Icon Wines and Accolades; the value of competition

Thursday, 25 October, 2012
Dave March, CWM
When you think of Bordeaux, you think of the Châteaux of Margaux, Lafite, Latour and of 'Pétrus', Burgundy brings to mind Montrachet and 'Romanée Conti', Spain leads to 'Vega Sicilia' and Italy to 'Sassicaia'. Think of California and it's ‘Screaming Eagle’ and 'Opus One', Australia and it is 'Grange' and 'Hill of Grace'. Chile has 'Almaviva' and New Zealand 'Cloudy Bay'.
Think of South Africa and it is….? Well, it could be Rubicon, or Paul Sauer, or perhaps Trilogy, Isliedh, Fusion V or Columella. The problem is, as UK Master of Wine Serena Sutcliffe said, “South Africa just does not have any iconic wines”. Yet.

It takes time to establish icons; it takes twenty years to make a great wine and another twenty to establish consistency, according to Eben Sadie, and SA has a short history of producing fine wines. There are ‘very few’ possible icons and a ‘lack of agreement on what would be the icons’, according to Michael Fridjhon. A survey I conducted amongst more than a hundred industry leaders produced mixed results when asked to name SA’s icon wines. Some refused to name any, others named their own, unbottled wines, and little agreement emerged.  ‘Paul Sauer’, the most named, polled just 16% of the votes. 

In most regions, icon wines have emerged through trading. Bordeaux first growths were created directly from their market prices, and more recently, investors and auctions have created the New World icons. The lack of a trade platform in SA (despite sterling efforts and growing influence of the Nederburg and Cape Winemakers Guild Auctions) and the absence of investment in possible SA icon wines as tradeable assets, either domestically or internationally, hampers the emergence of icon wines. South African wine has suffered from ‘little marketing abroad, not enough overseas ratings and too low a price’, says Emile den Dulk of De Toren.

So, without a trade platform to establish wine icons, could competition success be the way forward? Certainly, differentiation of wine quality is essential in creating icon wines, and investors, the trade and consumers need signposts (and benchmarks). Christine MacDonald, organiser of the Decanter World Wine Awards is adamant that, “producers cannot create icon wines.”Perhaps, then, competitions can create them? Is there a correlation between being awarded accolades and gaining icon status?

The answer is; possibly. Many producers do not make enough, or choose not to submit their wines for competitions, and several icon wines have emerged without show success. That leaves only reviews in publications such as ‘Platters’, ‘Wine Spectator’ and ‘Decanter’, the blessing of Robert Parker and the blossoming on-line ‘blog’ community to create a buzz. This can be hit and miss, ‘Platter’s’, for example, rates the wines, ‘in an SA context’ (page 9, 2012) and as Eben Sadie points out, scores gradually become meaningless as 95 points in one season inevitably leads to 95 or 96 if the wine is similar, the next. If the wine is worse it drops to 91 or 92, rarely a more justified 85. Still, as Jamie Goode writes in his blog, ‘these days, the ‘best’ is defined in wine terms by stellar critic scores’ (22.11.2011), and ‘media endorsement of a wine plays an important role in achieving icon status’, says Wine Australia, so should not be underrated.

Those that do submit to competitions risk the vagaries of subjective assessments. Domestic competitions have been criticised for being judged by insular judges, out of touch with world standards. Tim James wrote in 2009, ‘it would be depressing indeed to imagine that the Trophy Wine Show judges have awarded gold medals to red wines representing the best the Cape has to offer’. In 2008 UK writer Jane MacQuitty assessed a selection of Platter’s 4 ½ and 5 star wines as ‘a train wreck’. Neil Pendock cites this disconnect at a 2011 Chenin Blanc challenge, when Cathy van Zyl MW correlated at -0.77 with Michael Fridjhon, total disagreement, indeed. The South African Wine Index (SAWi) is an attempt to ‘even out’ such variations by averaging scores over time and between competitions and is a positive step forward. 

Domestic competitions, such as the Veritas Awards, Classic Wine Trophy, Terroir Wine Awards, Micheangelo Awards and Trophy Wine Show – many of whom include international judges - diligently and honestly show us the best – in their opinions – of local wines, but icon wines need a world stage. The International Wine and Spirits Competition (IWSC), the International Wine Challenge (IWC), Decanter World Wine Awards and ConcoursMondialBruxelles offer international parallels and must be the way to go. Despite the criticisms, wine competitions and reviews are creating icon wines. SA wines are becoming more and more successful at the highest levels, collecting International Trophies and Gold medals in abundance.

So can accolades create icons? I think so, though Christine MacDonald adds some caveats. “Shows alone don’t automatically create icons, and to be effective entries need to be only the best of the region, there must be a large entry to show differentiation ( Decanter assesses more than 14,000 wines), and judging must be international, then, wines need to be successful over time”. Once a brand is established, though, accolades ‘become less important’, says Ina Basson of Oldenburg Vineyards.

Consistency is key, and some wines are well on the way. Consider the Kanonkop Paul Sauer red, a leading candidate for icon status. The 2005 gained an ‘outstanding’ rating in Platter’s, 94points in the US Wine Enthusiast magazine, won a Trophy in the Decanter awards and won Gold (best in class) in the IWSC. Another to show universal consistency was the 2008 ‘FMC’ Chenin from Ken Forrester. It gained 5 stars in Platter’s, 92 points from Wine Spectator magazine in the US, 5 stars from the UK Decanter magazine and a Silver medal in the IWSC. There are many more SA wines which reveal a degree of international and domestic award consistency and which, over time, will earn international icon status. As Meerlust winemaker Chris Williams says, ‘show success reminds consumers just why a wine is an icon and maintains the connection between them’. Chris stresses how important demand and sales are to becoming an icon and that competition success can stimulate both.

I applaud wine producers putting their wines up for international scrutiny, and any success is well deserved. I have reservations about assessments that announce, for example, the ‘SA Top 100’ if only 386 wines were judged (of a possible 6,700+, an insignificant 6%). ‘Top 100’ of 386, perhaps, but not of all SA wines. Still, it deserves a chance as the international judges are impeccable, the judging has integrity, it may be that only producers’ best wines were submitted and in time this may become much more inclusive and therefore more meaningful.

Undoubtedly, there are SA wines developing icon status. Their number must be few, their availability must be low, their price high, they need to be marketed, especially abroad, as the pinnacle of production; and they need to show consistency. Competition success over time will show that consistency and therefore, wine reviews and accolades are essential in establishing credentials, forging the link with the consumer and establishing – then maintaining - a position as an icon wine.Critical acclaim via reviews and shows is often key to their success and though accolades don’t guarantee icon status, they certainly add recognition and prestige in a crowded marketplace.
Icons and accolades...
Icons and accolades...

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