Paarl Shiraz on a winning streak?

Monday, 22 November, 2004
Kim Maxwell
In a sea of local and international competitions championing Shiraz, Paarl is also punting what some believe to be South Africa's darling variety, albeit in a regional context and on a small scale. Kim Maxwell ponders the relevance of the Paarl Shiraz Challenge after attending the competition's eighth annual awards ceremony.

There couldn't be a more deserving winner of the Paarl Vintners Shiraz Challenge 2004 award than 'hell-bent on classic Rhône' disciple Cathy Marshall. Aside from being consultant winemaker of the winning Ridgeback Shiraz 2002, Marshall produces Shiraz for Paarl winery Lindhorst, for Franschhoek's GlenWood, and under her own BWC label.

Second to fourth places go to Crow's Nest Marcel de Reuck Syrah 2003 - their maiden vintage after buying the farm - Glen Carlou Syrah 2003 and Coleraine Shiraz 2001 respectively. Marshall is hoping she'll get to access some of the R20 000 prize money going to Ridgeback (from sponsors Saturn Stainless Industries and Mars Equipment Manufacturing) for a wine research trip to the Rhône.

Yet the bigger question - amidst a sea of local and international competitions - is surely how Paarl is benefiting as a region. It's the fifth year that Shiraz has been the competition focus. So with furious viticultural planting throughout SA's wine regions, plus WINE Magazine replacing Pinotage with Shiraz as the variety of their annual competition this year, Shiraz is fast becoming SA's darling.

That Paarl Vintners backed Shiraz first is rather unbelievable, considering that its producers are renowned for their lack of consensus on most issues. One vetoed suggestion a few years back was a former committee member's idea to twin Paarl with Tain-Hermitage in the northern Rhône.

Current chairperson of Paarl Vintners Gesie Lategan says the goal of Paarl's Shiraz emphasis is enhancing wine quality. She says staking their bets on this variety is backed by solid data, with their viticultural committee establishing weather stations in their research of terroir, climate and clone selection. The Vintners also have a wine committee focused on improving training and professionalism of cellar workers, with the winners of formal wine evaluation classes receiving small cash prizes annually.

From a marketing point of view, Lategan agrees that the relevance of this local competition is a piddle in an international lake. But she feels the emphasis gives them a talking point during visits by overseas wine groups and experts, which is important in helping producers gauge how Paarl Shiraz rates and can improve internationally.

Fairview's winemaker Anthony de Jager and Cathy Marshall both question whether medals on bottles really do sell more wines, as brand managers would have us believe. Marshall says Ridgeback took the decision to enter a variety of wine competitions this year, as a marketing experiment.

WOSA's André Morgenthal feels Shiraz is being used as Paarl's USP, in much the same way as Shiraz is associated with Australia's Barossa, and California with Cabernet Sauvignon. That doesn't mean Paarl can't produce other good varieties. Morgenthal believes there's room for both specificity and diversity in marketing SA wines, that it can't hurt a region to focus on specificity, while in a broader sense, punt the diversity of climate, aspect and varieties in South Africa.

No doubt the debate surrounding Paarl Shiraz will continue.