Thursday, April 2, 2015

Familiar versus Unfamiliar

A topic that I have discussed with a couple of people in the past came up again during the past week. Is it easier to score unfamiliar varieties higher than familiar ones?? The new wave of blends and lesser known varietal wines have changed the landscape of wine judging and scoring. So what do I perceive to be lesser known…basically everything that isn’t Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet, Pinotage Shiraz etc. Varieties that the general consumer is NOT familiar with.
Arendsig Inspirational Batch Grenache 2013 - 92 Points Tim Atkin South African Report
There is a hype surrounding Grenache (white and red) and other varieties, but luckily also Chenin Blanc and the various styles it can be made or blends with it as a component. Although this hype is driven by producers/independent winemakers and not yet fully grasped by the general consumer it has changed the dynamic of rating wines…at least from what I can see.

Star Hill Wild Yeast Chenin Blanc - Single Vineyard
Scoring Wines:
How good must a Sauvignon Blanc be to score higher than 90 points when there are so many in the category. In SA I think some very good ones go unnoticed because of quick vintage changes and the consumer demanding the freshest, newest vintage on shelf. I still think one of the best Sauvignon Blanc’s that I have ever tasted was the Suider-Terras 2013 from Bloemendal Estate in Durbanville (I do not work with them anymore, for reasons I do not want to elaborate on in this post). 
Even Tim Atkin scored it 94 Points in his South African Report when the wine was still very young and both Francois Haasbroek (Winemaker) and people in the know felt it will only get better with age. Unlike the Suider-Terras that has an amazing story and heritage behind it or Thys Louw with his various styles of Sauvignon Blanc, Cape Point who’s brand driver is Sauvignon Blanc…can you imagine how saturated the local media/judging palates must be of Sauvignon Blanc??

When the winemaker use Sauvignon Blanc in a blend with Semillon, Chenin Blanc or Viognier with a funky brand name then that wine gets more attention and a higher rating? In general I think so, because it is something different and not a wine you come across every day. White blends especially getting high acclaim in Platter 2015! 

Similarly we can use Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinotage as examples. There is a lot of negativity towards these varietals if you follow certain groups of people on Twitter, but they are the ones punting whatever is odd, different or lesser known.  

On Monday we hosted some wine media and trade at Journey’s End outside Somerset West to taste through some older and current vintages. After a sit down tasting of wines we moved outside for lunch and to taste through old vintages from the property. The wines date back to 2001 Journey’s End Kumala Cabernet Sauvignon and 2002 Journeys End Kumala Chardonnay (which was a standout wine on the day). Having the likes of Christian Eedes and James Pietersen there as Wine Critics and Judges was very interesting comparing it to what the trade guests thought of the wines. There were definitely two schools and feedback from the general Trade being more complimentary and impressed. Christian Eedes and James Pietersen were a bit more critical, maybe because of the nature of their jobs.

Stunning Views over False Bay from Journeys End Vineyards
However, when Leon Esterhuizen (Winemaker) started talking about Carbonic Maceration, use of various types of oak and fermentation on his Griffin Syrah 2012 it suddenly caught the attention and created more interest with guests. Christian later on scored the wine 91 Points although I thought he would give it 92 or more knowing him from previous tastings J

Yes the style of this Syrah is very different to the other Journey’s End ones, but I felt the Cape Doctor Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 was a standout wine deserved of a high rating. But it was Cabernet made in a very old world style compared to the interesting Griffin Syrah. The point was not whether the Journeys End wines were below par, but maybe just too similar to what they taste daily or safe as some might call it. 
Does this prove my earlier point? I would like to think so, but it would only be human to appreciate an interesting and different wine a bit more than a wine/variety that you are so used too. Just being different doesn’t mean it is a good wine. It still has to be well made and of great quality to earn high ratings.
Cape Doctor Cabernet Sauvignon
Christian Eedes is a trusted wine colleague and someone who has supported me tremendously the past three years in coming to my portfolio or individual producer tastings. As outspoken and opinionated as he can be about wine or sport, so is he a very good sounding board to discuss wine facts and trends with. I enjoy reading his posts about the wines he taste and he is a bit of a 'funky wine lover' as well :). 

Although I don’t think wine critics always understand what consumer behaviour or buying patterns are, because they get exposed to mainly taste top end wines on a very regular bases. Their input and feedback is always very needed to trigger the winemakers mind and discuss different opinions. 

Unless a country or region starts to push a certain wine i.e Pinot Grigio, Malbec, like some have done, the lesser known varieties will stay a novelty to most. I cannot see white blends, Grenache or Pinot Noir from South Africa outselling Sauvignon Blanc or Merlot real soon.
It is great to taste and see what some of the winemakers and brands are doing with the cultivars. But I can confirm from first-hand experience that the consumer will order and buy the wine they are familiar with.

Personally I do feel that lesser known varieties and 'funky' wines are getting a lot more traction these days than very well made familiar ones. Does this mean winemakers and brands should go out looking for these grapes to create a wine for their portfolio? NO, please dont! Stick to what you have and make that better and better every vintage! In such a way building a brand through consistency and credibility.