USA Trophy Show Judge Wooed by Cape Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay

This article appeared in Die Burger newspaper on 17th May and has been translated from Afrikaans.

One of the hallmarks of the Cape wine industry is its enthusiasm for wine competitions, especially for a relatively small producer like South Africa. The organisers, of course, benefit the most, as their coffers swell with the entry fees that cellars must pay to submit their wines for these shows. Over the years, however, one learns to distinguish between competitions that genuinely seek to enhance the recognition of wine quality and those that are mere money-making ventures.

The Trophy Wine Show has emerged over the past two decades as arguably the most authoritative and stringent wine competition for local wines. This prestigious event is the brainchild of Michael Fridjhon, South Africa’s most renowned wine personality, whose reputation as a wine expert, meticulous organiser, and authoritative voice on wine and wine quality is indisputable. A distinctive feature of the Trophy Wine Show is that Michael annually invites two or three top international wine experts to South Africa to join respected local judges in evaluating approximately 600 entries of diverse wine types and styles.

After the judging process, invited guests have the opportunity to hear the insights of these international experts on the wines they have assessed, with the identities of the wines kept anonymous. The judges taste the wines blind, without labels, and the results are announced in mid-June.

This year, the name Lisa Perrotti-Brown caught my eye on the list of judges. As a holder of the British Master of Wine qualification—the pinnacle of wine credentials—Lisa is undoubtedly a wine expert. It is said to be easier to obtain a license to fly a combat helicopter than to earn this Master of Wine certificate.

Moreover, as an American wine writer and critic based in Napa, California, her impressions of South African wines are vitally important. The local wine industry has long struggled to elevate its international image to achieve better prices abroad. America, being the world’s most significant wine import market, is crucial for South Africa to establish a commercially viable presence, a goal it has pursued for thirty years with little notable success.

Perrotti-Brown, who monitors South African wines alongside those from many other countries, acknowledges that the country’s wine profile is quite low in America. “But don’t be too hard on yourselves,” she advises. She explains that many people who view America as the golden market for wine do not realise how competitive it is over there.

“Firstly, America produces a vast amount of wine across all price classes,” says Perrotti-Brown. “Many South African producers believe that their wines can be price-competitive due to the weak rand and strong dollar. But it doesn’t work that way. America produces even cheaper wines, and there are also low-priced wines from South America and Europe. So, forget positioning yourself as a cheap wine country offering value for money.

Lisa Perrotti-Brown in the zone.

“Look at what happened to Australia when they tried to conquer America with that cheap Yellowtail stuff. They clashed with other cheap wines and left Australia with the image of a country that only offers low-price, low-quality wines.”

Following her week-long tasting for the Trophy Wine Show, Perrotti-Brown is more convinced than ever that South Africa should not be associated with low-quality wines. “The wines are truly outstanding, almost overwhelming,” she says—this coming just days after she was invited to assess the en primeurs from top cellars in Bordeaux, France, with her palate still resonating with the flavours of Petrus, Margaux, Angelus, and Lafite.

“At the Trophy Show, I found myself on the panel judging Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, which is perfect for me since these are some of my favourite wine types and also a specialty of California,” says Perrotti-Brown. Ten years since her last visit to the Cape, she notes a significant improvement in the presentation of the country’s Cabernet Sauvignons.

“It’s a bit frustrating to talk now because, as judges, we obviously don’t know which regions or vintages we tasted,” she says. “But unlike ten years ago at the same competition, the Cabernet Sauvignon at this year’s Trophy Show generally shows more finesse and freshness. It’s clear that winemakers are more cautious about how much new oak they use and for how long the wines are in wood—I can’t recall any wines that tasted like they were made by a lumberjack. These were elegant, lovely wines that can stand alongside the great Cabernet Sauvignons of the world.”

She was also on the panel reviewing red Bordeaux blends, a category that South Africans regard as formidable due to the legendary Cape wines known for this style. “Blended wines, especially from a relatively unknown wine country, are very difficult to sell in America,” observes Perrotti-Brown. “What does the average person know about a red blend? Nothing, unless the producer is an icon like Haut-Brion or Château Margaux. But if the bottle simply says Cabernet Sauvignon, you have a better chance of catching the consumer’s attention, as they at least recognise the grape.

Are there many Cabernet Sauvignon wines in the world? Certainly. But is there something distinctive about the South African offerings? “You know, there is such a lovely herbal character in some wines, like a wildflower note,” she says. “This vegetal-aspect is not overwhelming, not the green herb and leafy effect of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that aren’t properly ripe, but instead the most beautiful hint of veld and fynbos. It’s truly special, and I gave the wines with this character my top scores.”

