Zimbabwean-born Tam and I went briefly to gloriously autumnal Burgundy last weekend to witness the performance of the Zimbabwe team in the fifth World Wine Tasting Championships. (You may remember the story: the four young men arrived separately in South Africa from a non-wine culture with nothing, taking menial jobs before working their way up in hospitality and showing an uncanny aptitude for wine.) Tam is seen here in team captain Joseph's shadow.
Even though we had published several articles about them, and helped raise funds for their trip, we had never met the team of four top sommeliers from South Africa (at La Colombe, Test Kitchen, Aubergine and Cape Grace Hotel) and it was a huge delight to do so. What impressive young men they are, with great intelligence, sensitivity, the Zimbabwean can-do spirit in spades and an extraordinary passion for wine. They see it as their mission to spread the pleasures of wine drinking to southern Africans who are currently much more likely to choose to drink spirits.
They are also very religious and start every tasting session with a prayer, hands on each others' shoulders in a huddle. Unfortunately, however, on Saturday their prayers were not answered – unless of course they had been praying to come second last. (They beat Italy; see full results below.)
But for popularity among the assembled teams of four, some of them with a coach, from 24 different countries (the Québecois counting Québec as a country), the Zim team were the outright winners. The previous evening they had kicked off the communal dinner with a song a cappella in Shona, the language of northern Zimbabwe, with the result that when, just before the tasting competition began at the Château de Gilly, the introductory word Zimbabwe inspired a roar of admiring support – even more than for the other newcomers to the competition Brazil, Denmark and the Netherlands.
The four from Zimbabwe – Tongai Joseph Dhafana, Tinashe Nyamudoka, Marlvin Gwese and Pardon Tagazu pictured above being filmed while tasting – then got down to business, along with the other 23 teams, with last year's winners the Chinese (average age 27ish) the hot favourites. Their French coach told me he had spent two months choosing the team, three of them new to the competition.
Many of the teams, including the Zimbabweans, had had special liveries made for them. Team Monaco was in red sports shirts, the Swedes were smart in claret colour, the Swiss were in slinky black shirts with national badges, the Poles were in red shirts stamped tactfully 'Pologne' and the South Africans won the prize for the most sponsors' logos emblazoned on their gear. The UK team, made up of French residents with varied amounts of British blood, looked as though they had wandered in from a pub. The American team, another set of amateurs who had competed before, wore jackets and ties. The French team, including Aurélien Valance of Ch Margaux, wore assorted casual gear.
As the teams introduced themselves there was much talk of sporting prowess. The Hungarians said all they wanted to do was beat the well-dressed Andorrans (only three wine tasters could be found in the principality, it seemed) to avenge themselves for a recent defeat on the football pitch.
The teams had to identify six whites and then six reds – principal grape variety, country, appellation, producer(!) and vintage – and were told that four of the wines would come from France and the rest from seven different countries. Presumably Philippe de Cantenac, the organiser of the championship (which started off being exclusively French, then widened to Europe, and became a global contest when the Chinese asked to join in), sources all the wines in Paris, which is hardly an ideal place to buy non-French wine.
Tam and I didn't taste the wines but we did nose the first one and concluded it was so neutral, it must have made for a rather unsettling start for the competitors. It turned out to be a Swiss Fendant.
The team scores in the order they were announced, and the often very tricky wines they tasted, are listed and pictured below. Very many congratulations to the relatively mature Swedes (who won two years ago) and the UK team. Their performances suggest that experience can be very helpful. I can't imagine that the Zims had ever tasted wines from Switzerland, Mexico, Lebanon or Bellet before.
24. 45 points Italy
23. 46 points Zimbabwe
22. 50 points Belgium
20. 53 points Andorra
20. 53 points Portugal
19. 57 points Monaco
18. 61 points Russia
17. 62 points Switzerland
15. 70 points USA
15. 70 points Netherlands
14. 71 points South Africa
13. 73 points Denmark
12. 74 points Brazil
11. 75 points France
9. 78 points Poland
9. 78 points China
8. 86 points Quebec
7. 90 points Hungary
6. 91 points Spain
5. 93 points Finland
4. 94 points New Zealand
3. 100 points Luxembourg
2. 107 points UK
1. 115 points Sweden
Cave des Amandiers, Fully Fendant 2014 Valais, Switzerland
Clos St-Vincent, Le Clos 2016 Bellet, France
Friedriech Becker, Sonnenberg Riesling 2011 Pfalz, Germany
Ken Forrester, The FMC Chenin Blanc 2015 Stellenbosch, South Africa
J C Boisset, Trezin 2015 Puligny-Montrachet, France
Gini, La Frosca 2013 Soave Classico, Italy
L A Cetto, Reserva Privada (labelled Réserve Privée in France) Nebbiolo 2012 Valle de Guadelupe, Mexico
Ch Kefraya 2012 Kefraya, Lebanon
Dom La Fourmone, Le Poète 2014 Vacqueyras, France
Palacios Remondo, Propriedad 2012 Rioja, Spain
Ch Figeac 2009 St-Émilion, France
Niepoort 1987 Port, Portugal
I'm thrilled that the Australians behind the film Red Obsession about the Chinese love affair with wine are making a documentary film about the Zimbabweans. They plan to visit their roots in Zimbabwe in March and to show it at various film festivals early in 2019. Because of this, they had the team, two of whom had never been to Europe, on a punishing schedule round Champagne, Burgundy, Alsace and Germany, once they had finally arrived in Paris. (Their Air Ethiopia plane was grounded in Addis Ababa; they spent the time touring Addis and assessing Rift Valley wines.)
It was all a truly memorable experience for them, and apparently Joseph's speech at the end of the event left not a dry eye. That film, with Andrew Caillard MW advising, should really be worth seeing.
Report on the Burgundy 2017 vintage via head winemaker Gregory Patriat of J C Boisset, who sponsored the competition, to follow.