Change can arrive gradually, at a measured pace, or in a flash with suitable fanfare. Evolution of wine styles would, I suggest, be far more likely to happen in the former manner, wild swings being likely to alienate customers and likely not lead to better wine in any event.
Sometimes change is so gradual and undertaken by a relatively small section of the industry that it takes a particular event to focus it in the conscious mind.
Much has been written about the improvement in South African wines over the past ten to fifteen years. In that time, our wines have performed very well on international tastings; while this adds positively to our image, I believe the real test of ongoing popularity with winelovers is how well they go with food. Wines with the WOW factor might brush aside competitors on the show table but don’t necessarily go down as well on the dinner table, nor can they indefinitely hold one’s interest; they are both too loud and without sufficient nuance.
By the same token, the elegance needed in wines that complement a meal also requires presence or authority. Elegance with authority isn’t easily achieved but it is a goal to be aimed for.
Progress was illustrated at a dinner prepared by Michelin star chef, Roger Jones of The Harrow in the UK and held at The Vineyard in Newlands last Friday. The wine side of the event pitted South African wines against Australian counterparts, one pairing for each of the six courses served.
Sparkling wine started things off, followed by riesling, chardonnay, pinot noir, shiraz and dessert wine. Guests voted, via numbered cards on their glasses, for their favourite wine from each pairing – not as easy as it may sound as one could like one wine but the other went better with the food.
Much to my surprise, South Africa won the encounter 5-1, losing out only to the Australian bubbly. It was more the margin of the win than the win itself which surprised. One might say the result was due to a South African palate, although many guests present have experience of international wines, but I divert.
The two wines which alerted me as to progress in capturing that elusive elegance with authority combination, were the Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Pinot Noir 2013 and Eagles’ Nest Shiraz 2011; yes two red wines. The pinot was paired with grilled kingklip with chorizo and vine tomatoes, the shiraz with duck bon bon, parsnip puree and duck tea. The core intensity, even from still relatively young vines, coupled with sensitive vinification and oaking allowed both to shine and complement those dishes.
With a wider spread of red varieties starting to grab winemakers’
attention, this positive move should gather momentum. I say that as grenache noir, cinsault, carignan, even sangiovese, as well as pinot noir, varieties gaining traction with winemakers, don’t benefit from the same treatment as cabernet.
Fortunately, those leading the pack are setting an excellent example by taking their foot off the accelerator and producing wines with purity and freshness. That major favourite, shiraz, in the past has suffered from cabernet-syndrome; today many winemakers are taking a much gentler approach with less new oak.
So that I’m not accused of ignoring white wines altogether, look what’s happened to chardonnay. At the dinner, I was convinced the tight, citrusy fresh wine was from Elgin (it was in fact a smashing M3 Shaw & Smith 2012 from the Adelaide Hills) but that is the style many are striving for, especially in cooler regions like Elgin.
South African wines are receiving much more attention on the international scene, mainly through much improved quality; now is the time for their elegance and authority to receive acclaim.
Now is the time to see more dimming of the WOW switch.