Perrotti-Brown is now heading to the airport for her long flight to San Francisco, near Napa. I ask her if she will reflect on any “wow” factors during her whirlwind wine visit. “South African Chardonnay,” she says. “For me, this category was even stronger than the Cabernet Sauvignons. Sublime wines, fruit and sun, but with long, cool streams of refinement and complexity, among the best in the world. I still have plenty of time to find the right words and will let you know.”

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What a Whopper! Meerlust Pinot Noir

South Africa’s venture into the making of Pinot Noir did not get a good rap from the judges at this year’s Trophy Wine Show, arguably the strictest in the ever-growing South African wine competition circuit. No, results for Michael Fridjhon’s annual show are not out yet, but last week at the feedback session, agreement that Cape Pinot Noir appears to be a work in progress seemed unanimous.

Not that failing to claim a gold gong at this competition is a calamity – of the 645 entries, only some 5% secured a gold medal, which is about the annual average for the Trophy Show. And when it came to judges’ commenting on the wines entered, the Pinot Noir category was given a brief diss. Narina Cloete, Blaauwklippen winemaker who judged this sector said the wines lacked the reflection of a suitable site. Michael himself alluded to the fact that many regaled Cape Pinot Noir marques were not entering competitions – punters paying R500 and north for a bottle of Pinot Noir were apt to be less supportive of said wine should it fail to meet expectations by not roping any bling in shows entered.

Despite not having a cooking clue as to what a gold medal Pinot Noir – or any other wine, for that matter – looks like, it is a cultivar I enjoy, believing that like rugby matches and pizza, even sub-standard Pinot Noirs are better than not having any in all. My promiscuous drinking of the royal Burgundian red recently had me charmed by the 2022 Pinot Noir from Meerlust Estate in Stellenbosch, one of the few Stellenbosch farms to venture into Pinot Noir and one underscoring the fact that the appellation is actually able of making wines with a distinctive edge from this cultivar.

Look, cool climate Elgin and Hemel-en-Aarde it ain’t, despite the Meerlust patch in what is known as Stellenbosch South is markedly cooler than Simonsberg, Helderberg and Polkadraai. This Pinot Noir does not have any red floral perfume or flirtatiously leaping berry-fruit, but what it lacks in these departments it makes-up for in structure, a reverberating crunch of black fruit and sheer polished presence on the palate.

Aromas are meaty, bloody and feral with a slight grasp of forest-floor, just enough to make the cultivar sign its initials. The wine is plush in the mouth, hitting the senses secure and true with sour cherry, dried fig and mulberry, tannins being sinewy, long and rippling. Burgundy-acolytes will be referencing northern parts of that region, the Meerlust showing a density and power perfected by Gevrey-Chambertin as opposed to the more expansively decorative offerings from lower down Musigny way. I just think it is great show by one of Stellenbosch’s leading producers, more known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Rubicon Bordeaux-style red blend, to comfortably also offer a class Pinot Noir in its arsenal.

Of course, there is also the only Meerlust white wine, namely Chardonnay, and the wine from vintage 2022 shows a lovable fragility that makes you want to stroke the bottle’s head before pouring the next glass. There is a crispness to the wine that is alert and tantalising, as well as accurate expression of varietal character in the specks of sage-butter, Seville orange rind and lemon curd. Pronounced as they are, these flavours are stitched together in a fine, detailed tapestry displaying grace and light rather than resounding and stern depth. Good, and prettily so.  

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When a Cork is not Just a Cork

The primary task of any wine closure is, obviously, to protect the contents inside the bottle as well as preventing the stuff from leakage prior to the grand moment where the bottle is opened and drinking joy commences. However, after some practical research of late it is evident that the closure’s role supersedes the merely functional, in fact having a profound effect on the taste of the wine.

This is obviously known to most winemakers – or should be. But as a keen and motivated consumer it is enlightening to experience the difference a closure makes. Wineries jump to communicate the fact that their wines are aged in new or third fill barrels, for example, as this creates expectation in the mind of the consumer. Yet little is said on the nature of the closure with which the wine has been shut, despite the fact of this object’s influence on the product’s final personality being evident and rather profound.

I had heard much talk about the impact different cork closures have on bottled wine but had never been allowed into the rarefied surrounds where experts assess such influences. And even if I were, my limited amateur sensorial abilities would surely not allow me to distinguish differential aspects resulting from something so apparently negligible as the structure of a cork closure. 

