Internationally awarded SA wines. Meaning and value for producers.

Monday, 22 October, 2012
Neil Pendock
Neil McGuigan, winemaker and CEO of McGuigan’s Wines in the Hunter and Barossa Valleys of Australia, was international judge at this year’s Diners Club Winemaker of the Year Competition which went down earlier this month at the Grand Roche in Paarl. “Australia has decided to combine Face Book, Twitter and You Tube” said Neil with a straight face. It will be called YouTwitFace.”
McGuigan’s employs around 450 people full time and up to 600 at harvest and at one stage, crushed 10% of Australia’s grapes. So a small operation, it ain’t. Listed on the Sydney stock exchange, the share today trades around 50c but had been as high as A$6.50 in the frothy days when Aussie wine was on a roll. Those halcyon days before subprime mortgages knocked the stuffing out of the global economy.

Today Neil spends a lot of his time on planes, heading for “matings” (Chinglish pronunciation) with Chinese buyers “to get his balls rolling” and then off to the UK to oversee the bulk bottling of some of his wines. Confirming that the problem of bulk wine exports is not restricted to SA. In fact, with double the distance to travel for Aussie wines, financial pressure to bottle in Europe is even stronger for antipodean producers. “You have to keep your eye on the ball and control your own bottling, wherever it is done.”

Winning the award for International White Winemaker of the Year at the International Wine and Spirits Competition last year was a feather in his cap. As was being voted Australian Producer of the Year. As the landing page of the corporate website brags "It is an absolute honour for us to receive the coveted International Winemaker of the Year and Australian Producer of the Year trophies at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London. To receive these trophies twice in the last three years is testament to our continual drive for quality and innovation across all our wines.”

In conversation Neil elaborates. “Such awards shut up your critics. As a large producer, there is always the jealous suspicion that you’re wines are not really top notch. These awards contradict that.”

So there is undeniable kudos to be had from entering international competitions. One of the largest is run annually by Decanter magazine, with over 14,000 entries. At the recent Cape Wine 2012, regional trophy winners were poured by the publisher. 

As a panel chairman at the annual Concours Mondial de Bruxelles for several years and SA judge at the Concours du Sauvignon in Bordeaux, I can confirm international judging standards are as rigorous as any of the local panels I serve on like the ABSA Top Ten Pinotage Awards or Orange River Winemaker of the Year. However international awards have the added benefit of exposing products to foreign buyers. Although with traditional export markets collapsing while eastern doors open, perhaps the China Wine Awards should be on the marketing menu.

For unfortunately perhaps, bottle stickers do sell wine, so its helps if the award has some brand recognition. Following the demise of Wine magazine, many local competitions struggle for traction as an awards lunch at French Toast in Bree Street has limited media impact, even if it is opposite Boss Models. 

The converse does not immediately follow, for how many readers of Decanter use wine shows to help them select a bottle and how many show golds did Château Latour win? Zero, as they don’t enter, having too much to lose if they only garner a bronze. 

But as Neil confirms, for producers like Nederburg who battle against the prejudice of scale, being the most awarded winery in SA with local and international gongs aplenty, shuts up critics, even if the winery was notably absent from the controversial list of Top Twenty SA wineries from a poll of wine writers carried in the Mail & Guardian earlier this year.
The meaning and value of an international award.
The meaning and value of an international award.

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