The French taste South Africa

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

It was 16 years ago, in 1998, that a group of French wine men and women – from both France and locally based – came together to taste and judge South African wines in the Preteux Bourgeois Classic Wine Trophy; their purpose was to find ‘the best South African wines with ageing potential’. Fifteen years down the line, the Frenchmen (all men this time) still gather to taste and judge, their purpose having evolved ‘to recognise, reward and promote the elegance, balance, finesse, ageability and a sense of place in South African wines’, in The Taj Classic Wine Trophy – the Taj Hotel in Cape Town CBD being the present sponsor.

Judges, ownership of the competition and sponsors might have changed (as have entries; from 113 in year one to a high of over 600; this year’s figure was 340) but it’s fascinating to see how results have shown a preference for particular varieties and specific producers.

Chardonnay and Shiraz are regularly among the trophy winners, while Chamonix, Hamilton Russell Vineyards and Groot Constantia make frequent appearances at the awards’ ceremony. The first two enjoy success with their Chardonnays, which are among the country’s most consistent in style, as well as quality, definitely ageability and probably a sense of place.

The competition is run over three rounds with the judges tasting blind in groups of two; with each round, wines are eliminated until the final fourth round, when the remaining wines are tasted by all the judges. Of this year’s entries, just 19 (listed below) were deemed worthy of a Bacchus Trophy. As the judges were unable to separate Hamilton Russell Vineyards and Morgenster, the overall prize of a new barrel from each Tonnellerie Claude Gillet and Tonnellerie Darjanou was shared between them.

One of the most enlightening aspects of any competition is hearing what the judges thought of the wines entered. At the awards dinner, Olivier Poels, editor and managing partner of influential French wine guide La Revue du Vin de France, who chairs the panel and has been part of the competition for the past nine years, re-iterated what he has said on previous occasions: that South African wines are not New World in style.

This view was echoed by Olivier Poussier, one time winner of best sommelier in the world, wine consultant and writer. He expressed disappointment that only one Chenin Blanc of the several entered was deemed worthy of a top spot, as he believes the variety has a great future here. Semillon also caught his attention: ‘There is great quality in your Semillon; I’m sad it’s being neglected, as it could be a real winner.’

So why were no Semillons among the winners? Show organiser and owner of Dorrance Wines Christophe Durand explained the judges also visit various wineries, which is where M Poussier tasted Semillon. Unfortunately, few are entered, producers believing there’s little market for the variety in Europe. This is relevant as winners are not only listed in La Revue du Vin de France 2014 but also promoted at the guide’s May Salon in Paris; since both attract potential European buyers, it makes sense to enter wines that the market will show an interest in.

According to M Poussier, our climate also favours white Rhône-style blends, but not Sauvignon Blanc. This latter variety has become something of a whipping boy for the French; their reaction is so predictable now, I wonder if their prejudice doesn’t automatically kick in when the Sauvignons are tasted or why any producer enters. Sauvignon hasn’t been totally absent from the winners’ list but overall the French plainly do not like our wines. M Poussier went as far as to say it’s not the grape for South Africa – it lacks a sense of personality and terroir. Granted, many are made in a forward, fruity commercial style, simply because it is good for cash flow, but there are also many more serious wines. I doubt any French criticism will deter either locals or many foreign markets from buying and drinking them.

Reds always attract more controversy than whites – the Villiera bubbly, Rudera Chenin Noble Late Harvest and five still whites were generally very much liked, although M Poussier praised Bordeaux-style blends and Syrah for their elegance, freshness and finesse. Of the few Pinot Noirs entered, he noted the judges found some too sweet or over the top. ‘They need more freshness, more pure fruit,’ he advised.

Apart from M Poels, M Poussier and M Durand, the judges were Claude Gilois, wine writer, consultant and wine blogger; Philippe Dietrich, winemaker and director of Michael Petzold Wine Services; Jean-Yves Muller, co-owner of Sotano and Petit Caveau restaurants; and Germain Lehodey, sommelier at Mosaic restaurant, Pretoria.

Thanks to them and previous judges, there is today much more awareness of South African wines in France.

Taj Classic Wine Trophy 2014 winners

Sparkling wine

Villiera Monro Brut 2008

White wines

DeMorgenzon Chenin Blanc Reserve 2013

Chamonix Chardonnay Reserve 2013

Hamilton Russell Vineyards Chardonnay 2013

Hamilton Russell Vineyards Chardonnay 2012

Groot Constantia Chardonnay 2013

Whalehaven Chardonnay 2012

Red wines

Creation Pinot Noir 2012

Whalehaven Merlot 2011

Glen Carlou Grand Classique 2011

Bellingham The Bernard Series SMV 2012

Creation Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot 2010

La Motte Pierneef Shiraz-Viognier 2011

Groot Constantia Gouveneurs Reserve 2011

Morgenster 2010

Morgenster 2003

Delaire Graff Botmaskop 2012

The High Road Classique 2010

Dessert wine

Rudera Chenin Blanc Noble Late Harvest 2010

– Angela Lloyd