Sometimes it’s not easy to measure progress. If you’re on a long walk there are milestones to help keep account of distance. If, as the metaphor suggests, you’re eating an elephant bite by bite, presumably you can tell from how much is left how many mouthfuls lie ahead. But what when what you are trying to assess is both intangible and also subjective? It’s a bit like watching your own children growing up or your parents growing old: for a long time nothing dramatic is evident and then, very suddenly, kids have become adults and mothers and fathers have succumbed to age.
We talk constantly about the how Cape wines have improved, but we live in the midst of that upward trajectory. Comparisons of what was produced a few years back can never really convey the sense of distance traversed because the older wines have themselves evolved, so have our palates and our expectations. Happily, a few events in the past two weeks have served up an epiphany, less of a where-we-were kind of measure as a where-we’re-heading insight.
The first of these was the annual wine judging academy held under the auspices of the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town. Applications for the 20 slots available were more than double the number of berths: probably half of those turned away already knew more about fine wine than most of those who attended the first course ten years ago. In other words, the level of knowledge in the industry has grown exponentially. Secondly, as the lecturers who presented the course will attest, not only are the classes more engaging (and more challenging), the range of tasting samples is wider and more exciting than ever.
Pieter Ferreira from Graham Beck has managed the fizz category pretty much since the inception of the course: the wines he is able to draw upon from the Cap Classique association, as well as from the burgeoning Champagne market, make this one of the most complex and nuanced segments of the course. Charles Hopkins – from De Grendel (and also Chairman of Veritas) – does the annual white wine focus, driving the issue of technical purity, fruit management and the importance of proper bottling technology – all supported with analytic information that wasn’t readily available ten years ago. Finally Boekenhoutskloof’s Marc Kent – who this year took on the challenge of the red wine slot – could show cultivars which had only just arrived in our vineyards when the course started, and compare them to the best international examples.
The second of these insights came from attending a regional wine show, and discovering how well even the most commercially-priced wines performed across a range of styles and varieties. For under R100 you can buy wines like the Painted Wolf Peloton Blanc (viognier, chardonnay, chenin and rousanne) – which delivers charm and complexity way ahead of its price point. Diemersdal’s entry level Sauvignon Blanc – already a 2017 – offers bucketloads of flavour and real fruit intensity for around R60 per bottle. KWV’s Grenache Blanc sells for even less, and is an equally perfect example of a variety that wasn’t even commercially available at the turn of the century. The Petit Verdot from the same cellar – also at around R60 – is just as extraordinary.
The final proof of how far we’ve advanced in the past few years came in the form of the recently published results of the WineMag’s annual label design competition. In the words of the publisher, Christian Eedes “The question has always been whether or not the South African wine industry manages to convey a compelling sense of self to consumers via its branding and until now the answer has been probably not.” It seems even our packaging reflects a greater sense of confidence. The challenge is to convince the world of the progress we’ve made. For that we may need to wait until there are only a few mouthfuls of elephant left.