Fairbairn in context

Friday, 21 May, 2004
Neil Pendock
Is this the übershow?
Wine shows are on a roll. The reasons for this are not hard to find: producers are desperate to raise their product profiles in an oversupplied market while consumers rely on show medals to choose a decent bottle from a field of over 4000 local labels and an increasing number of imports.

Each wine show strives for a unique selling point to differentiate it from the rest of the pack: Veritas is the largest, the Classic Wine Trophy Show looks for wines with aging potential and uses exclusively foreign judges while the Juliet Cullinan Wine Masters Awards rely on a panel of female Cape Wine Masters. The Swiss International Wine Awards use commercial wine buyers as judges while the Fairbairn Capital Trophy Wine Show, now in its third year, has a couple of USPs: winning wines are taken on a national road show and are written up in a guide called Icons and this year, for the first time, wines were entered for judging directly by the organizers in addition to those submitted by the producers.

Show chairman Michael Fridjhon gives the reasons for conscription of entries as an attempt to make the show as broadly-based as possible, to see just how well highly rated wines do in a competitive environment (as he puts it, not entirely jokingly, ‘you can run but you can’t hide’) and an attempt to avoid rewarding show cuvées, special bottlings made specifically for wine shows. In fact his arguments are so persuasive, perhaps all entries should be sourced this way.

As a Fairbairn judge since its inception, the show’s strongest points for me are an opportunity to taste with wine celebrities of the caliber of Michel Bettane, Brian Croser and Tim Atkin and a week of pure hedonism at the hands of Frank Zlomke, chef at the Grande Roche and the main reason behind the description of the show venue as ‘the best billet in the Winelands’ by one of last year’s judges, Jancis Robinson.

Weak points are the timing: a show held in May is too soon for fragrant white varieties like Sauvignon Blanc and too late for wines from the previous vintage and the requirement to taste large classes in a single day is less than ideal. My most taxing tasting was a line up of 122 Chardonnays, but things could have been worse – Brian Croser had to wrestle with 147 Shirazes – double 2003’s entries.

Last year’s highlights were Bordeaux blends and Merlots while this year the former disappointed with most wines from the 2001 vintage that had initially been given great expectations, now closed and extremely tannic. With around 1/4 of Bordeaux blend entries riddled with Brettanomyces, there is clearly much room for technical improvements in the cellars. Just when winemakers thought it was safe to go back into the show circus with riper wines from virus free vines, along comes a rogue yeast to upset the taste buds.

This year’s surprise categories were Shiraz and Pinotage with praise for the latter from an unlikely source: Michel Bettane, editor of the Revue du Vins de France called the Pinotages ‘easier to taste and assess than the Cabernets and far more easy to drink’ and described the varietal as ‘very complex’ with a dozen or so wines ‘very interesting.’

Croser detected ‘a whole spectrum of (Shiraz) styles from leather and licorice to cassis and blackcurrant put together in different ways to Australian and Rhône examples allowing for a unique SA style’ which accords well with his rejection of ‘national obsession wines’ like Super Chenins and the controversial Cape Blend in favour of broad spectrum of styles, thereby sidestepping the pitfall Australia currently finds itself in: purveyors of Sunshine in a Bottle whites and monster Shirazes.
Fairbain Trophy show
Fairbain Trophy show

more news