Competing on equal terms

There’s a great photo of the semi-finals of the 200-metre sprint at the recent IAAF World Championships in Beijing: it’s of Anaso Jobodwana, a little-known South African sprinter, on the shoulder of one of the greatest sprinters ever – Jamaica’s Usain Bolt.

The photographer perfectly captured the moment: Bolt confidently striding over the finish line and looking over his left shoulder to the athlete a few milliseconds behind – and Jobodwana returning that measured look with confidence.

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Bolt went on to win the 200m – and Jobodwana ran the race of his life to claim the bronze medal in a new national record time of19.87 seconds, just three-tenths of a second behind the lanky Jamaican sprint sensation.

What’s this got to do with wine? Not much but it’s a lovely metaphor for the South African wine fraternity competing on the international stage – and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the best wines there are.

Competition is defined as a contest in which people (or in this instance, wines) take part to establish superiority or supremacy in a particular area.

One of the country’s foremost wine commentators, Michael Fridjhon, stated it as eloquently as ever when penning a column in the Daily Maverick in July: “Wine competitions – good ones, with good judges – are a little like a free press. They tell things the way they are: they are the most honest form of feedback available to a producer willing to pay attention to the message.”

Furthermore, he made the point that when South Africa held its first democratic election in 1994 and was readmitted to the international fold, the general consensus of (local!) opinion was that SA wine was going to really show the world of wine a thing or two.

The honeymoon period didn’t last long. People soon got over their infatuation with South African wine, initially viewed through Mandela-tinted lenses, when the quality just didn’t live up to expectations. A sobering moment indeed – as was the impact of the never-repeated SAA wine test match against Australia in 1995 where South Africa was trounced 78–21. It was an event which memorably prompted the then ‘enfant terrible’ Andre van Rensburg to tell his fellow winemakers that if they couldn’t stand the competition they should give up and grow vegetables instead! 

It is only by competing and comparing against the best that the true measure of something is ascertained. By that measurement, South African wine is becoming more and more healthy as the years pass.

The Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA) and the International Wine Challenge (IWC) results, for example, when viewed in five year increments, reveal the progress made.

In 2005, in only the second year of its existence, the DWWA rewarded just two South African wines with regional trophies: Alto Shiraz 2001, which received the SA Rhône varietal over £10 Trophy, and Bellingham The Maverick Chenin Blanc 2004, which was the SA white single varietal under £10 Trophy.

In 2010 the list was a lot longer – and more significantly, saw two international trophies awarded to Cape Point Vineyards  Isliedh 2008 (white blend over £10) and De Heuvel barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc 2009 (white single varietal trophy over £10) as the best wines overall. Furthermore, nine South African trophies were awarded: Idiom Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot-Cabernet Franc 2006, SA Red Bordeaux over £10; Glenwood Vigneron's Selection Chardonnay 2008, SA Chardonnay under £10; Kleine Zalze Shiraz Mourvedre Viognier 2009, SA red Rhône varietal under £10; Oak Valley Pinot Noir 2008, SA red single varietal over £10; Paul Cluver Weisser Riesling NLH 2009, SA sweet over £10; Robertson Winery Constitution Road Shiraz 2006, SA red Rhône varietal over £10; and Uva Mira Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2008, SA Chardonnay over £10.

Jump forward another five years to 2015 and South Africa took home five of only 35 international trophies on offer, a feat beaten only by France with eight and Australia with six. Those sought-after prizes went to De Morgenzon Maestro 2014, Elgin Vintners Pinot Noir 2012, Lomond Cat’s Tail Syrah 2012, Paul Cluver Ferricrete Riesling 2014 and Perdeberg The Dryland Collection barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc 2013.

At the International Wine Challenge in 2005 just two wines were awarded regional trophies: Diemersfontein Carpe Diem Pinotage 2003 and Ken Forrester Wines T NLH 2001, which was awarded the Great Value Sweet Trophy.

2010 saw an improvement in IWC fortunes with Stellar Organics winning the Fairtrade Award with Heaven on Earth Muscat d'Alexandrie vin de paille, while the SA white trophy went to Oak Valley Chardonnay 2009, red to Vrede en Lust’s Boet Erasmus 2007, and the SA botrytis award to Nederburg Winemaster’s Reserve NLH 2009.

This year’s results are an entirely different kettle of fish: two international trophies – again the Fairtrade award, which went to De Bos Sauvignon Blanc 2014, and the international Chenin Blanc trophy awarded to De Morgenzon Reserve 2014. France and Germany each had three international trophies, Chile two and New Zealand and Australia one each. In addition, the IWC Great Value Sweet award for a wine under £15 went to Marks and Spencer Paul Cluver Late Harvest Riesling 2013.

SA trophy winners were: Saronsberg Full Circle 2013, Cape Point Vineyards Isliedh 2013, Nederburg Winemasters Reserve Noble Late Harvest 2013, Boutinot Mon Vieux Hell’s Heights Sauvignon Blanc 2014 and Oldenburg Syrah 2014.

In a few days, Cape Wine 2015 kicks off at the Cape Town International Convention Centre. The level of local and international interest is probably at an all time high because of results such as these – as well as the increasing regard of top international commentators, many of whom are on record as stating that South Africa is the most exciting wine region at present.

To quote Mr Fridjhon’s article again: “Recognising the importance of professionally arrived at judgements and making a commitment to obtaining this feedback represents an extraordinary step on the path to maturity. You can only really consider yourself out of adolescence when you can confront criticism and deal with it on its merits.”

Twenty years on from 1995 South African wines have improved substantially – both in quality and confidence. It’s a Jobodwana moment…

– Fiona McDonald


The announcement of the International Wine & Spirit Competition’s (IWSC) South Africa wine results for 2015 will take place at Cape Wine on Tuesday 15th September. IWSC judge, Dr Winifred Bowman, will also host an IWSC Gold medal winners’ tasting at Speakers’ Corner on the first day of Cape Wine (15th September) at 16:30. Attendees will find out what makes a gold medal winning wine and be one of the first to taste the judges’ favourites.  In an additional announcement, the IWSC will release the South African Producer of the Year shortlist at the show, with the winner declared in November at the annual awards banquet at the Guildhall in London.