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Monday, 24 August 2009 20:00

Winemakers Cornel Olivier and Coenraad Stassen
South African-trained winemakers Cornel Olivier of 2 Lads and Coenraad Stassen of Brys with their awards
A faint whiff of sour grapes permeated the air after the Michigan Cab Franc Challenge awards ceremony last Thursday.

Unsurprisingly, it seemed to originate near the tables where the southern winemakers were gathered. Their wares had been roundly trounced for bragging rights by their up-north colleagues, both at the Challenge and two weeks earlier, at the Michigan Wine Competition.

"Sure, they can do that in an unusual vintage like 2007," sniffed one southerner about Old Mission's winning Cabernets. "But let's see what kind of wine they make from 2008." 

"They're not varietally correct," said another. "And certainly not Michigan-style."

Across the room, Terry Stingley of Harding's Markets, whose fertile brain conceived the Challenge and Harding's Cup trophy, was spinning his theory of how Brys Estate and 2 Lads, separated by just a few peninsular miles, swept the three top awards against all comers from around the state.

(That sweep was even more lopsided than most bystanders realized; 2 Lads' regular-release Cab Franc nabbed the Challenge's unannounced fourth place.)

"Terroir," said Stingley, not one to shy from the grand pronouncement. "This is the start of the concept of terroir in the state of Michigan."

Of course the unusual 2007 vintage and Old Mission's terroir played their role. But so did a less-noticed factor: both Coenraad Stassen of Brys and Cornel Olivier of 2 Lads trained as winemakers at South African universities -- Stassen at Elsenburg, Olivier at Stellenbosch -- before they took internships at Old Mission wineries and decided to remain.

As Challenge judge and Master Sommelier Claudia Tyagi sagely noted, "It speaks to the wisdom of Chateau Grand Traverse and Chateau Chantal that they were involved in the work/study programs that brought Cornel and Coenraad here."

Coenraad Stassen's license plate Family ties to South African wine make me a less-than-objective observer. But visits to Cape wine country regularly demonstrate the engineer-like rigor with which South African wimemakers learn to approach their craft, especially their near-obsession with sanitation.

Winemaking legend André van Rensburg of top-drawer Vergelegen -- much-admired by Olivier -- requires employees to shower and don clean scrubs before they can enter the winery. You'd think he was prepping for an operation, not a fermentation.

The backrooms at both Brys and 2 Lads reflect a similar obsession, albeit slightly more moderate. As Olivier once told me, "I spend half my time as a janitor."

By virtue of their formal training and South African experience, both winemakers came prepared for Michigan to hand them an atypically long, warm growing season like 2007.  The wines they made that year may not be "Michigan-style" -- but that's because the vintage wasn't, either.

But not every Michigan winemaker brings their broader perspective to the table.

"Every harvest is different, one from another, here in Michigan, unlike South Africa where the growing season is pretty much the same each year," Stassen told MichWine for a 2007 article, right around harvest-time for the trophy-winning Brys Artisan Cab Franc.

"As a result, in South Africa you can make a half decent wine without that much effort. Here, if you are sharp, it drives you to learn more and provides a challenge. Your winemaking style is much more influenced by whether you had a cool or warm growing season."

"I got my backbone in South Africa and I love a challenge."

Last week's results are a little bit about the vintage, and a little bit about the terroir

But they're a whole lot about the guys who make the wine.

_____________________________

A hat tip to Terry Stingley and Tim Harding for letting media folks sit in on the Challenge judging, start to finish. Both Dianna Stampfler of Promote Michigan and Shannon Casey of Michigan by the Bottle joined me to blog, tweet and photograph the goings-on from what we dubbed the "media table".

Admittedly, major time blocks at wine judgings are deadly dull to non-combatants, even those with a wine geek mindset. But the organization and judges' professionalism impressed those of us with observer status. Except for one corked bottle that might have been detected before pouring, the process went off without a glitch.

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