To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Decanter World Wine Awards, we're profiling a number of this year's judges, who are some of the world's most renowned wine experts. Our 'Meet the Judges' interview series offers a rare insight into the world of wine and judging from the key industry experts choosing this year's best wines.
South African wine journalist Fiona McDonald has spent the past 20 years involved with the country’s wine industry, after initially finding her way there ‘by accident’. In this interview, read about some of her experiences, memorable moments and what she’s looking forward to at this year’s awards…
Tell us a little about yourself – where are you based and where do you work?
Home is in Cape Town, on a peninsula at the southern tip of the African continent. It’s one of the most spectacularly beautiful places in which to be domiciled. I can walk my dog in the forests on the slopes of the mountain – or on some beautiful white beaches 10 minutes away. And the South African winelands are just a 30 minute drive from my front door.
I’m a freelance writer specialising in wine and spirits, so I work from home on the days when I’m not called in to taste for magazines, local competitions or events.
Tell us a bit about your expertise and how you got into wine?
My expertise span the past two decades of involvement with the South African wine industry. I got into wine by accident… I was working as a specialist medical reporter on a daily newspaper when I somehow found myself helping a friend and colleague organise a wine show. Apparently I displayed way too much enthusiasm while knowing absolutely nothing about the subject – so was co-opted onto the organising committee for the next event. The Editor also decreed that I would take over the newspaper’s wine column! Soon realising my thirst for knowledge, I set about doing some formal training with the Cape Wine Academy, studying to Diploma level.
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned while working in the wine industry?
Humility. Assess each wine on its merits, and think before you pronounce when tasting. You can never know it all – but sadly there are many who think they do! Also, every wine producer has a unique story to tell.
Who has been your biggest inspiration during your wine career?
Probably my good friend Dave Hughes – he’s forgotten more about wine than I will ever know, has travelled the world, and rubbed shoulders with the greats. Yet he remains the most down-to-earth, humble and intrinsically good person I know. Ego doesn’t come into wine for him, and he’s incredibly generous with knowledge and insight.
What are your most memorable wine moments from the last ten years?
I’ve been extremely fortunate to have some spectacular bottles with phenomenal wine personalities, but one of the most special moments was quite humble…
I was hiking the Whale Trail with friends, when Zelma Long celebrated both her birthday and wedding anniversary. Around a campfire, we battled with a bottle of bubbles with a stubborn cork. I even have a photo of Zelma doing what people are warned not to do – trying to remove it with her teeth! It still wouldn’t budge so Dave Hughes came to the rescue – and axe-brage (improvised saberage, with an axe, where the axe cut off the top of the bottle) saved the day!
In the last few years I’ve also been present when some seriously great and historic South African wines have been opened – red wines (including Pinotage) from the 40s, 50s and 60s – that have made international commentators sing their praises. It prompts some national pride for the wines to be able to rank those alongside the best bottles of Burgundy and Bordeaux I’ve tasted.
Which South African wines do you think should be given more attention in 2013?
White blends, sparkling wine (which is getting better every year), along with Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc (which continue to make strides and impress).
What’s your desert island wine?
Madeira: the richness and intensity of the flavours, the sense of drinking history, and that saliva-inducing acidity.
What single piece of advice do you have for people just starting out in wine?
Listen rather than speak. By doing so you stand to absorb as much knowledge as you can from as many sources as possible and never stop learning from those who know more. And never stop tasting.
When judging, what are you looking for in great wine?
For it to be more than the sum of its parts, with all the elements in the right place: balance, elegance, fruit, terroir expression and potential – but also having that indefinable something extra which elevates it to a different realm.
Finally, what are you looking forward to most about judging at the Decanter World Wine Awards?
I’d have to say it’s being part of something that is so special. A Trophy or Gold medal from the DWWA indicates serious merit and adds credibility to a wine or producer. Not only will I be part of a seriously stellar cast of wine judges, but there’s a quiet acknowledgement that we are privileged to be standing in judgement of some of the world’s best wines – and that we hold people’s livelihoods and reputations in our hands. Winemakers have spent years capturing and honing what’s in the bottle and in the space of a few minutes we pronounce on that. There’s a responsibility to them – and to the wines – to respect their efforts and do the best we possibly can.
Written by Decanter.com
Fiona McDonald, trained news journalist turned wine writer, is Regional Chair for South Africa at the Decanter World Wine Awards