Lunch today with Jean Smullin after a second day tasting bretty Bordeaux at the Concours Mondial in Palermo. With entries up strongly, wine competitions are cashing in on the global sardine run of producers with tanks full and sluggish sales: earlier this month the International Wine Challenge (infamous for awarding multiple but different medals to the same wine), the Concours Mondial which finishes tomorrow and next week the Decanter World Wine Awards which nicely muddies the water between writing about awards and dishing them out. Not even Nature, in the shape of an Icelandic volcano with an unpronounceable name, could still the feeding frenzy, as like latter-day Dick Kings, international arbiters of taste burn up carbon credits galore, jetting around to the flesh pots of Europe to pronounce on samples shipped from their home countries. Nero had a tune for it.
Jean is an Irish wine writer and was the happy face of WOSA in the Emerald Isle for a while before the SA exporter’s mouthpiece pulled the cork on Ireland back in 2003 to devote resources to the UK. With WOSA withdrawn, SA market share promptly sank from 12 to 8%. Jean joined Wines of Chile who are about to overtake Australia as market leader; squirrels in Stellenbosch can draw their own conclusions. So it is safe to assume that Jean knows a thing or three about SA wine, but she didn’t know that the annual Platter wine guide is tasted sighted. Nor do most people who buy it. Which was the reason for radio sommelier and chef Michael Olivier, Portuguese wine pundit Aníbal Coutinho and I producing The People’s Guide last year – a blind tasted guide with no entry fee to producers. Steve Heimoff, of Wine Enthusiast, makes a cogent argument (again) for blind as opposed to open, tasting.
The Portuguese equivalent is called Guia Popular de Vinhos and the 2011 edition will be published in Portuguese in September, from blind tasting notes generated by a 15 day tasting trip (no games of golf, shark cage diving or helicopter flips and we paid for our own economy class flights) through eight of the nine wine regions of Portugal. Focusing on wine in two price categories, €2-5 and €5-10, it is the Portuguese equivalent of TPG.
But why Portugal? Apart from the obvious historical observation that Portuguese navigators were the first Europeans to “discover” SA 150 years before the Dutch did, there is a brightly coloured Portuguese thread in the rainbow tapestry of SA life. Many of the slaves in the Cape colony, who did the heavy lifting to establish the vineyards for the SA wine industry, came from Angola and Mozambique (scandalously, whitewashed slave bells on several estates are their only monuments) and when Paul Kruger threw the velskoen at British imperialists, it was to Lourenço Marques that he retreated, along with his mythical millions. Nando’s Chicken franchise are the most astute political commentators in the country and reprocessing gold from the mine dumps of the Rand was pioneered by Joe Berardo. SA still boasts a sizeable community of Saudade Portuguese and for a while in the first democratic election of 1994, it looked like the Luso-South Africa Party would be a major political force, until someone rebooted the computers doing the counting.
The SA and Portuguese wine scenes are remarkably similar: both produce around 700m litres of wine (400m for export and 300m for domestic SA consumption) and both industries are struggling to establish themselves in foreign markets: Portugal after years of isolation during the Salazar dictatorship and SA after apartheid. Both industries are in transition from large famer co-operatives to small, sexy producers and both have rustic varietals colonial wine hacks love to trash: Pinotage in SA and Baga in Portugal.
After tasting several hundred good value Portuguese wines, several things became obvious: both SA and Portugal rejoice in strong regional diversity; sometimes the cheapest wines score the best when rated blind and although the Atlantic Ocean may keep SA and Portugal separated, wine tourism and the fermented fruit of the vine has a huge role to play in cultural communication.