Michel Bettane on terroir

Neil Pendock discusses a benchmark essay on South African terroir from France's leading wine critic, Michel Bettane.
The Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show calls itself "South Africa's premier wine competition" in the advertisement bar on the right of this story and in one aspect this is undeniably true - after sales service. Producers annually cue up to spend millions on numerous wine competitions, both local and international, and most regard the process as akin to buying a lottery ticket. Having your wine rated by a panel of so-called experts is a great opportunity for some consulting feedback, yet few competitions give unsuccessful entrants any feedback at all.

The OMTWS is a notable exception: producers are invited to a post judging press conference and a slim guide in pontifical purple called Icons:South Africa's best wines reviewed, is distributed along with WINE magazine. Pontifical purple indeed, but not that this show speaks ex cathedra. Far from it. An insightful essay from Michel Bettane (the most respected of the judges) in this edition of Icons, throws questions marks galore at competitions in general and this one in particular. In fact the subtitle of whether the best South African wines were reviewed is contradicted.

The adjective "best" requires a criterion and in his essay "quest for terroir-driven wines" Bettane assumes terroir - a tasteable sense of place - as an objective function to be maximized. Asked by the show's owner whether "I had come across wines clearly expressing a real sense of origin, I feared I might have to reply 'no'. But during the visits I made after the show I had the good fortune to taste some remarkable and original wines, wines of great personality, produced by winemakers who are not slaves to fashion and who invest all their efforts in obtaining an expression of place."

So why were terroir-full wines AWOL? Bettane anticipates the question and gives a partial answer in the case of Cabernets. He personally "loves" the notes of "mint, eucalyptus or rosemary" in some but does not know whether these are regional fingerprints or simply defects. "Regrettably, many of these wines were not included in the line-up of the competition. The producers told me they do not show them because they believe they have no chance of winning a medal."

Some wines were entered yet still didn't make the grade. In the case of Sauvignon blanc "it was the 2007 Constantia Glen - with its 12% alcohol and its penetrating freshness that might rival a good Sancerre - which most impressed me." Two other Sauvignon blancs were singled out for praise, Fryer's Cove "from the minuscule terroir of Bamboes Bay" was hailed as "utterly unique, as was the mineral tension in the majestic 2008 Sauvignon from Waterkloof." Yet not one of them made the medals.

In the case of Chenin blanc "the standout wine for me was the 2007 De Morgenzon (Stellenbosch)" which scored 72% and bronze. Was Bettane marching to the beat of a different drum to the other tasters? Of course there could have been bottle variation, the biorhythms of the wine were not conducive to tasting that day and a myriad other reasons. Blah, blah, blah.

But there is clearly a problem when all of Bettane's best wines turn up after the judging's finished. Is it a problem of logistics or style? Bettane is lavish indeed with praise for many no-show wines and the strong language used raises a few eyebrows.

"The most astonishing [wines] turned out to be marvels from pockets of the Swartland, Paarl and Wellington, from bush-vines which grow in the midst of an arid, austere but magnificent landscape reminiscent of Languedoc or Roussillon in France. Unpretentious, hard-working and passionate growers showed fellow international judge Julia Harding and me some splendid wines, all with a sense of character infinitely more authentic than many of the great names of Stellenbosch. Vondeling, Scali, Sequillo and the sublime Columella, Lammershoek and Bosman are names to remember. Here the white wines have a crystal purity to their expression and are impossible to stereotype. The reds are harmonious, filled with the aromatic notes which are part of the very atmosphere of the region."

What happened to the pervasive notes of burnt rubber that some UK commentators find in every South African red? Is South Africa shooting itself in the foot and showing the "wrong" wines to foreign critics? Can the industry and/or critics tell the difference? Is perception of quality culturally biased?

Whatever the answer to these thorny questions, there is clearly a huge export opportunity for Paardeberg producers (the quagga's share of brands singled out for praise hail from that granite outcrop in the Swartland) in the swanky restaurants of Paris where the opinion of M. Bettane is taken seriously.

Declaration of a potential conflict of interest: Pendock owns the farm Lemoenfontein on the Paardeberg, on which he endeavors to grow vins du terroir.