Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show 2016 – the lowdown
06 March 2016
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Jenny Crwys–Williams : So let’s have a word with the Chairman of the judges, Michael Fridjhon. Is he panicking or is he in the calm before the storm and he’s sitting right opposite me. You’re looking calm but inside your heart must be beating.
Michael Fridjhon: No, it’s too late at the stage. The judging is done. I now know the result, but no one else pretty much does.
JCW: Right, well you are looking cool, calm, and collected. Any hints as to… I mean I know it’s a silly question but you never know you might drop something.
Any hints on what to expect?
MF: I’m not going to give the game away which in the end leads to people being able to guess the name of the producer who may or may not have won a medal. I can tell you that this year and it’s because the 2015 vintage has been so good, there’s a predominance of white wines in the gold’s and trophies. Because more and more what we see it that the judges themselves influence style because they have their own assumptions, their own prejudices, their own preferences.
When you watch the results come together it’s a complete picture in the end and it’s a picture that reflects the aesthetic which I as the Show Chairman try to direct the show towards. But in the midst of that there are very interesting nuances, preferences in terms of how much wood is acceptable on a wine, how much primary fruit, how much of that more complex secondary fruit. All of those issues vary from class to class, from judge to judge. In the end the overall picture is complete, but it’s quite interesting looking at the building blocks.
JCW: Let’s talk about the judges. It’s not just local judges and I don’t mean that just to be derogatory in any way at all, but there is an international panel, so you look at it every time with a fresh taste.
A universal judging panel
JCW: Well firstly, yes there is an international judge on every panel on every day of the judging. So there are three panels, therefore three international judges, two this year were from France. That’s quite a high influence but then there were none from England.
The two French judges were from completely different backgrounds, Michel Bettane who used to be the editor of the La Privée de Wendel Francais. With Thierry Desseauve who runs the most highly recognised most highly regarded review publication scoring system for the French wines. So there is somebody with very clear preference for a classical style.
Michel used to in fact teach classics and he also taught at the academy Deveaux. He comes from a kind of broad Renaissance man background focused on wine. He knows just about all the producers in France. He’s been immersed in wine for 30 years. But he is classical and even though he writes for the World of Fine Wine in English, he is French down to his fingertips.
Eric Goettelmann who is a sommelier who is the chief sommelier for the Loiseau group of restaurants, which is multi-Michelin starred, Eric in fact comes from Alsace. My friends in Burgundy say to me he’s not really France he’s Alsatian. Eric is meticulous, he sees wine much more from a consumer perspective because he knows what gets served in restaurants. The Loiseau Group see many international people and in Eric’s choices there is a different kind of focus but both of them are looking for linearity. Both of them tolerate wood if they see it’s going to marry in time with the fruit.
Anybody who tastes en Primier Bordeaux’s as Michel Bettane has done for the last, I suppose, 30, 35 years is expecting to get a dollop of wood with a dollop of young wine. Being able to discern whether those components are in balance is one of the aptitudes that he has. So they bring their particular aesthetic to the party.
The third international judge is Simon Tam, who is in fact born in Australia but lives in run up in Hong Kong and now heads the Christies Auction House Wine Department for the whole of China. Simon has a much more new world view on things and classic wines all the time and with consumers of classic wines.
The Christies wine department in Hong Kong, I think is their biggest in the world. It’s certainly runs their biggest auctions and it certainly has the most, to say discerning collectors. Certainly the collectors who are very careful and cautious about what they buy but when they buy it they buy it in splendid quantities.
So those are the internationals and they bring their particular aesthetic views to each panel that they sit on and those panels are rotated on a daily basis. So the people that Michel sits with on day one will not be the people who he works with on day two or day three.
Fine array of local judges as well
Then amongst the local judges, I make sure that we have a couple of winemakers. So that if there are completely technical questions that needs to be discussed, there’s someone on the panel who can take a winemaker’s view. If you look at someone like Trizanne Barnard from Trizanne Signature Wines, she has a very precise palate. JD Pretorius who works at Steenberg is a very precise, very technical winemaker.
We have people like that and they have not only an influence in terms of preference but when it comes to a dispute about whether the wine is pure, whether there are bacterial elements that could be giving it a funkiness. They’re the people you want to have on the panel.
