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Hosting a group of international wine and spirits experts from around the globe for a week in the Cape Winelands makes for interesting conversation and observations! Thus was the privilege of the Michelangelo International Wine & Spirits Awards organisers during in mid-August when the group from 22 countries gathered to taste and adjudicate the 2036 entries received for this year’s competition.

Michel Blanc

The two largest white wines, namely Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, seemed to capture the imagination of the judges.

Michel Blanc from France, who is director of the Federation des Producteurs de Châteauneuf-du-Pape, one of the world’s most renowned wine regions, was especially complimentary on the South African Chardonnays he had in his glasses.

“There were plenty of good wines, and a few very, very good,” says Michel, “and only two or three that were not up to standard. Not bad for a category attracting 134 entries. I found the majority of the wines of fine quality: Fruity, nervous, with a good acidity and a nice fresh, long finish. Oak is often a problem in Chardonnay as it can dominate the wine if not carefully used. For me there was no problem here. The wood was well integrated and judiciously employed.”

He found the Chenin Blanc category, which is in some circles seen as South Africa’s signature grape variety, very pleasant. “We had fresh and fruity wines, long, with a good acidity. A few samples were not very good (81pts, 82pts) but we scored 91pts, 90pts for the best wines. It was not so easy to taste the 2019 vintage because of reduction problems,” he says.

Of the Chenin Blancs local judge Sandy Harper said the barrel- fermented Chenin Blanc was a delightful surprise to most of the international judges. “The opulence, yet linearity that many of the samples displayed, showed great elegance and received new found regard for our South African white wines. We tasted some superb samples which showed that with respect, South African Chenin Blanc makes for an exquisite white wine and firm contender on the international stage.”

Sandy Harper

This year’s Sauvignon Blanc expert, Ben Glover from Marlborough in New Zealand, says South African Sauvignon Blanc definitely has the potential to be a contender on the world stage. “The refinement and sophistication of the Sauvignon Blancs on the judges’ line-up showed an intriguing diversity,” he says. “The variation of terroir and regional diversity offers a wide range of expression in the South African wines, from tropical and sunny to more restrained and pyrazine-driven as well as wines looking for integrity of site and texture.

“This being the biggest white wine category in this year’s competition with close on 200 entries, there was obviously always going to be a number of wines lacking the poise and intensity of the cultivar, as is the case in every competition of this size,” he says. “But there have been some really brilliant wines where intelligent, deft wooding has been used or the winegrower is looking at solids and skins as a function. For complexity and intrigue the wines also spent a bit of time on the lees. These are very refined and complex, great and interesting Sauvignon Blanc wines that would impress any wine judge at any competition in the world.“

Of the red wines, Michel singled out Shiraz – quite an accolade for South African Shiraz producers as this variety is one of the key components in the wines of the acclaimed Châteauneuf-du-Pape region.

Michel says, “The best shiraz we had came from vintage 2016. Good colour, big wine, soft tannins, long wines, well-balanced… we gave some 90 to 93 pts. 2018 were lower in quality (82pts – 87pts).

Ben Glover

New Zealander Ben was impressed by the Pinotage category, this being South Africa’s home-grown variety that evolved in 1924 as a cross between Pinotage and Hermitage (Cinsault).

“We make some Pinotage in New Zealand, but it is quite obvious that South Africa is the home of this grape,” says Ben. “The best wines showed a lot of juicy fruit, bright and perky. Others had a bit more age on them, offering a forest-floor, Pinot Noir character. But be careful of the wood – some wines were chunky and there was quite a bit of the off-putting Brett character around.”

South African judge and panel-chair Sandy Harper says her panel was very impressed with what South Africa is doing with Cabernet Sauvignon.

“Cabernet Sauvignon was simply a delight to judge,” she says. “We saw a few 2018 but mostly 2017, 2016 , 2015 and 2014 samples. The warmth of our climate is most suitable to Cabernet and winemakers are using less new wood to overpower the beautiful black fruit. The result is a wine that is plush, but has structure and integrity for aging. Again a favourite with our foreign judges.”

On the spirits side Bernhard Schäfer from Nuremberg in Germany was asked about the challenge facing South African brandies in the international market-place.

He had come across Cape brandies before his appearance at Michelangelo, where he was once again reminded of the irrefutable quality of this local category. “Thing is, every wine-producing country makes a distillation with ‘brandy’ on the label,” he says. “And most of it is not made for the discerning consumer and not distilled and aged with the attention one finds in Cognac and some South African pot-still brandies.

Bernard Schäfer

“So what you have, is the consumer associating brandy with a palatable yet unrefined spirit without any provenance or identity. Anyone who wants quality and refinement in a premium product, goes to Cognac or Armagnac. And that is the biggest challenge for South Africa’s brandies: creating awareness that despite the ubiquitous name of ‘brandy’ on the label, your products are a cut above what consumers usually associate brandy with.”

As a gin expert, Bernhard has a lot to say of the record-number of gin entries received for this year’s Michelangelo International Wine & Spirits Awards. With South Africans drinking over 15m litres of gin annually, the number of producers has increased exponentially over the past few years and this year Michelangelo received over 200 gin entries.

“This dynamism in the category is pretty much a reflection of the gin boom in Europe,” says Bernhard.

“The styles of gin presented to the panels are incredibly diverse, making it an interesting panel to serve on,” says Bernhard. “South Africa has such a diverse selection of botanicals to use in its gins due to your extraordinary plant-life that I sometimes have to ask myself if I am tasting gin at all.”

However, he warns against the fashion of gin producers developing products far removed from the essence of what gin is supposed to be. “The drink of gin is based on juniper, and this is what must drive the product. Many modern producers are showing immense innovation with interesting natural flavourants. But the essence of juniper must not be lost, as then we are going to have to create another category.”

With the judges’ critical eye cast over the large number of entries, when the winners of this year’s Michelangelo Wine & Spirits Competition are announced they will be true worthy winners.