Top 100 South African Wines 2011 by Robin von Holdt
'The informed choice for the discerning wine lover'
By Robyn Lewis
In many wine-producing countries, new vineyards, wine brands and labels spring up every year, despite the much-reported global glut of wine.
Whether fuelled by optimism, folly or the long-term view that cycles will eventually turn and demand will increase, more grapes continue to be planted, and this is as true in South Africa as it is in Australia and elsewhere.
Since I visited the Cape wine regions many years ago, new wine farms (as vineyards are called there) have popped up like mushrooms, and long-established growers and makers have expanded their acreage and varieties, developed new wine styles, and marketed modern labels.
I am sure that if I returned, South African wine country would be almost unrecognisable, other than by its beautiful scenic backdrops, the diverse and colourful flora, and the distinctive Cape colonial architecture.
Where would I start to make sense of South African wines? Indeed, the same question could be asked in a UK supermarket, a fine wine store in New York, Singapore or Sydney, online or indeed anywhere they are exported. For much of their wines find their way overseas, and to those unfamiliar with South Africa’s regions, the names (often peppered with Afrikaans history and unfamiliar spelling) and even some of their varieties – pinotage is a unique South African hybrid of pinot noir and cinsault – are largely unknown outside their own borders.
Thus, when a guide like Top 100 South African Wines appears, it’s time to take notice. This guide is long overdue – Australia has had its Langton’s equivalent since 1991, plus about six other pocket (and now iPhone) wine guides – and fills a distinct gap in the wine guide market.
For many South African wines are very high quality indeed, and deserve a place in the global spotlight. Put behind you the cheap Cape white someone once served you with a curry in a suburban restaurant, and look at South African wines in a new light. This book will show you how.
The Top 100 South African Wines has clearly been the result of painstaking, methodical research and planning. Producers were invited to submit their wines; a total of 390 made the final cut: 222 reds, 143 whites and 25 others (‘méthode cap classique’ – i.e. sparkling wines – dessert and ‘port’). A full breakdown of varieties is given on page 261, which is interesting as a varietal comparison to Langton’s top wines of Australia. These are also broken down by region, and even how efficient the producers were at submitting their entries!
2011 was the first year this competition was held. Some top producers are not represented – perhaps they will see the merit or be more organised next year – but this may have created opportunities for others to shine.
The big virtue of the Top 100 South African Wines competition was that it was judged by a panel of largely international wine experts, thus allowing benchmarking against other countries’ wines. An all-male Industry Executive (body) of eight producers (chaired by the author) worked collectively to ‘lead as well as anchor the process... to reposition SA’s finest wines’.
Masters of Wine on the judging panel included the Chair, Tim Atkin (UK), Sam Harrop (NZ), Cathy Van Zyl (SA), Jennifer Simonetti-Brown (USA/Singapore), Greg Sherwood (UK), plus Jamie Goode (UK) and three local judges, including ‘local star winemakers’ Duncan Savage of Cape Point Vineyards and Richard Kershaw of Mulderbosch Vineyards. Judges were divided into two panels.
Rigour was clearly the order of the day: each wine was tasted freshly poured, alongside a decanted sample (10 hours for red, 3 hours for white), and of course all tastings were blind, and conducted without discussion between the judges. On average each judge tasted 65 wines twice each day, with each wine enjoying a minimum of six minutes of each judge’s attention (considerably more than many receive elsewhere).
I don’t think I have seen a wine publication with as much detail on the judging process as Top 100 South African Wines. It’s certainly reassuring to know that the wines were subject to the utmost scrutiny; less so that 40 wines were faulty, including 23 corked – probably around the international average, but for those wishing to be amongst the best of the best in the marketplace, a high number. I don’t need to know how many water biscuits the judges consumed or how many wine glasses were broken in the process, however.
The winning wines are showcased alphabetically by producer’s name. Each wine that made the grade receives a double page, consistent presentation of facts: a page bearing producer’s details and contact information, a space for your own tasting notes (should we be so lucky as to be able to try any), judges’ comments – perhaps next year these might bear the taster’s initials, as is increasingly becoming the norm in compilations of more than one taster – then the second page for the producer’s details about the wine, the price, with the winemaker’s own notes.
Each entry has a picture of the label, a handy visual reference. QR codes would be a useful addition, with a direct link to the producers’ websites. Wine prices range from around R60 to R500 – considerable variation in value for money. A ‘good value’ rating could be considered in future.
Unlike most guides I see, there are no scores or ratings, which I find rather surprising. One presumes with this number of entries, the Top 100 wines are all gold medal winners, but is there a ranking within the Top 100? If so, we aren’t told. How then do they compare with the top wines from the USA, France, New Zealand or Australia? Like or loathe the various points scoring systems, this is where they are useful for the consumer. 96 points is, or should be, the same internationally. And did any approach 100 points?
In fact I had to look quite hard to find a list of the Top 100 winners (pages 48-50, after the maps) – again, for next year, this might be moved nearer the front or shown with a different colour page header, for ease of use. It’s a handy reference, which lists the wines by grape variety.
Interestingly, 46 of winners are white wines (a bit of number crunching here would assist; I counted them), and these form the majority of the Top 100 when seven sparkling and dessert wines are added. As a percentage of entrants, winning whites clearly outshone reds.
This is quite a contrast to Langton’s ‘Top 100’ wines of Australia (expanded in 2010 to include 123 wines), where reds predominate. Are South African white wines better? I for one would love to taste and know more. They certainly sound excellent, and Jancis Robinson agrees.
Vintages assessed were 2004-2009 for the reds, and 2005-2010 for whites (including dessert and sparkling wines). The oldest fortified wine is 1998.
Again unlike Langton’s Classification there is no attempt to rank the wines (Langton’s use the categories: exceptional, outstanding, excellent and distinguished), and presumably this is also deliberate. Perhaps this classification will evolve over time, or it may be that the Industry Executive considers it unnecessary or unhelpful. Certainly with the huge amount of choice facing the consumer, and the evolution of wines and wine tastes over time, plus seasonal/vintage variation, if so, they may well be correct, as ‘exceptional wines’ can get locked into wine drinkers’ minds to the exclusion of equally worthy (and sometimes even better, or better value) contenders.
I cannot comment on the merits of the wines therein – none are available where I live and we have not tasted any samples. If feathers were ruffled in South Africa when this guide was published, or if the Top 100 were those expected, then so be it – the process certainly looks scrupulous to an outside observer.
The book is supported by excellent maps of the wine regions and an explanation of the South African appellation system (pp 26-28), which is clearly evolving. I highlighted the winners’ locations on the maps and this was also an interesting exercise – with some exceptions, there appear to be few distinct winning clusters (as opposed to Caves Road of Margaret River in Western Australia, for example, where virtually all producers on one particular soil type are guaranteed of high accolades).
The systematic structure of the data in Top 100 SA Wines lends itself to an iPhone/mobile app, which would make it more accessible to international wine lovers in particular.
Overall, Top 100 SA Wines 2011 is an excellent introduction to the best wines of 2011 in South Africa, and highly recommended at the price. As a pocket guide, it is thorough and rigorous; with time it will likely provide the standard against which wine producers will compete and vie for inclusion.
Top 100 South African Wines by Robin von Holdt is published by Cheviot Publishing (2011, Green Point, South Africa; hc, 270 pp) and retails in Australia for A$29.95.
It can also be purchased online from cheviot-publishing.com. More information and details on where to purchase the wines can be found at top100sawines.com
- South Africa - all (SAF)
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