We also have people like Christian Eedes. Now Christian, former editor of Wine Magazine and now the person behind the Wine mag website. Christian has been tasting wine, he was a graduate of the very first wine judging academy that we hosted almost ten years ago.
He runs panels, does scorings, his entire life is around tasting and scoring wine. But he is in that midway position. He deals with the industry but he is very consumer orientated and he has his own preferences. But he has a marketing mind when he talks about that. Heidi Duminy who specialises in fizz and Cap Classique as a preference, it was a subject of her Cape wine master’s thesis.
Heidi is also working for a distributor and wholesaler at Prestige Distributor and Wholesaler, so she’s interfacing with the market every day. Francois Rautenbach who directs Singita’s wine programme. Singita is probably the biggest buyer of super premium wine in South Africa.
The biggest buyer being the biggest seller not only for their lodges but because their overseas guests then want wines delivered to their homes. So it’s a huge business now and when you buy an overnight at Singita, at what I think is somewhere between R25 000 and R30 000 per person, amazingly the wines are thrown in.
You sit down to dinner and every dinner is different and their cellar is extraordinary and Francois directs that. He directs everything from the purchasing to the sommelier service. He engages the sommelier at all the lodges, he provides them with the background, the information. So he is technically knowledgeable, at speed in terms of the industry, and he really does have the skills and aptitudes that bear in mind what the trade is doing, what the consumers are expecting and what the international market is anticipating.
South Africa is one of the hottest new wine properties
JCW: Indeed. I was just reading something today which was so flattering for new South African wines. I just thought maybe our time is coming and maybe that is also going to be reflected in the trophy winners.
MF: Well, Neil Martin who’s effectively taken over as Robert Parker, he is the chief taster for the Robert Parker website now that Bob is taking a back seat. Neil came out at as, in fact his first trip ever to South Africa was as a judge for the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show in 2011 or 2012, and he’s down for next year.
Neil says South Africa’s now the most exciting place in the world in terms of what’s happening in wine and it’s a view that’s shared by many people. But he came here at the time slightly, not so much cynically, he was reserving judgement.
At the old wine tasting which we hosted the night before the judging begins we served him a 1961 Lanzerac Pinotage which was spectacular. It was part of the old wine line-up and he said “This is a 50 year old wine, it’s from the same vintage as the great Bordeaux’s of 1961. It is as good as any 1961 Bordeaux I have ever had”. So it’s forced me to rethink how I look at South Africa because if this is how wine was being made 50 years ago, we’re not talking in the traditional sense of a new world wine producing country.
JCW: I know one of the things that I used to do when I had my own radio show when the winners were announced, is immediately make a list of the wines I wanted to go out and buy and try at the same time. Because there is an assurance of quality because of the judging that has gone on. The South African winemakers, I daresay gained something by working with international experts as well because that is the theme in winemaking in South Africa in any event.
MF: Absolutely, I mean part of our international judges’ programme does help to shape the industry. I’ve been the international judge and there’s usually only one international judge at the Australian Capital Shows in the Australian National Show.
The Chairman of the show said when I sat down with the first panel, he said, “This judge’s vote counts for more than your vote. You need to listen to what he says because he is there to stop us becoming complacent in the way that we look at the universe”.
JCW: Yes, I love that because I think there’s great striving and the moment you get complacent well you’ve lost it, haven’t you?
15th anniversary show
JCW: I mean you just have, there’s so much competition. Michael, Old Mutual, the Trophy Wine Show is celebrating 15 years?
MF: It’s the 15th edition, so it started in 2002. This is 14 years later. It’s the 15th show and we’ve seen an enormous change in terms of the quality of what lands up on the tasting benches. How the industry has responded to the show and what it stands for, the quality of wine that we get to judge. In fact, the enthusiasm with which the results are embraced by the wine consuming public of South Africa.
JCW: Well, I want to say thank you very much indeed. I know I’m going to be speaking to you next week when the winners come out and where everybody is celebrating and you’ve got to be careful about over exuberant winners, I daresay. I’m looking forward to it and thank you very much indeed.
MF: Great please, thank you.
JCW: Thank you Michael and you can also listen to these podcasts and stream live from dogreatthings.co.za. Thanks for listening.