Questions of style and quality

By Jamie Goode | 9th July 2024

When it comes to assessing wines – something that I must do on a regular basis – there are two important elements that must be considered: style and quality. While it might seem to be difficult to pull them apart, it’s an important thing to do. If someone asks you to tell them what is the best South African wine, then you really need to preface the answer with another question – in what style? And related to this, it’s useful also to know what they want the wine for: the context of the drinking experience.

Let me explain. Back in the late 1990s when I first started tasting high-end South African wines, there was a lot more uniformity of style. This was not just in South Africa, but across the wine world. Especially for red wine, size mattered. In that era, for a red wine to be good, it had to be dark and concentrated, with ripe fruit. High-end reds across the world were made from grapes picked later than they had been in the past. To my novice palate, these wines tasted really good, because they were ripe and sweet and delicious and tasted of A LOT.

Questions of style and quality

Part of this was because of the change that had been occurring with the world’s most collected wines: top Bordeaux. Some of this was initiated by climate change, and some by the taste of critics. In the cooler climate of the past, the Bordeaux growing season stretched into the autumn and picking decisions were often made by the weather. As the autumn rains swept in and temperatures dipped, growers picked whether or not the grapes had reached their desired levels of ripeness. Influential consultants began asking their clients to be patient and give the grapes hang time, and the resulting later-picked wines had accessible sweet fruit and a dark colour that resonated with the tastes of important American critics.

In warmer climates such as those of California and the Cape, there was no such need to pick earlier than needed, and the grapes could hang on the vine as long as the winemaker wanted. So with these changing tastes in fine wine, the trend became one of picking later, using new oak barrels to add structure and flavour, and the result was darker, riper, and in many cases tastier wines.

What was the problem? This all sounds like progress, and to some extent it was. As one Bordeaux Château owner said to me as we were tasting a great old vintage, in the past the great wines were accidents. Now people knew more about viticulture and there was more control and there were no longer any totally disastrous vintages.

The problem with this was twofold. First, the ageing ability of these riper, richer reds was compromised, and this was illustrated clearly in South Africa through library tastings.  Tasting 50 year old wines from South Africa often results in nice surprises: I’ve tasted some great wines from the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s, for example. But taste the red wines from the late 1990s and early 2000s, and most haven’t aged half as well, with a few notable exceptions, such as those producers who never deviated from more traditional winemaking and picking at sensible times such as Meerlust, Kanonkop and Thelema. The second is that this later picking resulted in a uniformity of style: wines from around the world suddenly began to taste the same. And this is a big shame.

For the last 15 years or so we have seen a pendulum shift back in style from some more established producers, and at the same time a whole bunch of new producers who favour making wines that are not lacking in flavour, but which are lighter. For white wines this often means early picking and then avoiding new oak barrels for ageing, and for reds along with early picking, there is a gentle hand in terms of extracting colour from the grapes. We are now in an era where for a red wine to be great, it doesn’t have to be deeply coloured. This is a massive change, and it reflects the shift in focus in fine wine circles from being obsessed about Bordeaux to celebrating Burgundy, with its parcellated terroirs, as the model region for fine wine.

Of course, many have stayed on the deep, dark red wine track, and if you have a Stellenbosch estate planted mainly to Cabernet Sauvignon, then you aren’t going to be making lighter-style reds. This is why we now find ourselves in a very interesting place when it comes to wine: one of stylistic diversity, even among the highest quality wines.

As a wine journalist, this puts me in an interesting position. When there was much less stylistic diversity, assessing wine was a lot easier. You just had to decide which you thought were the best. Now, you are assessing wines that vary widely by style as well as quality, and it’s a much trickier – but much more interesting – job.

Like any taster, I have stylistic biases. Yet I try to be fair to each wine within its style, as long as I think that style is legitimate. It’s so important to explain this distinction when writing about wine, though, and I think it’s a big mistake to second-guess the consumers you are writing for and recommend wines to them that you wouldn’t drink yourself with no further qualification of your position. So, to take an extreme example, I don’t like coffee Pinotage and won’t drink it, but I think it’s a legitimate style of wine. So I won’t tell you I think this is brilliant, but I might say that this is a good example of coffee Pinotage, a highly distinctive wine style, and if you think this is for you, then drink it. When it comes to more mainstream styles, there are some bold Bordeaux-style reds from Stellenbosch that I really like because they are made in a balanced, ageworthy style, and I recommend these without reservation. Then there are some that are bigger and riper, and carry some new oak imprint, which I will recommend, noting that they are made in this style. Then there are some that are huge, alcoholic, and full of winemaking input, and I won’t recommend them at all, even in their style, because I think this style is illegitimate. Where the line is drawn is part of my brand as a wine journalist, and you have to decide whether my recommendations are right for your palate. And I also have to be fair to those who actually make the wines, the hard job, and not dismiss wines unfairly because of some personal bias.