so are more likely to clock their influence. It’s a good exercise all this rating game and further serves to challenge preconceived ideas and shake up the industry … Which can only be a good thing for all!

  4. Thanks everyone for cogent comments. David: yes, some of the results would be different – but it is surely certain that there’d still be 10-15 of the wineries there, whatever the voting panel (as long as the voters were competent). Greg: It’s always great to learn some jargon – I googled and discovered that an “sku” (I can’t bring myself to use the plural with the grocer’s apostrophe, nor yet to omit it for clarity’s sake!) is a “stock keeping unit”. What a great phrase to put wine in its place (on the shelf)! Your points are well taken (and of course retailers and importers are generally paid for by their businesses rather than WOSA), though I’m confident that the excitement factor occasionally overrides the quality factor, for all judges, local or foreign. As David says, the Zeitgeist fact is important.

    The gratifying and important thing for me is that everyone, whatever their cavils, agrees that this is a useful (and fun!) exercise, even if it cannot offer The Truth, as there is none in this case, of course.

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