An experimental bottling of Chamonix Estate Chardonnay 2021 under three different closures recently allowed me to join winemaker Neil Bruwer and CEO Stefan van Rooyen in assessing possible degrees of variance. A cork-supplier had provided three corks: composite, twin-top (composite centre between two natural cork discs) and a natural cork. Same vineyard, same barrel aging, same wine. Aged in bottle for one year, but under three diversely different cork stoppers.

Chamonix’s blue-blooded, classically complex Chardonnay was ideal for providing evidence of the diverse effects of the three cork closures, so much so that even my non-winemaker palate was easily able to detect the differences.

From the outset it must be said that all three wines displayed the characteristic distinctive trait of Chamonix Chardonnay. This is a comforting density on the palate. A satisfying mouth-filling presence with notes of quince and sun-dried lemon-peel, a crack of mace elevated by glowing instead of brisk acidity. So, the effect of the cork closure was not suppressing site and place, just allowing it to be experienced with tweaked nuances.

The three closures were composite cork, twin-top and natural cork.

Composite corks are cork granules that have been moulded into a stopper with a neutral binder. And the Chardonnay closed under this model was reticent and apprehensive to yet offer the full array of white fruit and nuttiness for which Chamonix Chardonnay is known.

But it must be said, the longer the wine under composite cork spent in the glass, the more it opened-up to express a more familiar sense of what it can offer.

The twin-top is a good-looking cork with its natural cork discs set on the top and bottom between a fillet of composite. Here the Chardonnay was presenting its more familiar Chamonix guise. The wine had a broader and sunnier presence on the nose, Chamonix’s supple palate-weight now more discernible with the white fruits and green almond coming to the fore.

The final wine was closed under natural cork, i.e. stoppers drawn from the bark in solid cylindrical cork units. Initially the impression here was similar to that found in the Chamonix wines closed under twin top, although after a few minutes of rigorous assessment all three tasters agreed that this wine was the most complete in its sensorial offerings. There was a finely tuned balance between acidity and fruit, as well as an impression of a wine polished in terms of flavour-profiles and texture.

My take was that none of the closures had after a year in the bottle-neck led me to experience that any of the wines are better. A class product remains a class product, and we were assessing experimentation with a fine wine. But discernible differentiation? Absolutely. If I were in the game of the close scrutinising of wine and rewarding them with points out of a hundred there is sure as hell enough going on in the differing closure-effect to make the choice of closure an aspect worth mentioning. Or at least, taking note of. Because it’s real.

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A Pinch of Salt Not Taken Lightly

In conveying the soul of a wine brand, the conveyor’s sense of fun is for me a vital element in attracting my attention, which can be as – well – all-over-the place as a Tik-Tok influencer whose Ritalin prescription has expired. And is any wine marketer having more fun than Peter Pentz?

As the off-spring of Nick, who began the wine operation on Groote Post farm in Darling, young Peter hit the wine scene like a Pieter-Steph du Toit mid-field defensive play when he began fronting Groote Post’s marketing operations a few years back. He is seen all over the place in gregarious and self-deprecating humorous ways, whether it is snapping selfies with Antipodean diva Kylie Minogue at Prowein in Germany, talking about South African wine on various television channels or introducing Groote Post with a broad smile which is genuine and heartfelt, and likable.

It works in the market. Groote Post took a turn to modern lifestyle branding with its stunning Seasalter Sauvignon Blanc, which has been hugely successful, inspiring many other wineries to dust off the look and feel of their offerings and take a looser, more relaxed approach without sacrificing class or quality. That said, this kind of tact requires a delicious wine to underscore the provenance of the property and the premier image of the brand, something Groote Post Seasalter has done. By the way, Seasalter was Dad Nick’s idea, but Peter runs with it.

Peter Pentz, Lukas Wentzel and Nick Pentz.

This success has led to a new wine from Groote Post, namely a Chardonnay going by the name Pinch of Salt. It was released at a recent event at the Zeitz MOCCA art venue in the Cape Town Waterfront, which was a really cool affair.

Guests ranged from wine writers, some members of the trade and representatives from the newly formed body called South African Wine, which – in retrospect – could really have called on someone like Peter when looking for a name to title the local industry’s new over-arching arm.

The event was a casual stand-around gig without painful laborious speeches, pre-seated tables or a time-sapping programme. Plus, the views from atop the MOCCA are great, so one did not have to feel bad disengaging from a boring conversation to check-out the light across the bay.

A star was needed to top-off the event’s success, and I am glad to report that the star was the maiden Pinch of Salt Chardonnay 2023. Peter announced this with just the right amount of fanfare and gravitas before Nick gave some sage background stories and winemaker Lukas Wentzel ran us through the technical aspects of the wine.

