The response from the Cape was initially quite slow. Wines of South Africa (WOSA) does not appear to have budgeted for any investment in the French market – despite France having been one of the top ten buyers of South African wine for some time (it’s now in number 5 slot) and with year-on-year exports to France growing by 200% . Given my extended connections in Burgundy, I found myself roped in to explain to the short-listed producers that this was not a dinner-dance with Salome.
Included in the proposition was a competition to be chaired by Eric Goettelmann (who heads up wine buying for the Bernard Loiseau group and who had been in South Africa as one of the international judges at this year’s Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show). It was to be judged by the sommeliers of all of the three star Michelin restaurants in Burgundy, so its results would reflect a very particular view of South African wine: its ability to pair with French haute cuisine.
The outcome was something of a surprise to everyone: South African Pinot Noir did very well – in the heart of the most profoundly successful Pinot region in the world. Gold medals and trophies to the Creation Reserve and the Bouchard Finlayson Galpin Peak, silver medals and trophies to Hamilton Russell 2012, the regular Creation Pinot 2012 and the Bouchard Finlayson Tete de Cuvee 2010. By the same token Cape Chardonnay – widely respected in most international markets and consistently highly rated in local competitions – did not seduce the French sommeliers. Only one award was made, a silver medal to the Dewetshof Bataleur, though there were several top wines on the judging benches.
This result not only astonished the South Africans, but also several of the leading Burgundian producers who visited the fair. One commented on how impressed he had been with the Hamilton Russell 2012 (I think it’s one of the best vintages ever released by the Hemel-en-Aarde producer.) Others mentioned how much they liked the Chamonix selection, the range of Chardonnay styles in the Dewetshof line-up, the Vergelegen Reserve Chardonnay and the various wines from La Vierge, Domaine des Dieux and Waterkloof.
This raises the perennial question around wine judging: since the competence of the panel is not in question (top sommeliers in France are amongst the most highly qualified tasters in the world) how can their views on what is good to differ so vastly from ours? Perhaps they judged the wine in expectation of the food that would be offered as accompaniment: this is after all their professional mandate.
This may account for their failure to recognise the quality in some of the more exuberantly-styled Cape wines. Subtlety is the hallmark of Burgundian cuisine: at a dinner presented at the Fair by Delaire-Graff’s Chris Campbell, I noticed that the Dijonnaises were less at home with the eclectic range of flavours in some of his dishes than the international visitors.
It may however also be that – as is common everywhere in the world – the locals make a virtue of necessity. A big Burgundy is as much an oxymoron as a productive civil servant. The intensity of flavour and texture achieved by our new generation winemakers brings an implicit threat. Judged by other – more New World, more 21st century – criteria, Cape Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are not Burgundies on steroids, but an alternative, equally legitimate, interpretation. To admit that is to contemplate the prospect that the creature you have brought into your camp is actually a Trojan horse.
– Michael Fridjohn is one of South Africa’s most highly regarded international wine judges and wine writers. Visit his websitewww.winewizard.co.za