The Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show is unique among local competitions in that local winemakers and writers get to interrogate the judges about the event immediately upon its conclusion.
Convenor of the judging panel and show organiser Michael Fridjhon said the 2012 staging of the Trophy Wine Show (TWS) during the second week in May had yielded some interesting results, not least of which was a significant jump in the number of gold medals awarded.
From 1 025 entries just 42 wines were deemed worthy of gold medals, compared to last year’s 35 and 32 in 2010. Just in case there was an impression of panels having been overly generous, Fridjhon said: “There were lots of wines that were pushed down into silver from the top rather than lifted from below.” And it was in the silver medal category that there was “a significant jump up”: 178 silvers versus the 116 of 2011 and scant 89 of 2010.
Australian winemaker Brian Croser who has judged at TWS twice before, in 2004 and 2009, said it had been a privilege “because I have been able to see the strides of improvement and the huge increase in diversity that South Africa has made in a decade.”
His fellow international judge Tom Canavan said it was all too easy to pick up on the negatives when providing feedback – and there were negatives such as heavy-handed oaking or ripeness levels that led to wines being overripe, big and raisiny. “But the general quality was excellent,” he said, singling Sauvignon Blanc out for special mention as having provided distinct pleasure.
In a broad strokes analysis the judges were agreed that the white wines continue to outperform the reds. Chardonnay in particular was praised for its delicacy of touch with regard to oaking while simultaneously expressing fruit and ripeness particularly well. Chenin Blanc was also held up for praise.
Perhaps the most interesting discussion was that of the so-called South African/burnt rubber character. British wine writer and international judge Anthony Rose who has judged TWS previously raised the spectre. “There was none of that burnt rubber character on any of the wines we tasted in the older wine flights. You can knock that on the head because it is obviously not an issue on older wines.” Rose was also impressed by how well South African wines age.
“It is also no longer a red wine issue,” said Brian Croser. “Every industry has its problems – you find it in Australia and Chile too,” he said, speaking of two countries where he consults and makes wine. His view was that there was a certain sector which was looking for a story. “Virus is also a diversion and it prevents us from focussing on the real issues of winemaking: that there are still wines being made that are skinny in the middle, have aggressive, harsh tannins or are green on the edge.”
Rose made the point that there could possibly be varying tolerance levels of terroir differences. He cited the example of judging Cabernet Sauvignon from Australia’s Margaret River and Barossa Valley areas at the recent Decanter World Wine Awards. “The panel tolerated a bit of leafiness or greenness on the Margaret River examples as they added a certain freshness rather than harshness or greenness in comparison to the Barossa’s fruit purity.”
The final word: the so-called rubber aroma is a burnt case
A recent report circulated by SAWIS (SA Wine Industry Statistics) caught my eye because it followed on a really interesting faults workshop I attended while judging at the International Wine Challenge in London earlier this year. (See blog: Finding fault)
The report was about the investigation into the alleged “burnt rubber” character that South African wine displayed. What made this report so interesting was also that one of the international judges at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, winemaker Brian Croser, made a point of commenting on a marked absence of it in the red wines he came across during the course of the competition.
It was illustrative because he has judged at the Trophy Wine Show on two previous occasions. He is also the Aussie judge who raised the first alarm flags about the prevalence of brettanomyces some years ago, something the local industry got to grips with quickly. Improvements in cellar hygiene and healthier winemaking practices make this a very occasional incidence nowadays.
But back to burnt rubber: Robert Joseph was the British wine writer who described Pinotage as tasting of rusty nails and burnt rubber way before the turn of the millennium but Jane Macquitty of the influential newspaper, The Times, had another go in 2008. Her report provoked a storm of outrage from local winemakers who almost bayed for her blood! It led to a number of other British wine writers agreeing in print that this burnt rubber aroma was an easy way of identifying South African red wines in a lineup. While it irked locals, some good came of it because a study was convened to investigate this phenomenon being seen as “specific to South African red wines”.
The industry was asked to identify wines allegedly containing this burnt rubber character. A panel comprising five “of the best burnt rubber tasters and 10 non-regular tasters” was convened, according to the SAWIS report. More than 1 300 wines were assessed – and of that number, the panel found that on sensorial analysis 20% were found to have some burnt or smoky taints of which 10.5% was specifically burnt rubber. Furthermore, the panel distinguished a range of additional faults – excessive herbaceousness, tarriness, oxidation, brettanomyces, TCA, sulphur, smokiness and other faults.
The take out of the multi year project was that a range of aromas are misdiagnosed as burnt rubber and it is seldom found in isolation. “Burnt, rubbery and smoky smells can be caused by a number of different factors which are fairly well known to winemakers,” the report concluded. Fingers were pointed at volatile phenols from barrels or other sources while the herbaceousness was identified as being linked to varietal characteristics of certain grapes as well as a lack of true phenolic ripeness.
“Volatile Sulphur Compounds are one of the known causes of burnt rubber taint but analysis by GC-MS (gas chromatography – mass spectrometry) showed that low Volatile Sulphur Compounds were not necessarily associated with a lack of the burnt rubber taint, and that other compounds were therefore responsible for the burnt rubber taints.” the report reads. “Volatile phenols and Volatile Sulphur Compounds are however commonly found in wines from all over the world, and do not constitute a South Africa specific problem.
“It was concluded that there are indeed burnt rubber-related issues in South African wines, but that these constitute no more than a small percentage of faults. The majority of the affected wines did not show off-flavours that can be described as being specific to, or typical of, South African wines since these taints are found in wines from most, if not all wine-producing countries.”
In other words, we are not alone – something MW Sam Harrop and the two Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) members concluded in their presentation to the International Wine Challenge judges in April. It’s not unique to South Africa and is occurring in wines from hot climates – notably Australia and India too.