June 27, 2014 • by scar*let nguni • in Out and About, What’s in a glass…. •

Anyone old enough to appreciate South African wine has an opinion on the fermented grape: there’re probably as many wine writers and awards as there are wine makers. With well over six thousand local wines, how do you decide what to drink? Do you choose based on the number of trophy stickers the bottle bears? Google what Christian Eedes drank last night or see how many stars Platter’s gave it?

Opinions are by nature, subjective. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with subjectivity since we’re entitled to our preferences and opinions, it makes determining a reliable wine ‘standard’ difficult.

National and international competitions are a starting point as these are generally blind tastings judged by a professional panel but even these have limitations: wine producers often have to pay to enter, so limiting the sample size; scoring protocols differ and there’s generally no measure of the wine’s performance, year on year. And how on earth is the man in the wine shop meant to know which award trumps which?
rands & sense…

Let’s illustrate by way of analogy: imagine you wish to invest your savings. Would you be comfortable buying shares based on a single reference point (i.e. company X won a gold medal in the 2010 Da Vinci Startup Awards) or would you prefer information which tells you how company X performed over the last 5 years in relation to similar companies? The gold medal offers limited information as it relates to an isolated event in company X’s history while the latter offers greater insight into the relative performance of the company over a longer period and is thus more meaningful to your decision making process. Now the company operates within an industry with a known average index of 85 for example and X’s score is 90, you could safely conclude that this company is in the top percentile of the industry and is probably a good investment.

This concept of an industry index allows the investor to determine the company’s comparative ‘value’ and forms the basis on which shares can be traded on stock markets.

An index is a single number, the result of a mathematical equation designed to aggregate a set of data effectively, allowing us to compare like with like. Indices provide us with benchmarks, their usefulness evident in our daily life: from the CPI (Consumer Price Index) to GI (Glycemic Index) to BMI (Body Mass Index) to the Dow Jones Index. What if this could be applied to the wine industry? Perhaps finding the holy grail of great wine would finally be within reach.

This is the concept behind SAWi, the South African Wine Index, a score derived from a multi-phase algorithm to help wine lovers identify consistent excellence. SAWi’s score takes into account a specific wine’s best results over multiple vintages, national and international accolades won, proven record of quality as well as trophies and Top 10 listings. The collective wisdom of the judging panels, authoritative reviews and the wider wine industry is distilled into a single figure that drowns out much of the subjective noise, making it easy to distinguish truly extraordinary wines.

The current SAWi ‘average’ of excellence is a remarkable 88.1 (out of a possible 100) based 838 upper-echelon South African wines with index scores over 75 points. Which means the bar is set extremely high. There are then two general accolades: Platinum recognises superior wines scoring 95 or higher and a narrow band of Grand Gold for those achieving 93-94. No awards are given for any wines scoring below 93, ensuring a SAWi decorated bottle contains a remarkable wine.

The annual SAWi awards ceremony was hosted last weekend at Grootbos and proved to be a prestigious but surprising low-key event. Dramatic views and striking architecture provided an elegant showcase for the country’s premier wines. Friday evening saw a select gathering treated to a vertical tasting of Bouchard Finlayson’s iconic Pinot Noir paired with an innovative 5 course menu which was presented by honoured Wine Legend, Peter Finlayson. Saturday’s winter solstice coincided with the gala event at Garden Lodge where this year’s top rated Grand Wines could be savoured ahead of the awards ceremony.

While this year’s awards indicate Stellenbosch is the dominant wine producing force-to-be-reckoned with, I note with pleasure that the Overberg is holding its own, boasting just shy of a third of all Platinum wines. Speaking to Peter Finlayson about the impressive achievements of the Hemel en Aarde region, it’s interesting that aside from a cool climate and high rainfall, what differentiates the valley’s vineyards was the originating intention with which they were cultivated. In older wine producing areas, grapes were farmed, harvested and delivered to wine making co-operatives. Assuming your grapes are going to be thrown into the proverbial collective barrel, the main objective is to maximise the output of good grapes – there’s little point in producing a few brilliant bunches. However, if your intention is to craft a stellar estate wine you invest both time and resources towards differentiating yourself. Judging by the 20 SAWi awards attributed to Hemel en Aaarde wines, the intention to create exceptional wines is obvious!

…but what does it all mean?
I discussed the impact of SAWi with several nominees on the night and it is clear that those making wine are excited by the potential a reliable, recognisable standard offers the industry. With a credible index as benchmark, the true value of South African wines can be gauged and celebrated. While there is emphatic support and enthusiasm for SAWi, the biggest concern is the wine drinking public’s ability to embrace its significance and understand that this is not just another competition.
SAWi may prove to be the viticultural equivalent of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: a game changer. I’ll drink to that!