Reflections on Category Tastings

Neil Pendock September 19, 2012 2

So two different sets of oracles have thrown up two completely different lists of Top Ten Sauvignon Blancs. A panel of “experts” paid by First National Bank at a tasting organized by the Sauvignon Blanc Interest Group and two enthusiasts (Aníbal Coutinho and yours truly) who do it because they love wine, sans sponsorship or salary.

Aníbal writing up his tasting notes at Holden-Manz in Franschhoek

The main strength and weakness of our blind terroir tastings is that we approached each wine route and asked them to do the logistics. Even paid them, in one case. We pitched up, tasted blind and exchanged our scores and tasting notes for a crib list of brands.

Which left some producers, like Cederberg and Francis Pratt, out in the cold. Which in the case of Francis and his Berrio, is a cold and windy place indeed. Which in turn translates to a remarkably pure shade of green vinous flavours. A green that used to be the colour of the universe, until astronomers at Johns Hopkins University discovered it was more a Cosmic Latte from Starbucks. These coffee/mocha styles pop up everywhere, like the comments of trolls on this blog (which I delete with glee).

Of course, our selection is of terroir Sauvignons as our aim is to produce a taste map for the Winelands, following in the footsteps of that eminent Chinese cartographer Zu Siben (1273-1337) who produced a map of the world called Yu Di Tu in 1320, complete with the Groot Gariep and the Drakensberg mountains in (more or less) the right place. Which rather puts those Portuguese navigators back in their box (sorry, Aníbal). We have nothing against multi-appellation wines and some of our best friends are geographical mongrels. And as with cats, pavement specials can be far better than Abyssinians or even Burmese.

The main problem with the SBIG list is not that it has more holes in it than a pair of ET’s green underpants. So what if one FNB “expert” only picked three from the Top Twenty that made it into the final Top Ten at the unveiling party. No, its the story of the Lorax, identified by Dr. Seuss back in 1972, the danger corporate greed poses to authenticity. By charging an entry fee (and presumably loads of free bottles for “parties”) the SBIG selection becomes yet another commercial opportunity like the Michelangelo or Old Mutual Toasty Show (these banksters get in everywhere).

A SBIG Sauvignon taster (not)

Selling the winners takes the SBIG further down the slippery slope of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds and defending the indefensible by arguing that the Pinotage Association does the same thing, is no defence at all. If Sauvignon Blanc producers really want to follow in the marketing footsteps of Pinotage, they’re welcome.


  1. Pieter de Waal September 19, 2012 at 3:42 pm -

    Dear Neil

    I was wondering what may have inspired your recent rants and raves aimed at SBIG and the FNB Top 10 Sauvignon Blanc Competition, and now that you have brought Aníbal into the picture I’ve realised that this is the most authentic modern-day version of “The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha,” more commonly known as just “Don Quixote.” (OK, I know that Aníbal is Portuguese and not Spanish, but it’s close enough. And although I don’t know who plays Don Quixote and who Sancho Panza in your modern-day rendition of the story, I am just glad that I am not Rocinante!)

    While I agree that you and Aníbal’s adventures are commendable, one would probably need to ask how many such “keen amateurs” the South African industry would be able to afford. By your own admission (your blog, 5 September 2012) the Stellenbosch Wine Route put forward R42 500’s worth of wine for you and Aníbal to taste and evaluate. Adding it up for all the wine routes you visited, it does seem that your venture is far more expensive to put together than the FNB Top 10 Sauvignon Blanc Competition could ever aspire to. One would just hope that the print-run of your “Winelands Guide 2013” will be sufficient to offset the cost of the wines poured. Fortunately the SBIG panel included two major buyers of Sauvignon Blanc (Ultra Liquors and Tsogo Sun) so at least the producers participating in the FNB Top 10 Competition has a chance of capitalising on their performance.

    It was never my intention to highlight the shortcomings of your process, but it seems that you have gone into full-attack mode, so herewith my comments:

    You are very adamant in claiming that your tastings were done blind and that there was no need for any auditing as it seems that the process you followed was self-auditing (very crafty, sure Judge Mervyn King would love to know more). I have never questioned whether you had any knowledge of what was being poured at any given stage of your tastings, but rather that tasting wine in the knowledge of where the wines come from, i.e. the “terroir” as you refer to it, or as I would prefer to call it “ward” or “district,” has the potential of creating bias (you may recall the Platter debate of a few years ago in this regard). Furthermore, how many “terroir” Sauvignon Blancs are there, for example, from Franschhoek? If I were to taste Franschhoek “terroir” Sauvignon Blanc “blind” as per your process, I would have a pretty good idea that I’m tasting Chamonix (a wine that I have always enjoyed tremendously when knowing that it is in my glass, but have found more difficult to assess in true “blind” circumstances.)

    Yep, you are quite correct that your map will have more holes in it than … OK, let’s not go into undergarment humour. Not including producers like Cederberg, and the whole of Elim, does sound like a map drawn up by the Flat Earth Society.

    Regarding the new and most amusing definition of “terroir” as put forward by yourself, and which seems to fall somewhere between an estate wine and a regional wine (i.e. your definition of a “terroir” wine, if I understand it correctly, can be any wine certified as being from a specific ward or district according to the SAWIS demarcations. So a wine made from a blend of grapes from Schaapenberg & Simonsberg (both Stellenbosch, but 30 kilometres apart) would still be deemed a “terroir” wine, but a wine made from a blend of grapes from, for example Lievland (Stellenbosch) and Anura (Paarl), both against the Simonsberg with vineyards in clear sight of one another, would not be deemed a “terroir” wine. What absolute hogwash! The concept of “terroir” is much more complex than just a line on a map, and should not be abused in this way.

    Now to answer the direct charges you make regarding the “commercial” aspect of the competition and SBIG as a whole. SBIG is a not-for-profit, voluntary organisation looking after the interests of South African Sauvignon Blanc producers. Since its inception, SBIG has not charged membership fees, and projects have always been self-funding. Any funds generated through projects are ploughed back into furthering the goals of SBIG.

    Regarding the sale of the FNB Top 10 Sauvignon Blanc pack, this is being done by The Wade Bales Wine Society and neither SBIG nor FNB will be receiving a cent from the sale of these packs, or receive any money in any way related to the Top 10 packs. If you were to speak to producers you would probably learn that they are keen to sell wine, and that opportunities such as these are welcomed, and the major reason for entering competitions.

    While the wine industry may often be perceived as being very romantic, it still remains a business and without sales, producers will not be able to survive. While it may be possible for well-to-do upcountry gentleman farmers to give grapes to their friends for free, the core of the wine industry still relies on selling wine at a profit. The FNB Top 10 Sauvignon Blanc Competition adds value to both producers and consumers, and due to the sponsorship received from FNB the results can be communicated to a broad audience, both locally and internationally, thereby benefitting the industry as a whole.

    Oh, yes, and before I forget, I have amazing respect for what the Pinotage Association has achieved over the last decade, and have no qualms following in their footsteps. I hope that you will communicate your dismay regarding the sales of the Top 10 Pinotage pack directly to the Pinotage Association?

    Neil, can you stop trying to find holes in underpants that do not exist? Please find some new windmill to storm, as this one is now gone with the wind.

    Pieter de Waal
    (in my personal capacity)

  2. Hannes September 19, 2012 at 5:01 pm -

    Pieter, when a comment is longer than a post its time to start your own blog and stop boring us with your self-serving drivel (in your own special personal capacity). Snooze!

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