SA wines are getting rave reviews, but do they really deserve them?

Renowned wine expert Michael Fridjhon casts a critical eye over the Tim Atkin 2020 SA Special Report

17 September 2020 - 12:44 By Hilary Biller
Master of Wine Tim Atkin has rated local wines highly in his 2020 South Africa Special Report. File photo.
Master of Wine Tim Atkin has rated local wines highly in his 2020 South Africa Special Report. File photo.
Image: 123RF/Karel Joseph Noppe Brooks

There's been much hype about the fact that our local wines were rated highly in the recently released Tim Atkin 2020 SA Special Report. So highly, that two wines were awarded full marks with 100-point scores.

Atkin is a UK-based Master of Wine who, according to Michael Fridjhon — renowned as being SA’s most experienced wine judge — has made an industry of generating reports on wine-producing countries not considered mainstream enough to warrant international press coverage as do the more classic regions.

For the past few years, Atkin's assessments of local wines have been increasingly enthusiastic, says Fridjhon. He adds that while Atkin’s latest report has value, he’s not entirely convinced by parts of it.

In the 2020 report, Atkin goes so far as to state that SA “is making the best wines in its history”.

Fridjhon agrees, saying that the major wineries have certainly upped their game. He attributes the industry’s renaissance to the end of the devastating drought, improved viticulture, enhanced training programmes and well-travelled and informed winemakers.

However, when it comes to Atkin’s wine ratings, Fridjhon is sceptical.

“His ratings are more generous than any other critic,” he says. “ There are now so many wines scoring 95 points or more out of 100 that what was once a rare achievement is now a much devalued award.”

Out of the 1,381 local wines Atkin tasted this year, 1,068 wines were rated 90 points or more

Out of the 1,381 local wines Atkin tasted this year, 1,068 wines were rated 90 points or more, according to his website.

Fridjhon also has issues with the methodology Atkin used in scoring the wines.

Unlike in previous years, when Atkin would visit the Cape in person, Covid-19 travel restrictions meant he had to have local winemakers send their samples to him in the UK and engaged with them via Zoom calls.  

Fridjhon agrees that this was a creative solution to the lockdown, but he has concerns about the principle of assessing wines based on winemaker input. “It would be like schoolteachers incorporating the views of parents before issuing year-end reports.”  

“From this it should be clear that his report is not a dispassionate assessment of the wine in the glass, rather it was generated in a sighted tasting environment and influenced by what the producers had to say about their own wines,” says Fridjhon, adding that it was only after holding these virtual meetings that Atkin scored the wines.

SA’s chenin blanc, a white grape variety, features high on the Atkin list with 32 of the wines scoring top ratings.

Says Fridjhon. “It's certainly SA’s most exciting single category, but in a comparable report from a less ebullient scorer (who does not depend on the patronage of those whose wines he is assessing) you would be unlikely to find the same excessive generosity.”​

Atkin was contacted for comment and declined to do so at this stage.