Jeanri Taking it to the International Tasting Stage

Jeanri-Tine van Zyl. Photo: Judy Brower

Jeanri-Tine van Zyl, wine writer, communications expert and taster supreme will be in the team of four palates representing Team South Africa at the International Blind Wine Tasting Championships in Burgundy in September. What does it take to get there? WineGoggle investigated….

 Is the skill of wine-tasting hereditary? Your father is a skilled sipper and your second cousin an esteemed expert on Burgundy and South African Chardonnay.

My dad is a very dedicated wine lover and probably has one of the most impressive wine collections in the Free State. I’ve always admired this discipline in sourcing wine and the ‘art’ of wine appreciation – my dad is one of the most authentic wine appreciators I know – I wanted to be that too. So maybe not hereditary as much as an example I’d like to honour.  My dad can get quite lyrical about a wine. Not everyone gets that.  

Was this the first time you have taken part in this competition? How difficult was the process?

It is my 3rd time, and my 3rd time sitting the Provincial round. People think you are making fun when you say you need to practise wine tasting, and that the whole exercise is quite exhausting – you taste wine blind (labels out of sight) and then figure out which variety, from which country, appellation, wine estate and vintage, is in your glass, and you get scored on each. It is not easy – but anyone who loves wine can participate. I think one of the greatest things to happen to South African wine appreciation recently is the South African Wine Tasting Championships, Jean-Vincent Ridon has managed to do what so many marketers have been trying, and failing at, for years: getting people to not only drink wine, but engage with wine. And he has done it in a way that is fun, unpretentious and healthy. He deserves a major industry award.  

What did you have to do to end-up in the final four?

Once I qualified for the Provincials (top 15 in the country), we did a blind tasting of 12 wines from countries around the world. In this exam we had to indicate varietal, country, appellation, wine estate and vintage, and get scored on each. The 4 tasters with the highest scores made Team SA, I am extremely lucky to be one of them.

To what do you attribute this ability? Experience, memory, knowledge, research

You make your own associations: Malbec is candied black fruit, Nebbiolo is savoury like Pinot but with higher tannins, aged Vouvray smells like mushrooms…. The more wine you taste the better, because then your mind starts to see the patterns and you can connect the dots. Reading helps, and courses like WSET too.  It is also a major exercise in trusting your gut – when your initial response tells you it is a Cabernet in the glass, chances are it is. I am no expert so I just trust my gut, tasting wine like that is the closest thing to meditation that I do.

Can someone learn to taste wine, or do you have to be a natural?

If you can smell, taste and see then you can taste wine. The question is, what are we doing as an industry to get people to really appreciate wine? 

What should you avoid to keep your palate pure?

Avoid anything and everything that makes you doubt your gut.

Did you follow a specific training regimen for the finals?

I trained with one of the best wine tasters in the industry, Samarie Smith. I brought a collection of international wines from and she brought wines from her international travels and we had a couple of blind tastings. Her mentorship proved crucial. I also annoyed my friends at any social gathering by insisting they poured me wines blind and have me guess the variety. I embarrassed myself most of the time…but I made mental notes.

What will the international leg comprise of, and how will you train for this?

I hope it involves many late nights with great wines. From what I understand it is like boot camp for wine lovers, tasting many local, international, strange and interesting wines in preparation for the Finals – which takes place in Burgundy and where the National Wine Tasting Teams from various countries compete to see who can identify the DNA of most of the wines. It is a wine nerd’s ultimate fantasy.

Do you follow a special diet and take supplements?

The best food and wine diet is one with no restrictions, and the only supplement needed is to your bank account. 

What categories of wines are (a) easiest (b) hardest to blind spot?

Pinot Noir is fairly easy – it smells either like bright sour cherry or farmyard. Hardest is Chenin Blanc, it has such a diverse flavour profile and features in many different wine styles. Free State Cabernet is an up-and-coming category, but would be very difficult to identify in a blind tasting – no-one expects a Free State Cabernet with tannins like those in Saint-Estèphe!  

Ideal wine tasting conditions, temperature, light, clothing, wind direction?
Always sit upwind from anyone who wears too much perfume or cologne

Which countries are the favourites for Burgundy?

Team South Africa, of course.

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