Clash of Cultivars on BBC 4

Neil Pendock March 18, 2009 7

It’s the kind of coverage WoSA (Wines of SA, the exporters’ mouthpiece now under new management) can only dream of: a 60 minute TV program on SA wine flighted on BBC Four no fewer than four times earlier this month, called Wine: The Future.


Given South Africa’s past, it was to be expected that director Nick Angel would adopt a Manichean approach: white farm (Solms-Delta)/black farm (M’Hudi); surfeit of resources/broken down Ford tractor; all-singing, all-dancing (literally) oesfees to release the new vintage/modest launch in a kitchen; Shiraz/Pinotage.

So which cultivar comes off best? Pinotage, a surprise result given the prejudice shown. For starters, the narrator intones “Pinotage is South Africa’s gift to the grape. A hybrid varietal that remains stubbornly unpopular abroad.” Cue UK wino Joe Wadsack, one of 400+ judges putting 10000+ wines through their paces at the International Wine Challenge in London asking what the next category was. “SA Pinotage? – yes, unfortunately.” Chuckle, chuckle, as the other judges scribble down their scores. Making a mockery of the blind tasting methodology with prejudice so publically aired.

Which fits in nicely with rude comments about SA reds from competition co-chairman Tim Atkin and an amazing outburst from another co-chair, Charles Metcalfe on “all sorts of weird and wonderful concoctions [from SA], some of them truly, amazingly awful.” Which must have raised a few groans among marketers now trying to solicit entries from SA for their expensive show. These show marketers must be hoping the program doesn’t get picked up by the SA Broadcasting Corporation.

Yet amazingly Joe the plumber liked the M’Hudi Pinotage and it went on to win Bronze. Confirming the comment from brand owner Oupa Rangaka that “everyone who meets my Pinotage goes agog.” It clearly wasn’t made from the grapes Marks & Spencer winemaker Gerd Stepp saw being harvested at 19.5-20 balling (he measured the sugar content on screen with a refractometer) on M’Hudi farm later in the program. By way of contrast, another Stellenbosch Pinotage producer (Beyers Truter) harvests at 25-26 balling and says picking under 20 is “madness.”

Making the understatement of the year that the sugar content was “not extremely high” (the grapes were downright green) Gerd even agrees with the nonsense comment from Oupa that “together with the other grapes it will average out at 20 something.” Which may be arithmetically correct, but the wine would almost certainly be thin and bitter, displaying that hardness Wadsack called “tannins made from Duplo-bricks or Lego, they’re so chunky.”

So no surprises then when M&S decide not to buy. Were the grapes intended for a M’Hudi sparkling Pinotage or did Oupa want to hurry harvest given the ominous looking rainclouds and his tractor problems? And what kind of winemaker allows his putative supplier to harvest such patently unripe grapes? Good gracious, Gerd!

The Solms-Delta Cape Jazz Shiraz disappeared into an IWC black hole. Given a C+ by the tasting panel – presumably borderline between a Certificate of Commendation and a Bronze Medal – when referred to higher authorities for possible promotion, both Atkin and yet another co-chair, elf-like Derek Smedley, liked it and put it forward for a medal. Cue an embarrassed Atkin later searching his computer for any trace of the wine and coming up empty-handed. The Certificate of Commendation one would have assumed was assured, had disappeared!

No wonder Mark Solms looked particularly exasperated when he noted his IWC results were inversely proportional to the degree of unusualness of the wine and that he does much better in sighted as opposed to blind tastings. Once again, when you see what happens behind the scenes at these grand wine competitions, its caveat emptors all round. Prejudiced judges and panel co-chairs, disappearing awards. No wonder Oak Valley Chardonnay 2006 got both a Gold Medal and a Certificate of Commendation from this competition last year after being submitted twice by producer and importer. Mark, do the industry another favour and ask for your entry fee back!


  1. Selena Cuffe March 20, 2009 at 10:31 am -

    Neil Pendock:

    As a newbie to the South African wine industry, I’m intrigued as I learn more about your country through the wines and commentary.

    I’m an outsider. I grew up not far from Hollywood, California, exporter extraordinaire of entertainment. But observing how the opinion of one competition (three paragraphs worth of content) can cause such agitation, I read it feeling more like I’m watching a picture show (popcorn in hand).

    The comment that questions what kind of winemaker would allow a supplier to harvest unripe grapes immediately evokes a visual of Joan Crawford’s character in the movie “Mommie Dearest (1981). But I digress.

    I actually do hope that ALL winemakers (not just in South Africa but all over the world) are aware that unripe grapes can be an agent for lowering lipids (preventing heart disease). Who doesn’t love wine that not only tastes good, but does good: lifting spirits while curing ails.

