No wine geeks!

Friday, 23 August, 2013
Bertus van Niekerk
I know what you’re thinking and you’re right. This article is about influencing people to spend their money on your wine, my wine, our wine. It’s also about changing tides, foreign shores, consumption patterns and making an entry.

Shelf space: the crucial frontier.

These are the endeavours of Vitis Vinifera. It’s relentless mission: to explore every new option, to seek out great wines from exciting producers, to boldly go where no competition has gone before.

On Thursday morning I was fortunate to attend a Great White tasting at Allée Bleue in Franschhoek where Cathy van Zyl MW was the guest speaker. It was a bit of an annual event, Fiona McDonald former editor of Wine magazine explained as she introduced some of the winemakers who presented prized whites from their cellars. I fondly remember the issues of that magazine that featured only white wines of all sorts and styles.

There was a line-up of six wines:

1. Adi Badenhorst’s White, a multivarietal wine made from Voor Perdeberg grapes;

2. Adam Mason’s Ka-Pow, a blend between Chenin Blanc/Chardonnay/Viognier;

3. Alheit’s Carthology, a blend consisting mostly of old vines Chenin Blanc;

4. Ian Naudé’s White, always a blend of Chenin Blanc/Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon;

5. Bloemendal’s ultra-low yielding Suider Terras Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend;

6. Avondale’s Cyclus, a Viognier-based wine with Chenin Blanc/Rousanne/Semillon

The winemakers’ take on their wines and what they consider influential in their crafting of what we had in the glass was as diverse as the result we swirled and sniffed. For Adi the Voor-Perdeberg as a quality growing area and patiently waiting for the components to integrate over almost a year in large vats was important; Adam remarked that sometimes a playful angle on a serious wine would get people’s attention; Chris was enthusiastic about aging white blends made from vineyards geographically remote from one another in very old barrels; Ian spoke about the pursuit of the perfect white blend and doing so for almost two decades now; Francois was really enthusiastic about yields that made no financial sense, but delivered grapes of immense concentration of fruit and aromas and Corné was passionate about selected="true" organically grown vineyards contributing to complex full whites in deliberately more oxidative style.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Cathy spoke about how to approach international markets with quality wine that will sell at a premium based on the merit of what’s in the bottle. She referred to the Beautiful South tasting to be held in London on 11 and 12 September, a two day event that will showcase some of the finest Argentina, Chile and South Africa has to offer. But she also stressed that one international show alone would not persuade the world to pick a South African white blend from the shelf or choose us as a wine tourist destination over other contenders. We need a point of difference, a value proposition that will associate South African white wines with innovation and uniqueness. We need blends that will differentiate us from both composition and latitude perspectives. And we need public, not wine geeks to get what we’re about. Wine geeks will buy a bottle or two and rave about eccentric detail with a friend before moving on the next elusive offering. We need every shopper in the world to take us seriously. Exclusivity has nothing on public opinion, when sales matter.

Which is where Vitis Vinifera Awards come in.

Interesting people have asked me about who the judges for the first annual Vitis Vinifera Awards were going to be – sommeliers, a Cape Wine Master, winemakers, writers and brand owners were among them. My answer always starts with a question: do you know the make-up of the panels for any other competition, local or international? The reaction to this usually is a frown and a shrug. Of course you don’t, but you trust the integrity of the competition and its organiser to gather enthusiasts that understand the mission of the competition and the parameters of its intention and, of course, are able to convincingly form an opinion on the wines that pass in front of them on the day of the tasting.

While the make-up of other competitions may prescribe previous experience in tasting panels and authoritative international background or even academic qualifications, the Vitis Vinifera Awards are actually judged by wine buyers and consumers. I have great respect for every competition in this country and for international panels and tasters who become involved in promoting good South African wines. But on our panels there are no wine geeks (to borrow Cathy’s phrase), only people who love wine and drink nothing else. People who buy copious amounts of wine and influence patterns of enjoyment of wine in their considerable social circles. Our panels consist of people who are in love with wine and seldom let the opportunity pass to introduce friends and family to quality wine as a part of everyday life. The panel members for the Vitis Vinifera Awards are the very people wine producers want critics to influence. They live wine as an essential commodity.

Granted, as I conveyed this message in more conversations over the past few months than I can remember, sommeliers and winemakers and producers – even a Cape Wine Master – volunteered to be part of the final tasting procedures in 2013. I’m convinced that there is a trend towards simplifying wine enjoyment, of a less analytical approach towards singular guidelines or set preferences. I’d even go as far as to say that the more opinions there are and the more consumers realise that their own preferences and ability to discern quality wines, the better for the industry. We all can do with some enthusiasm around solid wines produced to charm various palettes.

That said, I know that many of Vitis Vinifera Awards’ panel members love Rosé wines and interesting blends that consist of red and white components. There are many wines designed for public appeal that are good or even excellent, but they don’t fit moulds that would interest geeks. It’s high time wines speak for themselves and transcend criteria that most consumers would consider elitist babble. The Vitis Vinifera Awards will commend as many wines as possible that are good, and making the choice for the consumer much wider. Panel members are hand selected="true" carefully to affect exactly this philosophy.