That old topic of whether it’s possible to be totally objective when judging wine has raised its head again, with much the same arguments trotted out. James Molesworth of the Wine Spectator maintained in a tweet to UK wine writer, Will Lyons: ‘Critics should judge quality first. Describe style second. Personal preference not a factor.’
Well-known UK wine writer, Jamie Goode, disagrees with Molesworth’s last statement: ‘It all gets a bit silly if you try to recognize well made versions of wines you don’t like versus badly made versions. Some people like super-ripe spoofy wines. As a critic, how do you distinguish good super-ripe spoofy wines from bad? … for the writer, it’s just not possible to separate out style preferences from doing a proper job as a wine critic.’
This last view was echoed by the New York Times’ Eric Asimov, who, most elegantly expresses his view: ‘I believe a critic’s point of view is crucial. My job is not to act as an impartial arbiter of bottles, but as a guide, leading readers on a quest to explore what is most beautiful, fascinating, distinctive, curious, delicious and moving in wine.’
I’m with Messrs Asimov and Goode on this one. Styles have changed and still are here; hopefully, I and some of my colleagues have been partly instrumental in this move. Of couse, winemakers too have played a role, as has the exchange rate; new wood has been beneficially cut back. Remember those early wooded chardonnays – all oak, fat and buttery? Now they’re much fresher, less oaky and many mature well for several years. Cooler areas such as Elgin have also helped in this style evolution.
Even with red wines, it is becoming increasingly possible to find those that are both youthfully delicious and good quality; the two are not mutually exclusive. An excellent example, Trizanne Barnard’s Swartland 2013 Syrah-Grenache, has a light, fresh feel with loads of juicy flavour – spice, soft red berries – and tannins appropriate to its balance and drinkability. Costing just under R100, there’s every reason to reach for a second bottle.
Whether in blends or a varietal wine, shiraz – or syrah – continues to grow in popularity and quality; two of the top five reds as voted for in Tim James‘s poll were Sadie Columella, a shiraz blend, and Mullineux Schist Syrah.
Tim and I recently tasted three shirazes among a batch of new releases; each quite different from the others.
The oldest, though hardly old in years, was Alto Shiraz 2011 (R149). In a bold, ripe style, not always bad in itself except here any sense of variety is diminished, it has the fading ruby shades of a wine somewhat older than its years. One could wish for better acid balance; here it adds a harsh gravelly note rather than a more engaging freshness. The desire for a second glass let alone a second bottle, especially at the price, is unlikely.
At the other end of the style scale, natural wine – basically wine made without the addition of anything apart from the fruit, ie no yeast, no enzymes, fining agents, acid, sulphur or new oak – is a current trend internationally, albeit a niche one here, which it is likely to remain.
Radford Dale Nudity Syrah 2012, more widely available than most, can be found in selected Woolworths stores for R179.95, a price which possibly makes it an attraction only for those with sulphur intolerance.
Sourced from an organic vineyard in Voor-Paardeberg, its natural freshness, moderate 13% alcohol and elegance lend welcome digestibility, though like many natural wines I’ve tasted, it’s uncompromising. A rawness and apparent simplicity are features I often associate with wines where no sulphur is added. They’re not necessarily negatives, rather take some getting used to. Something initially slightly medicinial becomes more savoury and spicy over time in this Radford Dale. There’s flesh to balance the freshness, the firmish tannins accentuated by the wine’s bone dry finish. It’s good, and maybe better after a few years, but it’s not among my favourite natural wines and it certainly doesn’t offer value.
I first tasted Richard Kershaw’s Syrah 2012 at the launch of his maiden Kershaw Chardonnay in November last year. It’s developed nicely since then, with more expression of and interest from its cool climate origin: white spice and smoked meat fragrance, a lightness in its supple feel yet no lack of ripe flavours, the spicy liveliness lingering deliciously. In a global market where too many wines could come from anywhere, individuality and distinction shown here is surely how South Africa will make its mark in the future. I do have one niggle: for me this syrah is too easy, ingratiating even for so young a wine, one that’s intended to age, especially with its serious R280 price tag.
By all means celebrate differences in wine but each should encourage the wish for more.