Acclaimed Sommelier and Michelangelo judge Miguel Chan on wine competitions: the Spinal Cord of any Dynamic Wine Industry

In modern-day speak, the expression “go-to” succinctly sums up what you are trying to communicate. In South Africa there are a handful of individuals who warrant the prefix of go-to when describing their reputation and status in the diverse and expansive wine industry. Miguel Chan, respected judge, skilled wine-taster and Group Sommelier for the Tsogo Sun Group of hotels is one of these.

Miguel has tasted local and international wines most of us can only dream of, and his ability of describing their merits and communicating their provenance, as well as clearly explaining the wines’ intrinsics, has made him an important voice of South African wine. Not only is he responsible for ensuring the vinous integrity of the respected Tsogo Sun hospitality group with his selections and purchases, but Miguel plays such a significant role as a commentator on South African wine that many wine-makers and marketing teams follow and implement his advice.

This year the Michelangelo International Wine and Spirits Awards will see Miguel joining the panel of mostly international judges, and with Tsogo Sun being one of this revered competition’s main sponsors, this partnership is as perfect as the one between good oak barrels and a fine Chardonnay.

The topic of wine competitions and the practice of wine judging is a perennial space for comment and debate, and here Miguel is quite adamant about which side of the spectrum he is on.

“Wine competitions are the spinal cord of any dynamic wine industry,” he says. “They serve both as quality barometers and benchmarking parameters to the wine producers and consumers by informing and keeping us up to date vis a vis the changes and innovations in the industry. This could entail new releases, stylistic changes in wines or the exciting emergence of off-the-beaten-track new wine regions, for example, think of the characterful red wines coming from Prieska in the Northern Cape.

“From the most qualified wine experts to the housewife looking for a good bottle of crisp Chenin Blanc for the family dinner, we all need guidance and information. Wine competitions provide this by leading us to these wines that have stood up to the scrutiny of a panel of experienced wine judges.”

At the end of the day, says Miguel, it is about making wine accessible, interesting and appealing.

“The South African wine environment can be an intimidating place for the wine-consumer,” he says. There is a lot of fragmentation between large and boutique producers with virtually no cohesion among brands. Add the fact of there being some 8 000 wine brands in the country, and buying wine can be a chaotic and intimidating experience  – even for professionals.

“Wine competitions such as the Michelangelo International Wine and Spirits Awards thus have a tremendously meaningful place in recognising excellence, directly influencing the market and thereby paving the path for a more vibrant and cutting edge Cape wine industry.”

Last year Michelangelo leapt to new heights in terms of sponsorship when Tsogo Sun decided to partner the competition, enabling the group to access and give exposure to winners and their wines.

What are the benefits of Tsogo’s relationship with Michelangelo?

“First let me explain what Tsogo Sun is about, as the group is often misunderstood by the wine industry at large,” says Miguel, who is known for his opinions on the need for South African producers to consider the broader national wine market.

Tsogo Sun is Africa’s premier gaming, hotel and entertainment group with an unparalleled variety, footprint and scale. It encompasses a portfolio of 13 casinos and entertainment destinations, as well as more than 300 restaurants and bars and over 250 conference and banqueting facilities plus variety of theatres and cinemas. These are strategically located across six provinces in South Africa, as well as over 100 hotels in South Africa, Africa, the Seychelles and the Middle East,” he says.

“Our vision is to provide quality hospitality and leisure experiences at every one of our destinations. The various wine lists showcase a diversity of selections at competitive pricing and it is one of our core offerings as part of the Tsogo Sun experience.” (The latter, it must be said, is largely due to Miguel’s vision and implementation of a formidable wine selection and procurement program.)

And he is clear about the potential in the relationship between Michelangelo and Tsogo Sun.

“Our mutual benefits from the strategic relationship with Michelangelo is in cementing our pole position as the leading hospitality wine-buyer in South Africa by offering the very best of South African wines,” he says. “By showcasing selected Michelangelo award-winning wines on our various hotels’ and lodges’ wine lists we are a proud supporter of the Cape wine industry’s link to the hospitality world.”

As far as his role as Michelangelo judge goes, he says the fact that the competition makes use of a panel predominantly made up of international judges is a distinct point of difference.

“The wine world is in a constant evolution and having the insights and experience of international judges ensures the selections are made by persons up to speed with current developments in the wine world,” he says. “The Cape’s rise to global prominence since about 2012 as the most exciting wine producing country in the world, right now would not have been possible without the influx and expert opinions from beyond our shores!”

Few people realise the demands placed on wine judges. What traits should a good wine judge have and what aspects of the judging process are most taxing and challenging?

“Wine tasting is not glamourous nor the coolest job as the uninitiated would believe it to be,” he says. “It requires real passion to do the job. And it is a serious responsibility undertaken by sommeliers, wine buyers and critics on a daily basis. Many have been doing this for a living for years and definitely contribute to both the wine industry and the requirements of the consumer in the united quest of finding great wines of that moment.

“Tasting wines for anything between four to six hours a day requires unfailing concentration at all times, an unbiased view and perception of what is in the glass(es).

Miguel says that fairness, impartiality and objectivity are key in dissecting the intrinsic value of the product being judged. “Subjectivity has no place at all in a wine tasting environment. And one word I will often refer to when judging wines in a group is ‘humility’.”

And as Miguel himself shows, humility and expertise can go hand-in-hand.

Miguel Chan

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