Chardonnay is no new thing to Groote Post’s Darling spread. But with the old vineyard being knackered and carrying more viruses than a New Zealand rugby-supporter who had recently spent two weeks in Paris following his team, the Chardonnay was pulled-out. And nine years ago, new material was planted for the basis of Pinch of Salt.

The aim of this is, like Seasalter, an amicable, charming lifestyle wine with just the right degree of seriousness to attract attention but without the over-emphasised steps of manicured complexity to confine it to the self-appointed serious wine drinker.

For this, lees contact in various vessels was undertaken. Tank. French oak barrels. And amphora. Six months’ post-fermentation lees-time was allowed in these vessels before the wine was bottled and ready for market in October of the year of vintage.

Sometimes, the simple matters count in portraying one’s experience of a wine. Mine was in calling Peter post-launch to find where the Pinch of Salt is to be procured in Cape Town, as I want lots of it and I want it now. For it is tasty and delicious, while at the same time offering the kind of comforting pleasure that wine was made for, and the Chardonnay variety offers when done well and is tuned with a specific goal in mind.

The colour is that of hay-bales strewn across a West Coast plain and catching the iridescent glowing rays of the sun setting in the west. A nose of rock-pool washed by an incoming tide warmed with a touch of fynbos and an alluring nectarish spice. What gets me is the presence on the palate where the wine lies like a rivulet of mercury on the manicured palm of a Turkish bride. Here it rests, cool and easy, darting off in different directions as your bewitched senses prod the essence of the liquid that is, simply, a tasty wine.

There is butterscotch and date to be had with a burst of loquat enlivening the senses, while thick-skinned Cape lemon offers a pleasant bitter-fruit grip. No, this is not a wine to evoke drama. Thundering waves belting granite rocks are not to be found, nor a cacophony of rapturous symphonies. Things are all pleasant and easy when drinking it – drinking, more than sipping – like a wooden-hulled yacht sailing across the bay with a firm wind in its sails.

Are we having fun yet?

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Retrieving the Elgin Marvels

When the new CEO for the country’s latest industry body, simply named SA Wine, slips into his or her chair, there will no doubt be a number of pressing issues to contend with. One of which is to act on the acceptance of the fact that the Cape vineyard is too weighted on Chenin Blanc and Colombard – over 40% of total wine output – and that if the quest to premiumisation is to be followed, greater emphasis needs placing on Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

Reasons being that the latter are universally seen as desired white wines with captured markets, require no introduction to the wine world and command the kind of international prices able to inject the economic impetus into wine farming with which the local industry is tasked to expedite. The establishment of SA Wine no doubt being a new vehicle to help with this.

Be assured, the new CEO should be, that as far as espousing the merits of both Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay go, there is great support from the growers and vinifiers of these classic and renowned varieties. Just look at Sauvignon Blanc SA, the first local grouping to bring an international wine competition to South African shores, namely the Concours Mondial du Sauvignon that rolls-in in March. Chardonnay brothers and sisters are also doing it for themselves and have done so ever since De Wetshof Estate launched its first Celebration of Chardonnay event in 2006. This was held until 2018, but since then the Chardonnay Forum has been active in spreading the gospel of Burgundy’s great grape in a Southern shroud. And through its annual Chardonnay Colloquium, Elgin continues to confirm its pride in the region’s commitment to growing Chardonnay, as well as making distinctive and diverse offerings from its 130ha under cool-climate Chardonnay vines.

The most recent Colloquium was held on South Hill Vineyards, one of the region’s 20 wine producers, and besides the variety of wines appraised and discussed, my take-out was that Elgin’s human capital has played, and continues to play, a major part in the establishing of the region as a force in Chardonnay, local and other. The team’s collaboration in sharing a common value of commitment to Chardonnay as a communally loved variety, together with a belief in the ability Elgin geography has to honour the grape through a ream of diverse excellence, is as attributable to the success here as are the cool, elevated vineyards growing on Bokkeveld Shale soils and the resident gifted winemaking skill.

Paul Clüver addressing the Chardonnay Colloquium.

Paul Clüver, MD of Paul Clüver Family Wines, who pioneered Elgin Chardonnay in the early 1990s, proudly asserts that Elgin Chardonnay leads the way when it comes to garnering awards for this category, outshining Stellenbosch, Robertson and Hemel-en-Aarde in appraisal from both local and international critics.

“With only 130ha of South Africa’s over 6 000ha under Chardonnay, I think Elgin can feel justifiably proud in what we have achieved in only 30 years of making wine from this grape,” he says. “This confidence has led to a real bullish feeling among Elgin producers who are now more than ever on a quest to show the world that not only Elgin, but South Africa is capable of making some of the best Chardonnay in the world. The more we get this message out there, the better for the South African wine industry as a whole.”

