SAA wines to fly by

© Cape Times Friday 21st September 2012

Some people set a high price on their services. You see pop stars with massive ‘riders’ of stuff that must be in their dressing rooms – cases of champagne, hairdressers and masseuses, enough oysters to sink a ship – that kind of stuff. Well, I know my price now and clearly I have some way to go until I hit the big league. Because it seems that I can be bought for a personalised apron, some excellent company and a whole lot of laughs. Welcome to judging wine for South African Airways!

It was earlier on this year that I was approached by SAA’s head sommelier and F&B manager, Bongi Sodladla, to see whether I was interested in helping to select wines for SAA. It sounded fun and – let’s face it – we’ve all had a crotchety check-in and a delayed flight in our time, both of which are then finally saved by copious amounts of vino on board. So I thought this was my chance to change people’s lives for the better and make sure they left Cape Town airport in a pleasant frame of mind, such being the wonders of a good glass of the good stuff. So bright and early, I reported for duty at Nederburg, to find myself in one of the most gruelling tastings of my life.

I’ve done difficult tastings before. I judged the oldest amateur wine competition in SA last year – the Blaauwklippen Blending competition (incidentally the winner was announced recently as being Gauteng-based WWIWWEW wine club. Congrats to them) – and that is still, to my mind, the toughest tasting I have ever experienced (72 virtually identical red blends in a morning). But the pace of this was awesome – 155 wines the first day and 147 the second – all of them by 1.30pm in the afternoon. Slave-driver-in-chief was Bennie Howard who has organised this tasting for many years and even though the pace was fast, the organisation was such that so many people tasted each wine that it would be virtually impossible for anyone to slip through the gaps. Nederburg has a slick team of wine professionals who organised over 1,000 wines to be tasted by our team of 12 over the three days – no mean feat. And – without quite going into rock-star territory – we were demanding customers indeed.

Each wine was tasted by one of four different panels. We argued, disagreed and fought for our favourites over a gruelling three days before the final winners of the trophies and the chosen wines were decided upon – the results will be announced in November. The difficulty is that – and I say this with perfect candour – for the first time in our lives, we weren’t looking for the best wines. This came as somewhat as a shock to me – when I’ve judged in other competitions or for different guides, we always look for the absolute best wine that are out there. But SAA has a unique mandate and a different set of criteria, because wine does not taste the same on the ground as it does in the skies. Alcohol, tannin, acidity – all these things are enhanced in the air, and so our task was to look ‘through’ the wines and evaluate what would happen to them when the effects of altitude were taken into consideration. In other words, we were looking not for the best wines, but the ones which would fly the best – sometimes, but not always, the same thing.

Did we find them? I think so but you will have to let me know how we did after next April when our choices start coming on board. I think we chose some crackers and I hope you will too when you taste them. It was wonderful to spend time with the all the other judges, especially the international folk flown in from Germany and Singapore to join the panel and, whatever you think of the results, I hope there is something there that you like. And if not – sorry. But at least I got a personalised apron out of it!