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SA's Top 20 Wineries - why can't big be best?

Cathy Marston thinks there are some glaring omissions.

by: Cathy Marston | 25 Apr 2014

Tim James has just published his bi-annual review of the Top 20 Wineries in SA as voted by a panel of retailers, sommeliers and local and international journalists including yours truly. I think it’s a great list and there are some amazing wineries in there which make me proud to punt SA wines.

There has been much debate following publication of the list as to who is on there, who isn’t on there and who should be on there. I would like to throw my hat into the ring and say that I believe there are some glaring omissions and all of them concerning the Big Boys – large operations which nevertheless produce top quality wines - all of which are worryingly missing from this list.

Undoubtedly these smaller wineries are producing truly lovely wines but I really don’t understand why people failed to include Nederburg, KWV, Fairview and Graham Beck in their choices. These are businesses which produce vast quantities of good quality, everyday drinking wines, but they also use their massive resources and budgets to make award-winning stuff at the very highest level.

Taste Nederburg’s Ingenuity or Edelkeur, KWV’s Mentors or Cape Tawnies, Fairview’s range of single-vineyard Shirazes or the new Nurok and Graham Beck’s stellar Blanc de Blanc or Ad Honorem – how can anyone not rank these up there with the very best? And when you consider that quality cascades down to nearly all the numerous ranges of these wineries, I think they deserve to be included and applauded far more than small productions of handcrafted, trendy labels.

One of the things I often hear when I talk to winemakers or wineries is ‘focus’ – we’re focussing on Chardonnay, we’re focussing on quality. In some ways, I wonder if it isn’t almost easier to make good wines in small quantities, to focus your energies on getting the very best fruit, in the best condition, processed with the best equipment and kept and matured until it is sold at the absolute best time and at the absolute best price, than it is to disseminate those standards down to the rest of your winemaking team, to keep them excited on a daily basis about making a R45-bottle of wine and to utilise every ounce of knowledge to make the best wines at the best prices possible considering the cost constraints. I think that takes skill, and to my mind, shows far more dedication to quality and standards than producing one flagship wine to sell in minute quantities at R500 a bottle.

I am absolutely not diminishing the achievements of some of these smaller wineries and I hope that nobody will think I am attempting to do so. I have no real idea who I would want to exclude from the Top 20 list in order to substitute one of my ‘Big Four’ above – in fact, it’s probably a waste of time even discussing that. But can this list really be considered complete without acknowledging the top-quality and huge contribution to SA wine from these bigger operations, and why did this poll of wine industry experts not acknowledge them? Michael Fridjohn called it ‘fashionable’ to laud the new, top-of-mind producers and on Twitter, I put forward the opinion that personal likes and dislikes also inform many of the decisions we make.

It’s much easier to like lovely, personable people such as the Newton Johnsons, the Jordans and the Webbs than it is to form a relationship with the ever-changing marketing teams, PR chickies and winemakers of bigger operations.

Is that why they didn’t make the list? I don’t know, but I think it is important for us to remember that whilst we laud the little guys, it is the big powerhouses who are paving the way for them in so many markets. The South African wine industry should be grateful to them for doing this, and what’s more, we should be incredibly grateful to them for doing it so well.


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