Joanne Gibson introduces the 2017 Diners Club Winemaker of the Year award judges
Now in its 37th year, the annual Diners Club Winemaker of the Year award aims to encourage South African winemakers to produce fine wine of ever-increasing quality, while the Young Winemaker of the Year award (now in its 17th year) aims to help under-30s develop their skills, express their individuality, and add to the future prestige of South African wines.
Each award is presented to the winemaker whose wine the judging panel rates most highly in a blind tasting of a specified class – this year Pinotage to determine the Winemaker of the Year, and White Wines for the Young Winemaker.
The 2017 judging panel consisted of seven wine experts, including one international judge. Here is who they are and what they had to say.
The international judge for this year’s competition was Will Predhomme, a Canadian sommelier based in Toronto, Ontario, who runs his own strategic marketing company (Predhomme: Uncorking Potential, which counts Wines of South Africa and Premium Wines of South Africa among its clients) as well as a Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) school.
He also makes his own wine (of which more later) and – perhaps most importantly – is no stranger to South Africa, having visited every year since 2013 when he came over for the first time to represent his country in WOSA’s annual Sommelier Cup competition.
‘I happened to win that year, which was awesome,’ he says. ‘I also made some awesome friendships that I’ve been able to maintain. Looking back, it was a fairly pivotal moment in my career.’
He admits that he had not taken South African wine very seriously before that: ‘The wines I tasted on my first visit were very different from what was being exported to Canada at the time. I immediately wanted to get involved in a project that would show Canadians that South Africa was a serious option for good, fresh styles better suited to food. I also wanted an excuse to come back!’
Predhomme was introduced to Alex Dale, a Brit raised in Burgundy now living in the Cape as the ‘creator and locomotive’ of The Winery of Good Hope, whose ranges include Radford Dale, Vinum Africa and Land of Hope. ‘Alex shares my passion for fresher wines with lower alcohol, and after a quick 45-minute lunch, we agreed to work together. I returned the following year with a team of sommeliers to blend wines with Alex and his winemaker, Jacques de Klerk. We started off with a pure expression of Chenin Blanc, and we now also make a Syrah-Cinsault.’
These are small-production wines, most of which are pre-sold to restaurants and hotels in Ontario. ‘South Africa in general is now a “thing” in Canada, and Alex Dale has played a big part in spearheading that,’ says Predhomme (modestly downplaying his own role).
He says sitting down to taste the 72 Pinotage entries in this year’s competition was rather daunting. ‘I expected to be exhausted, but happily that was not the case. There were some extremely well-made examples of the traditional, fuller-bodied style, but also some great examples made in a fresher, leaner style. In my opinion, Pinotage is best when treated like Pinot Noir, which results in purer fruit, fresher acidity and lighter colour, yet with firm fruit tannins … lovely! In my opinion, that’s where real Pinotage potential lies.’
In the white-wine line-up to select the Young Winemaker of the Year, Predhomme says he was looking for ‘someone with a deft hand, someone who embraced freshness, someone capable of achieving pure fruit expression’, and he was delighted to report that ‘nearly every wine exhibited freshness, expression of variety or style, or was just generally fun’.
His conclusion? ‘If these are the future winemakers for South Africa, the future is looking bright.’
Lured away from his law studies to pursue a career in wine (spanning both retail and restaurants), James Pietersen now manages the South African wine portfolio at fine wine merchants Wine Cellar in Cape Town. ‘We’re going from strength to strength, really hammering home that there’s a difference between a mere beverage and a fine wine, which comes at a price yet offers real value.’
He identified three clear styles in this year’s Pinotage line-up: ‘Firstly, the old style – very powerful with lots of new oak; secondly, experiments with a lighter, more natural approach that is exciting but sometimes misses the boat, resulting in wines with green, twiggy tannins; and finally – somewhere in between – a modern, medium-bodied, very fruit-forward style with not too much wood. Very nice.’
He found the Young Winemaker entries very exciting: ‘It seems easier to experiment with whites so there was a palpable sense of adventure.’
Soweto-born, University of Stellenbosch-trained winemaker Nomonde Kubheka spent 10 vintages at KWV before deciding to become a wine educator instead. She’s now works closely with the Pinotage Youth Development Academy (a registered NPO that prepares young, disadvantaged South Africans for employment within the wine industry) and VinPro’s Winetech Cellar Worker Programme. ‘These two organisations combine my three passions: people, wine and knowledge.’
