South Africa’s secret wine weapon

Author: Cathy Marston
Published: 31 May 11

Thierry Desseauve, former editor of La Revue du Vin de France, doesn’t often judge at shows he hasn’t organised but Michael Fridjhon was able to tempt him to South Africa with the promise of good, interesting wines. Did he find them? “Absolutely! The wines were much better than I had expected, especially the Shirazes and the white Bordeaux blends.” Style-wise, he found SA wines acting as a bridge between Old and New World styles “You have a great history here in the European tradition with wines such as those from Constantia” and he particularly commended those wines which achieved balance and freshness as opposed to being alcoholic blockbusters, something which he says isn’t always the case with wines from Australia, for example.

International wine judge Thierry Dessauve
                                                                                                             International wine judge Thierry Dessauve

So what does he think is SA’s secret? His answer is immediate “Terroir. Your vineyards are similar to Europe in that the vines are planted in good places. Your Shirazes, for example, had real personality – very different from the Rhône or Australia – and I would like to return and find out more about that personality and where it comes from.” I told him of several French winemakers and winery owners who had done just that and he nodded “you must choose one place and go to the absolute extreme of quality in every part of it – that is how you can make top class wines.”

And top class wines are what it will take to crack the French market, in his view. Right now, there is no SA presence in France at all, but, after having tasted many over the week, he believes that Pinotage may be the break-through grape “You have a unique style of wine there – balanced, fruity, easy to drink – although I find it difficult to see what will go with it food-wise.” One style of wine which he was less than complimentary about was oxidative white wines – a style for which he can see no future – but he agrees that natural winemaking and organic and biodynamic farming are the way to go, as long as freshness can be retained.

Sadly for Desseauve, this was a flying visit and he had little time to visit the different vineyard areas and track down the ‘real personality’ of South Africa’s wines. But the thoughtful gleam in his eye as he talked about the terroir and the opportunities it affords a focussed, dedicated vigneron suggest this first visit may not be his last “South Africa has a special place in the world – it is a hope for everyone in terms of the changes it has managed to achieve. Everyone wants you to become a real success and wine must be part of that too.”

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