    As a writer, you brilliantly paint a vivid picture of a chip sitting atop your shoulder. Please take no offense by this comment. My husband (also in the wine business) has one of these chips, and it suits our business well.

    Wine drinkers from Oregon to Maine are agog for South Africa, by way of the M’hudi Pinotage. Like Professor Solms shared in the documentary, I believe South Africa should embrace its identity – the good, and the not so good. After all, there’s been much of both during your 350 year winemaking history.

    Your wines are amazing! Coupled with the story that is your deep and rich history, you, Neil Pendock, have the power to lift spirits and cure ails.

    Your request of Solms Delta in the final sentence might encourage the bitter and jaded reader to forget what being in this business is all about:

    Making good wine that people love while living a nice lifestyle, in the process.

    I hope that your cynical readers resist the urge to imitate crabs in a barrel (imagine a wine barrel filled with green crabs out in the Table Docks) AND congratulate both professors, you, and others who are generating press that will benefit the entire South African wine industry. But again, I’m an outsider.

  2. Neil Pendock March 21, 2009 at 9:28 am -

    Hi Selena

    I love outsiders nearly as much as Camus (how’s that for an ambiguous statement?)

    If you send your postal address, I’ll mail you a copy of our Good Value Guru Guide to confirm its not all sizzle, there is steak too.

    For a whole plate full of chips, you’ll need to get hold of a copy of Sour Grapes (Tafelberg, 2008).

  3. Karabo Mokwena March 21, 2009 at 7:54 pm -

    When I saw the film I felt proud to be a South African. What I saw when I saw the film was two men, each with challenges of his own. I was deeply touched by Professor Solms because he is trying to do what many South African farmers have failed to do in the past. He is giving the people who have worked hard to make his business a success the recognition they deserve. Let’s face it, a lot of people in his position have taken the sweat of their workers as their God given right. I did not know about Solm’s Delta before watching the film and I will be looking out for their wine from now on because I do agree with what the professor has said, when people taste wine from a particular area they expect it to taste in a certain way, if it doesn’t then there must be something wrong with it. I think that the wine judges may have been a little too afraid to venture outside the box.

    That being said, I am saddened that all you saw when you looked at the film was an opportunity to pit these two wine companies against each other. It is such a pity because I saw the film as an opportunity for the South African wine industry to show the world that there has indeed been some change that has taken place. It may be small but there has been some movement that has taken place to try and mend the ills of our tragic past.

    What you have managed to do with you article is to show the world that there are still people out there who will continue to make life difficult for black companies in the industry and maybe even in the country as a whole.

    You have made reference to the “broken down Ford tractor” and the “modest launch in a kitchen” what you do not realize is that this is a reality for black farmers in South Africa. Due to the fact that they have not inherited vast pieces of land nor have they inherited untold amounts of wealth, black farmers have had to use their last penny to purchase the farms that they own. Some of them have acquired land as a result of government intervention. If this did not take place, black people would still be deprived of the opportunity to own some of the land that they have slaved away on for many generations.

    Instead of wishing M’hudi and Oupa luck on their business venture you have gone out of your way to make the road a little more bumpy for them. This is rather sad as I have always looked upon you as someone who has been somewhat of a voice for the wine industry. I guess yours is the voice that trumpets to the world that black wines are not to be taken seriously.

    I have to agree with the previous comment, it would be good if you used the authority which you hold to do good rather than to cause more harm to an industry that already has its fair share of problems.But then again, you are the Guru, what do I know?

  4. Karabo Mokwena March 21, 2009 at 8:09 pm -

    I am on the look out for that M’hudi Pinotage!!

  5. Neil Pendock March 22, 2009 at 7:30 am -

    Dear Karabo Mokwena

    Thanks for your comments, but I do not agree that black wines are not to be taken seriously.

    On the contrary, in our Good Value Guru Guide last year we highlighted M’hudi and especially liked the Sauvignon Blanc. We noted “intense flavours of peppermint and green beans and more layers of flavor than a mille-feuille” and recommended it to our readers.

    I enjoyed the TV program which is clear from my previous posting on Mrs. Vloos and her wig. My main regret with the binary format of the program was that the great wines of Tukulu, Thandi and other empowered producers are ignored.

    Best wishes

  6. Selena Cuffe March 25, 2009 at 6:53 am -

    Our office address is:
    Heritage Link Brands
    6535 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 113
    Los Angeles, CA USA 90048

    FYI – your article has been posted to our site.
    Best regards,

  7. Neil Pendock March 25, 2009 at 7:22 am -

    Selena, the Guru is in the mail!

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