Kubheka found the Pinotage category a bit tough. ‘Some wines had too much oak, masking the fruit, but there were also a few gems that I scored highly.’
She found the diverse white-wine category very exciting: ‘The wines were attractive, balanced and harmonious. There were a few unusual blends that I hadn’t come across before; the oaked wines weren’t too over the top; and we also had a few sweet wines – some delicious stuff. I can’t wait to find out who the 2017 Young Winemaker of the Year is.’
DEBI VAN FLYMEN
Cape Wine Master Debi van Flymen, MD of DvF Wine Distributors in Johannesburg, is on a high, having recently been accepted to study for her Master of Wine qualification through the UK’s Wine & Spirit Education Trust. ‘Part of the pleasure of wine is that you’re always learning. You can never know everything. And I take an educational approach to the market in my businesses, so attempting to become a MW is part of the journey for me.’
She says she found some ‘lovely, elevated examples’ in this year’s Pinotage line-up. ‘Apart from the traditional style that can lean towards being over-extracted, and the commercial chocolate-coffee Pinotages that have become a “thing” in recent years, there’s now also a lighter, brighter, more approachable, elegant and velvety style that leans towards the grape’s Pinot heritage.’
As for the diverse range of white wines? ‘It was like opening a lucky packet!’
Johannesburg-based Michael Crossley is MD of The Reciprocal Wine Trading Company, SA’s oldest importer of fine wines and spirits. ‘We’re busier than ever,’ he says. ‘People are finally realising that imported wines aren’t competing against local wines but offer something completely different. For example, no local wine can offer the intense minerality of a Hungarian Furmint.’
He found this year’s Pinotage line-up quite ‘challenging’. ‘Although there were a few wines that really shone, there were still too many with clumsy oak, not enough fruit, a bitter finish – or a greenness that detracted from the primary fruit.’
He found the oak better managed in the white wines, quipping: ‘Perhaps young winemakers don’t get the new-oak budgets!’ In particular, he loved some ‘restrained and elegant’ Chardonnays and one ‘brilliant’ bubbly. ‘There were also some really interesting, tasty white blends with a curiosity that made me want to go back for more…’
Partner at leading Johannesburg liquor retailer Norman Goodfellows, and radio host on Classic FM, Carrie Adams approached this year’s Pinotage line-up with some trepidation, having been on the panel when SA’s love-it-or-hate-it home-grown variety last came under Diners Club scrutiny in 2002.
‘This was a definite improvement on last time,’ she says with some relief. ‘On balance, the wines were pretty, and some had luminous black fruit and soft, silky tannins.
‘My biggest criticism is that there are still wines showing excessive use of oak, which really detracts from a variety that should be bright and clean with sweet berry fruit. Also, I’ve always maintained that Pinotage has inherent Botox in its DNA – amazing ageing potential – so if you lambast it with too much oak, by the time it has aged the way it should, all you can taste is wood! I would really encourage winemakers to be less heavy-handed.’
Ntsiki Biyela needs little introduction. From CNN to the cover of the New York Times, she is internationally celebrated as South Africa’s first black woman winemaker, and her journey from rural KwaZulu-Natal to graduating from Stellenbosch University in 2003 – and then putting Stellekaya Winery on the map – is well documented.
Today she owns her own wine company, named Aslina after the grandmother who raised her and remains her inspiration, and she also sits on the board of directors at the Pinotage Youth Development Academy, where she hopes more young South Africans will be able to emulate her success.
She was travelling abroad on the day of the Young Winemaker tasting, but says Pinotage has improved by leaps and bounds. ‘Previously we would have picked up lots of faults, but this was a great line-up. Yes, some wines were a bit green, some had too much wood, but some of them…wow!’
Not only is Rianie Strydom winemaker and general manager at Haskell Vineyards, she is also co-owner/winemaker/partner with husband Louis Strydom (winemaker at Ernie Els Wines) in their own business, Strydom Family Wines.
A member of the prestigious Cape Winemakers Guild, Strydom is passionate about ‘improving the breed’ of SA wine. Is she positive about the future, then, after tasting the Young Winemaker entries?
‘Overall, a good line-up for the youngsters. It was interesting tasting such diverse wines next to one another – something I haven’t done before. It helped to know the cultivar/blend of each wine, as by jumping around a bit, it was possible to avoid tasting a lighter wine after a heavily wooded one.
‘For me the Chardonnays were superior, as was the one bubbly. White blends made from “other cultivars” are a hot topic at the moment, but I was slightly disappointed, finding them a bit too oxidised.’