International wine test matches – such as the “Judgement of Paris” tasting of 1976 which put California on the map, or the SAA Shield between South Africa and Australia in 1995 – work best when the outcome defies the rational expectation of an influential audience. The Paris tasting acquired its historical importance precisely because 40 years ago everyone (not only the French) believed that the best Old World wines would necessarily outperform anything the New World had to offer. California’s overwhelming triumph forced everyone to re-examine their most basic assumptions. Suddenly the world wasn’t flat, and no matter how many flat-earthers denied that it was round, the view could never ever be the same again. This is why no subsequent “test match” has ever had the same impact as Spurrier’s quite casually organised 1976 event.
For South Africa, our drubbing in the SAA Shield of 1995 achieved the same result from a negative perspective – it forced our over-complacent winemakers to re-assess their blind faith in the quality of what was coming out of our cellars in the immediate post-isolation era. On the other hand, as UK wine writer Oz Clarke subsequently pointed out, the result of the Shield sent the “cellar rats” of the mid-1990s out into the real world. They came back inspired and emboldened, ready to create the style of Cape wine which today has many influential international critics suggesting that South Africa is producing some of the world’s most exciting wines.
At this year’s Six Nations Challenge (where ten years ago we battled to collect a few medals, and certainly never contemplated the prospect of a trophy) South Africa bagged two trophies, one runner-up award, 7 double golds and 23 gold medals. This was by no means our best performance at the competition (a few years back we took home the majority of the show’s trophies) but it was creditable enough. Our trophy winners were the Uva Mira OTV 2014 (a 60:40 cab. sav/cab. franc blend) and the Stellenrust “51” Chenin Blanc 2015. Simonsig’s Kaapse Vonkel Cuvée Royale 2013 was the runner up in the MCC class. Looking through the double gold and gold medal winners there are no real surprises: amongst the double golds are Graham Beck’s 2012 Blanc de Blanc, Silverthorn’s Green Man (an earlier Silverthorn bubbly won the fizz trophy a couple of years back) and Steenberg’s Lady R, (all fizz), Stark Conde’s Round Mountain Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Bosman Family Vineyards’ Nero d’Avola, Uva Mira’s Cabernet Franc and Darling Cellar’s Bushvine Cinsaut.
From the long list of gold medallists it’s worth highlighting a trio of 2015 Sauvignons, Delaire Graff Coastal, Mulderbosch 1000 Miles and Nitida Golden Orb as well as five chardonnays – Paul Cluver Seven Flags 2016, Chamonix Reserve 2015, Eikendal 2015, Restless River Ave Maria 2015 and Rustenberg’s Five Soldiers 2015. Other standout whites were the Foundry’s Grenache Blanc 2015, Darling Cellars 2016 Chenin, Botanica’s Mary Delany 2015 and Deetlef’s 2014 Semillon. There were (as always) fewer red wine gold medalists but Newton Johnson’s Family Reserve Pinot, Paul Wallace’s Brave Heart Pinot and his Black Dog Malbec, Shannon’s Mount Bullet Merlot 2014 all rate a mention, as do a trio of Bordeaux blends – from Haskell, Ernie Els and Diemersdal. Nederburg safe-guarded its slot among the dessert wines medals, a position it has held almost without interruption for at least the past decade.
About two months after the judging I hosted a dinner for Christies in Hong Kong at which I presented a number of South Africa’s top wines – all served blind alongside highly reputed French benchmarks. Classics like Jordan’s Nine Yards Chardonnay were pitched against Corton Charlemagne, while the Mullineux Syrah went head-to-head against Ogier’s Cote Rotie Reserve. The guests were simply asked to indicate their preferences, and in all but one of the ballots, the Cape wines trumped their French counterparts. Forty one years after The Judgement of Paris this isn’t news – but it’s still a gratifying and meaningful outcome.