Grahamstown Wine Tasting Circle celebrates 40 years of vino appreciation

Established in 1977 and one of the oldest wine tasting clubs in South Africa, The Grahamstown Wine Tasting Circle (GWTC) proudly celebrates its 40-year anniversary. With celebrated alumni and winemakers such former GWTC President Nigel McNaught, to former winemaker at Hillcrest Wines , Graeme “Curly” Reed, the GWTC has grown into a respected “society formed around a very focused interest in wine” for four decades.

“It’s not easy to keep a group like this going over such a long time,” says President Joe Orsmond. “It is a tribute to the dedication and passion of all our members – past and present – that we are celebrating this milestone. It’s an achievement of which we’re extremely proud .”

Mary Brit, a member of the club for 30 years, shared some of the club’s notable achievements and interesting trends in the market.

How was the GWTC founded?

In 1973, two Grahamstown couples – John and Lil Haigh and Donald and Martha Hendry – met, and their friendship grew, partly because of a mutual interest in wine. They began tasting wines together, to learn to distinguish the characteristics of grape cultivars and the quality of different wines. In 1977, John and Donald – who is still a member of the club – attended a public tasting in Grahamstown, hosted by the Cape Wine Academy. The wines presented were “very ordinary” and the two men decided that “they could do better than that”.

They recruited other friends who were also interested in wine and on 25 November 1977, the first meeting of the Grahamstown Wine Tasting Circle was held. There were 11 tasters present, who tasted eight Pinotages. Since then, the club has had 140 new members, with the maximum number of 25 members at any one time (25 being the number of tastes that can be poured from one bottle).

What milestones and/or challenges has the club experienced in its 40 years?

It has sometimes been a challenge putting together tastings, because we are so far from the wine producers, so we have to plan in advance if working on a particular theme and it has been increasingly difficult affording good quality imported wines.

Our success is really measured in the enthusiasm and joy that we see in our members as they become more immersed in the world of wine, and their increasing knowledge and enjoyment of what is the result of a magical transformation (and skill of the winemaker) of the humble grape into delicious wine.

How has having celebrated winemakers form part of the club influenced its growth?

Without a doubt, some people have joined our club as total beginners, and grown in their appreciation. Some, on the other hand, have joined the club because they are both knowledgeable and passionate about wine. A few of those members have gone on to becoming winemakers and some to be involved in other aspects of the wine industry. We have two past members who became winemakers of very successful estates, and one who makes wine for himself and friends and family. We also have two past members who are on the tasting panel for the Platters Wine Guide. You could say they started in the GWTC and then went on to greater things!

What are your ultimate wine destinations and why?

I think every wine-lover’s “Holy Grail” is the great wine regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy in France, but there are so many interesting and excellent wines to be savoured from, and preferably in, many countries of the world – Spain, Italy, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Turkey, Georgia, India, New Zealand, Australia, USA, Chile, Argentina and even Uruguay. We have been fortunate, again with the effort of our members who travel internationally, to taste wines from all of those countries, as well as some stunning wines from South African producers.

What local wine trends have you noted over the years?

The style of wine has changed dramatically from the days when we first started the club. The wines were heavy, sometimes clumsy, “dikvoet” red wines. Good reds are now much more elegant, with more fruity intensity, and with a softer wood characteristic. Good whites often have some wood treatment, which intensifies flavour and makes for longevity.

Nowadays some of the ”lesser” varieties like Pinotage, Cinsaut and Chenin Blanc, which used to be seen as “also-rans”, are taking their place as “new trends”, with the encouragement and experimentation of the winemakers.

Another very obvious trend in recent years is that more and more wine is being produced for immediate consumption, rather than for cellaring.

What plans does the club have going into the future?

I think it can be summed up by saying that we share an endless curiosity about wine and a real desire to understand and appreciate it. So we will continue on that journey, always trying to reach higher and higher, in terms of our knowledge of wine. We do intend to take on more wine tours and, of course, we look forward to turning 50!

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