Competition merry-go-round

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Picture if you will a gilded, somewhat gaudy and mirrored carousel, with little ponies on poles, hurdy gurdy music playing – repetitively! (You can almost hear the tune can’t you? It’s an ear worm: once in your head it wriggles deeper and deeper, and all you can hear in your head is that song!) But this is not about the music, it’s about those little ponies on a merry-go-round, the ones that kiddies love to ride. They go up and down, round and round, all to that irksome tune.

That source of all modern knowledge, the Internet, reported that the contemporary carousel owes its origin to the Middle Eastern and European tradition of jousting. Horsemanship was a prized skill and apparently knights would gallop around in a circle, flinging balls to one another. Ostensibly honourable knights going to fight in the Crusades noticed their Moorish counterparts doing this and brought the new horsey pastime back home with them. Well, those who made it home, that is.

It eventually became a training exercise for the cavalry – preparing them for combat, strengthening them, their mounts, and their handling skills and abilities. Even the word ‘carousel’ is derived from the Italian and Spanish words for the game, ‘carosella’ – or ‘little battle’, which Wikipedia reports was ‘a combat preparation exercise and game played by Turkish and Arabian horsemen in the 12th century’.

Well, April and May mark the international wine judging merry-go-round: just like those fibreglass carousel ponies, the results can be up and down. It’s also something of a battle or combat preparedness exercise for all involved. Organisers fight for the bragging rights of being the biggest/best/most prestigious, as well as for entrants’ entry fees. Judges fight physical and palate fatigue, doing around 100 wines in a day, for days on end – which takes its acid- and tannin-packed toll on the tongue and tooth enamel. And the entrants fight fellow competitors for medals and special recognition, hoping their wine or wines impress the judges.

Apart from regular tastings and ratings in the big magazines (Decanter, Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator) competitions such as the International Wine Challenge, the International Wine & Spirit Competition, Decanter World Wine Awards and Concours Mondial de Bruxelles offer producers the opportunity of promoting their wine’s merits over and above the competition.

Ask those who won one of the 32 coveted International Trophies at the 2013 Decanter World Wine Awards what it meant to them and their brands – Boschendal for the Reserve Collection Shiraz 2011, Cape Point Vineyards for Isliedh 2012, Paul Cluver for the Gewürztraminer 2012 and Cederberg for the David Nieuwoudt Ghost Corner Sauvignon Blanc 2012 – and the answers are overwhelmingly positive.

“In 2008 Cederberg had the pleasure of tasting – for the first time ever – the joy of being ‘the world’s best’. Cederberg Shiraz won the International Trophy at Decanter for best Rhône varietal red above £10,” said Cederberg’s Pieter du Toit. “The day it was announced, by home time we’d had more than 150 messages of congratulations from all over the world, friends, business colleagues and the media. That feeling of pride was for Cederberg but more so for South Africa. There’s a saying of taking one for the team … suddenly it had new meaning!

“So five years later, the same thing happened! Needless to say there was the same euphoria all over again. Nothing beats it.”

He said that sort of internationally recognised accolade placed a producer on the map, something Andries Burger, cellarmaster of Elgin’s Paul Cluver Wines echoed: “It’s just that much easier to get appointments and meetings internationally – a foot in the door with agents and representatives – when you have an award such as this. It proves to potential clients and customers that you’re worth the time and effort. It definitely opens doors.”

While acknowledging that it also shone a light and heaped glory on the achievements of the backroom boys, the folks in the vineyard and winery who made it happen, Jacques Roux, marketing director of DGB wines, likened it to “winning the big bucks – but with the added advantage of finding that you don’t have to pay tax!”

There was a massive amount of pride and honour to have a wine rated and judged by the world’s best deemed a world beater itself, he said.

Ultimately there’s a purely commercial imperative too: having won a top international award means that your wine is in demand – retailers and restaurants worth their salt have to have it on their shelves and lists, which moves stock in a big way.

So from 6 to 23 April the International Wine Challenge will be in full swing, from 24 April to 1 May is the Decanter World Wine Awards and Concours Mondial de Bruxelles rounds it off on the weekend of 2 to 4 May.

Which is why people pay their tickets for the merry-go-round, even if the music remains irritating…

– Fiona McDonald