A ramble through Tim Atkin’s SA report

A bit late in the day but Tim Atkin’s 2014 South Africa report deserves attention and airing.

Tim Atkin (r) congratulating Charles Back on his Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2014 International Wine Challenge Awards
Tim Atkin (r) congratulating Charles Back on his Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2014 International Wine Challenge Awards

I have no idea how many, in either hemisphere, have bought it but wine people in both should (it’s available here for R220, a sum that’s hardly going to break the bank). For those in the northern sphere of the planet, I guess mainly in the UK, you (and we) are lucky Atkin has not only a keen palate but a keen eye; his numerous photographs add significantly to his report, capturing a sense of the place in the scenic shots and hinting at the character behind the portraits of the wine people. For those unlucky enough not to have visited the Cape and met the winemakers, these provide a characterful setting for the classification and individual ratings to come. It makes the point that wine can never be divorced from where it grows and the people who make it; thus there’s a completeness in Atkin’s report which should provide useful insight too.

For those in the southern sphere, Atkin’s is an important and informed voice from outside the country. Much of what he has written, especially in the 10 things you need to know about Cape wines, has been voiced by local commentators, but such is the ‘smallness’ of the local industry, it listens to those it likes or wants to listen to rather than always those who speak sense. I hope I sometimes do, so am particularly delighted Atkin mentions my particular hobby horse – the need for greater varietal diversity, a diversity that would better suit our current climate and soils as well as with an eye on climate change. As it is just eight varieties currently account for 80% of our vineyard; in my and Atkin’s view, a case of putting too many eggs in one basket.

He’s fair but pulls no punches where necessary, such as describing the country’s over-sized bulk wine as ‘anonymous at best’. At the top end ‘over-oaking and excessive alcohol levels are far too common, as are heavy, bicep-challenging bottles.’ From my own observations, alcohol levels are decreasing or at least there is better balance in the wines so those high alcohols (15%+) are less noticeable on taste, but – and it’s a big ‘but’ – their effect remains; one can drink less of them from the point of view of the drink/driving issue and they’re generally exhausting and lack refreshment. Oak and especially those bragging bottles remain issues, (as I’ve said elsewhere, if Meerlust and Kanonkop can sell their top wines for good prices in bottles of modest weight and design, why can’t others?)

If I do have a quibble, it’s that Atkin – and others – still refer to chenin blanc as ‘South Africa’s most undervalued white grape’. With Eben Sadie’s Mev Kirsten, Ken Forrester’s FMC, Chris Alheit’s new Magnetic North selling for several hundreds of Rands and others, going for at least three figures, being snapped up, chenin’s time has surely come. It’s just at the cheaper end that sauvignon remains more popular than chenin.

I also had a raised eyebrow at the paucity of fortifieds Atkin’s mentions – just the Overgaauw Cape Vintage 1994 – the current release! But he tells me others weren’t presented. Come on, Calitzdorpers, not to mention KWV, Monis and others who produce Cape style fortifieds that even the Portuguese admire; there are excellent jerepigos and Muscadels out there too. This report is an excellent platform to show off the best of our diverse wine styles.

Atkin has a terrific work ethic; he kindly let me join him on one of his mop-up tastings, where he tastes sighted, by variety and, apart from his iPod quietly looping his favourites, silently throughout the day. I also like tasting to music, finding it helps my concentration. It was a wonderful opportunity to tastes wines I either didn’t know or hadn’t had for a long time.

It’s a sad fact that as the number of producers increases, I’m going to be able to get to know fewer and fewer of them. The cost in time and petrol for, mainly, no financial return makes getting around to everyone an impossibility. My own approach is if I’m impressed by the wines and believe the winery is serious and understanding of quality, I’ll visit; even then I’m not entirely successful in getting round to everyone.

Atkin tastes far more broadly at any one time than any journalist here; one reason it’s unwise to criticise his classification. In any event, in such a vibrant and evolving industry as ours, there will always be movement up and down the list. We’re not alone: even the so-called hallowed 1855 Classification of the Bordeaux growths would look somewhat different should a re-organisation be permitted.

However pleased or aggrieved people might feel at where they are or aren’t on the list this year, for those serious about quality, next year might bring more positive results.

South Africa is fortunate to receive such detailed attention in this professionally presented report; future editions should be no less interesting, or controversial.

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