SAA Shield – 20 years on

Twenty years ago today, the South African wine industry was on the brink of a rude wake-up call. It duly arrived the following day when South African wines received a 78 to 21 point thrashing by the Aussies at the first and only SAA Shield.

Michael Fridjhon, with John Platter, Lynne Sherriff MW and James Halliday (‘doyen of Australian wine writers’), conceived the idea during a trip to Chile early in 1995. Fridjhon has chronicled the background story in detail here, but I asked him and John Platter about the timing, whether they felt the goal was met and of most interest, do they believe today’s youngsters would have done as well regardless.

Timewise, Fridjhon responded; ‘We were just emerging from isolation, demand for South African wine was massive and no one seemed to be paying attention to the concerns I had been expressing (I think John Platter was also on record cautioning the industry about international expectations) about how far we had slipped behind in the 10 years since formal sanctions. There was no point in trying any sooner and later would only have exacerbated the problems.’

Both Fridjhon and Platter confirm the goal to give the industry a wake-up call was met. Platter added: ‘Competition is healthy; this one did an enormous amount of good and, of course, eventually led to the tri- now six-nations annual event.’

Would our young guns be the toast of the international market regardless of the Shield? Fridjhon again: ‘ In the main, yes. They have the talent and international vision. But it might have taken longer: their mentors and role models were fast-tracked because of the Shield. It was the cellar rats of that era who brought the transformative power to the industry.’ Platter feels it was too long ago to contribute to what’s going on today, but says the youngsters may be aware of this event.

I asked a few young and slightly older winemakers whether they’d heard of the Shield; some had vague recognition, others none. These winemakers are free from the baggage carried by the young and slightly older in 1995. I’ve been told that once the results, predicted by both Fridjhon and Platter, were made public, several of the industry’s senior players were incandescent with rage. Not at any lack in their wines, a lack they didn’t believe existed, but that the show was held at all and that it would harm exports.

The upshot of this furore was that: ‘SAA succumbed to dinosaur-like views from KWV and other conservative elements in the wine industry and held back from affirming its sponsorship (of similar events against Chilean and Argentinian wines).’ To quote Dr John Seiler, an American political scientist, who lived in South Africa until his death. How things have changed since then. Sure, there are still people who prefer not to enter competitions or the Platter guide, but there’s much more open-mindedness today.

Associate judges: (l-r) Oz Clarke, Tony Mossop, yours truly, Jeremy Oliver, Vanya Cullen, Jabulani Ntshangane, Max Allen
Associate judges: (l-r) Oz Clarke, Tony Mossop, yours truly, Jeremy Oliver, Vanya Cullen, Jabulani Ntshangane, Max Allen

I played a small role in the Shield. Fridjhon had kindly invited me to be one of the Associate Judges; the Aussies brought along their own too, as well as divers media. Held in the old BMW building in the V&A Waterfront, official and Associate judges tasted in separate rooms; we had infinitely more fun, not least because Oz Clarke was our Chairman!

But we were serious too: we might be Associates whose ratings don’t count, but we were as professional as the pros next door when tasting. It was a great learning curve. As it was tasting with the Aussies, always known for being smart and uncompromising, which they were about some of our wines.

South African wines did win three classes, all white, but these successes were overshadowed by the wine that came third (yes!) in the Shiraz class: Stellenzicht Syrah 1994. It caused a storm not only because it was precocious but because it had beaten the ultimate Aussie flagship, Grange, a 1990. Even the class winner and second, Henschke Hill of Grace 1991 and Mount Langi Ghiran “Langi” Shiraz 1993, received less attention than André van Rensburg’s amazing Syrah (the first allowed to be so named). Afterwards, van Rensburg being van Rensburg had plenty to say about the event and SA wines in general, advising those who couldn’t keep up with international quality should grow vegetables instead (I summarise)!

Rather label-damaged but indisputably Grange-beater, Stellenzicht Syrah 1994
Rather label-damaged but indisputably Grange-beater, Stellenzicht Syrah 1994

I subsequently bought six bottles of that wine and to commemorate this 20th anniversary, invited colleagues Christian Eedes, Tim James and Aussie, David Clarke to taste my last bottle – blind, of course, and without any indication of what they were tasting except that ‘it’s a wine of historical significance.’ While each guessed its South African origin and were close with vintage, none managed variety, which surprised me a little. There’s still suggestions of red fruit and spice in its tertiary complexity. It’s a big wine, but beautifully balanced and very much alive. A revelation in its day, this bottle at least would have performed well in a line-up of current shirazes/syrahs.

Van Rensburg recalls: ‘I picked at 25 degrees balling which was horrific to me and the alc was around 14,4% – therefore 14% on the label which I designed! 10% Merlot was added for fruit complexity and the wine was aged 10 months in 225 l barrels and a further 8 months in 2500/5000 l wooden tanks – about 3 years old at the time.’

Van Rensburg went on to Vergelegen in 1998, since producing a range of wines recognised as among South Africa’s best.

Twenty years ago, Richard Kelley, now a Master of Wine, was gaining experience in the Cape to help pass that demanding exam. I remember his comment after the Shield: ‘South African wine is going through a revolution; it takes a long time to turn around a dinosaur but once complete, South African wine will go through the much more exciting phase of evolution.’

Twenty years on, in 2015, that evolution, full of the promised excitement, is taking place.

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