That golden glow

South Africa now has 25 wine competitions – which is coincidentally the same anniversary the Veritas Awards celebrated on Friday 09 October. In spite of pretensions to the throne, the Veritas Awards , established in 1991, is still the competition by which South African success is measured locally.

For the fifth year in a row, the KWV was the biggest winner on the night – waltzing off with five double gold medals and nine golds. Factor in the brandy double golds (three) and gold (one) and it makes their victory not just an emphatic one but a runaway triumph. Closest contenders were Nederburg and Spier, both with two double golds, and 11 and eight gold medals respectively.

Veritas top achievers from left to right:  Frans Smit (Spier), Natasha Boks (Nederburg), Charles Hopkins (Veritas Chairman), Johann Fourie (KWV).  Photograph: Andrew Gorman

By a stroke of good fortune I was seated next to KWV chief winemaker Johann Fourie and was the ultimate fly on the wall. With one member of the KWV team anxiously noting the medal tally as the evening wore on, it was obvious that a few nails were being chomped and sweaty brows mopped, but Fourie was the proverbial cool cucumber, maintaining his equanimity and unruffled exterior throughout.

I had a flashback to a personal tasting with his predecessor, Aussie Richard Rowe, six or seven years ago at the KWV in Paarl. Rowe stated unequivocally that it was his aim to make the KWV the pre-eminent wine producer in South Africa – and the Veritas Awards was his benchmark. At the time it was quite a startling pronouncement because the KWV was reeling from a number of setbacks – the Sauvignon Blanc scandal a few years earlier, ownership battles and transformational issues, as well as pure commercial and winemaking quality challenges, not to mention reputational credibility.

Rowe handed over the reins to Fourie a few years ago after charting the course for the young, motivated winemaking team and under this quiet, unassuming leader it has continued to go from strength to strength. Fourie’s modesty and humility – as well as astute team leadership and quite obvious winemaking talent – vindicated Rowe’s faith in him.

But what do the results of the Veritas Awards say about the state of South African wine?

The biggest haul of medals went to Sauvignon Blanc, with seven double golds – and another for a wooded example. The red blends category is divided into Bordeaux-style, Cape blends and Other, with two, three and three double golds awarded respectively – otherwise it could be argued that this was the strongest category on the night.

In terms of straight varietal categories it was impossible to establish a winner, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage and Shiraz each walking off with five double golds. Chardonnay was awarded three and Chenin Blanc just one.

It must be noted that of the 1 763 entries, the biggest fields of entry were Sauvignon Blanc with 229 submissions, Shiraz with 167 and Cabernet Sauvignon with 132.

A deserved uptick in applause greeted the news that the best overall performer in the category for less than 10 entries was Kanonkop which took home two double golds – unsurprisingly for Pinotage vintages 2009 and 2012 – alongside two golds for Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010 and 2011.

And if there was any doubt about the South African industry moving and changing with the times, the meal was prepared by celebrity chefs David Higgs and Bertus Basson, who joined forces with Cape Town International Convention Centre executive chef Warwick Thomas; entertainment took the form of a performance by the 2010 winner of Idols, Elvis Blue – and then there was the social media moment of the night with Anura winemaker Johnnie Calitz taking a brazen selfie while accepting his double gold medal from chairman Charles Hopkins!

Johnnie Calitz taking a brazen selfie while accepting his double gold medal from chairman Charles Hopkins.

– Fiona McDonald