Claire Hu grills the Master of Wine about his controversial judgments on
South African wines, including the decision to rank them according to
the 1855 Bordeaux classification.
UK wine critic Tim Atkin seems to provoke concurrent feelings of admiration and annoyance among the trade. Even so, you can’t help but admire the thoroughness of his work. For his special report on South African wine, he tasted over 700 wines and produced analysis totalling 22,000 words. His recent travels through the Cape led him to proclaim that South Africa is “currently the most exciting New World wine-producing nation on the planet, thanks to a combination of old vines, new regions and winemaking talent.”
It’s one of the most vigorous assessments of South African wines by a foreign commentator – and one of the most controversial. He still thinks white wines are better than the reds, and he has put a few noses out of joint with his rankings of the top producers mimicking those in Bordeaux from First to Five Growths.
Is it true you based the whole report on a two-week visit to South Africa?
No. I’ve been to South Africa twice in the past five months. Once before Christmas and in March to taste for the Top 100. I’ve been coming to South Africa since 1990: I’ve been probably 20 times in the past two decades and this report is based on that knowledge and the scores of the wines I tasted before Christmas. Also, remember I don’t just taste South African wines in South Africa but constantly in the UK as well.
How do you decide which farms to visit and which wines to taste? Is it all orchestrated by WOSA?
I tasted over 700 wines for this report, and I decided on the list, not WOSA. Of course, there are some people I have to see for ‘political’ reasons like DGB, KWV and Nederburg because they are such major players - but I would want to see them anyway because they make good wines. This perception that WOSA tells me who to see is rubbish. Also, the perception that wines are brought to me and I lie by the pool tasting them. I didn’t stay one night in the same place during the last visit, we were constantly travelling which is how I think it should be. I don’t subscribe to sitting in a hotel room like some wine critics.
How can you be sure you’re not missing some hidden gems?
I made the point in the report that there are over 500 wine farms in South Africa and even if I saw one every day for a year I wouldn’t be able to get round them all. My report is not meant to be comprehensive, but I do think I have seen most of the best wines - particularly those from upcoming people. Having an outside perspective is a good thing; it helps me to spot someone like Chris Alheit (Alheit). These people are part of the Cape revolution and part of my job is to identify them.
What was your rationale for ranking SA wines in the same way as the 1855 Bordeaux classification?
When it was done in 1855 it was based purely on the prices wines were sold at; I wanted to do it based on quality. Also, it was a bit of fun. It helped me clarify my thoughts and create a bit of debate – isn’t that what wine journalism should be for? I’d be really happy to see peoples’ own classifications.
How did you decide on the rankings?
Any call on quality is subjective. I travelled around with Oz Clarke and bounced ideas off him when we got back – he agreed with some and not others. It was partly based on quality, partly on track record. I would try to base the ranking on the whole range – if a farm made 20 wines I would taste all of them.
Why give high rankings to producers who only have one vintage behind them, like Savage and Porseleinberg?
These are people who I think are part of the next 25 years of South African wine. These are people who have a track record as a winemaker, working for other farms, and who are clearly brilliant – people like Chris Alheit (First Growth), Peter Allan Finlayson from Crystallum (Third Growth) and Donovan Rall (of Rall, Second Growth). South Africa can be a bit conservative and isn’t good at spotting brilliance. This golden generation of people in their early 30s – they are the future of South African wine.
What about the ones with a great reputation you left out or who weren’t ranked at the top?
Some, like Glen Carlou and Howard Booysens, I didn’t get to taste this time round but I will do so and update the classification. It’s a work in progress. I also got criticised for leaving people out like Cathy Marshall and Lammershoek. But you need to understand that for someone to be put in, they have to replace someone else and I felt good about who is at the top for now.
Which areas and varieties are you most excited about?
I think the collaboration between site and variety is only just beginning. Old vine cinsault, chenin blanc, grenache and semillon are exciting, as are white blends and what’s happening with syrah. Cabernet blends from Stellenbosch and the whole cool climate thing in Hemel en Aarde with chardonnay, riesling and pinot noir has really good potential. The potential is enormous with old vines being discovered and a return to the land approach to making wine. My favourite white blends fall into two camps: the ‘Mediterranean’ using chenin blanc etc and Bordeaux blends which are semillon and sauvignon blanc. They are equally successful but the Med blends tend to have older vines. Grenache blanc also has great potential. I would class Franschhoek and Paarl as under-performing areas.
Aren’t you just going to create more ‘cult wines’ and driving prices out of the reach of locals?
I don’t deliberately set out to create cult wines. In fact, most wines that set out to achieve those high prices I don’t necessarily like. Those high prices are coming from SA, not the UK. All I do is score the wines accordingly. However, I would like to say to South Africans that your wines are incredibly cheap compared to the rest of the world. Although the trade is proud of its wines, it sometimes needs outside confirmation and sometimes resents people telling them what’s good and what’s bad. All I can do is say what I personally feel is right. But South Africa is a country I love – I even married one.
Are you bracing yourself for more criticism from a certain critic?
I couldn’t care less.
The report costs €12 (R180) and is available from www.timatkin.com