At the Colloquium, other notable personalities and Chardonnay acolytes included Andries Burger, Clüver’s winemaker from the outset, the commanding presence of Andrew Gunn of Iona and Richard Kershaw MW, who is the region’s local savant, information resource and, of course, a fine winemaker himself.

Joris van Almenkerk, Rudi Schultz from Thelema and Neil Ellis’s Warren Ellis are international wine voices in their own right. And throw in the youthful eager eyes of Jacques du Plessis of Oak Valley and Werner Muller, Gunn’s winemaker, and one has a pretty competent team of homo sapiens to espouse the gospel of Elgin vitis vinifera Chardonnay along with the overall brilliance of the wines.

Some 12 Elgin wines were shown at the Colloquium, with Margaret River, California and Burgundy thrown in to spice things up. The Elgin grouping reminded me of commentary from an American importer at last year’s Cape Wine, who said that he found a “lack of diversity in the overall style of South African Chardonnay”.

Going through the Elgin line-up, my view was of exactly the opposite – and here I am talking about 12 wines from one region. In the four flights, of which three wines originated from Elgin, there was a discernible and intriguing degree of variation, yet all harnessed by a thread of vivid varietal expression and accurate cellar-work.

The wines on offer were:

Highlands Road 2020

Idun Callipyge 2020

Paul Wallace Reflection 2021

Paul Cluver Estate 2020

Neil Ellis White Hall 2021

Shannon Oscar Browne Chardonnay 2021

Iona Highlands 2021

Oak Valley Groenlandberg 2021

Thelema Sutherland 2020

Almenkerk 2019

Kershaw Clonal Selection 2019

Tokara Cap Classique Blanc de Blancs 2014

While there were and subsequently have been lofty and enlightened appraisals of each wine, my joy in the Colloquium lay in being reminded of the unbridled deliciousness good Chardonnay offers, and how tasty the wines from Elgin are.

Almenkerk 2019 and Highlands Road 2020 are short-skirted seductresses, fleshy curves and sculpted muscles allowing flavours to reach the parts where other wines don’t, thanks to their proactively personable engagement. I have always been a huge fan of Joris’s wines for this very feature, finding a honey-suckle and floral nectar to the Chardonnay that is truly delightful.

I would single-out Highlands Road as the most audacious wine of the day. Deeper in its golden hue than the other local Chardonnays, the flavours of golden apple, warm hay and lime sherbet – all drifting lazily on a dark and threatening thundercloud of spice and fynbos – was truly exciting.

Tasted blind, one wine had me writing the simple descriptor of “This is Chardonnay”, which turned out to be Paul Clüver’s Estate 2020. For here all the varietal descriptors were ticked with a double-weight fountain pen dipped in Burgundian free-run juice. There was citrus-peel, of the thick Cape lemon variety that offers an engaging pleasant bitter grip to the finish. Flame-charred almonds lurked, broodily, while flutters of white peach, Packham pear and white flowers made the wine sing. But the greatness lay in the texture, a corralled focus with ripples of alert energy throughout.

Burgundian expert Remington Norman complemented proceedings with his presence.

Known for the graceful power of its Merlot and Pinot Noir, Shannon had me surprised with a Shannon Oscar Browne Chardonnay 2021 so delicate it was on the edge of being coy. Cool and long on the palate, there was shyness and restraint in the fruit, which was wrapped in a fragile floral coating, perked by an acidic sparkle that grew on the finish.

And Kershaw, of course, was as meticulously assembled as one could expect from Sir Richard. Clonal Selection 2019 was the wine, a pretty loud and powerful number thundering along through a cold field dappled with various sensorial offerings. A crunchy pear was off-set by rows of butter-cup, and just as the salt-green tang of a Granny Smith apple makes an appearance, a scented meadow-breeze calms the senses, finishing a primal gravelly grip reminiscent of wilderness and big skies broken by wind and ocean spray.

Whoever, thus, takes command of South African wine, welcome to Elgin Chardonnay country. It is going to be a great journey, this is for sure.

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De Wetshof Bateleur and the Blue Blood of Burgundy

Napoleon ordered his troops to salute the vineyards of Chambertin whenever they passed – such was his reverence for the patch of Burgundian soil that delivered his favourite wine. I get the same urge when stopping at a specific rocky lay of land on the De Wetshof Estate in Robertson and seeing that piece of earth where the gnarled Chardonnay vines stand used for creating the estate’s Bateleur Chardonnay.

And let’s face it, in these claustrophobic times of shut-down, anything named after a magnificent free-flying eagle has a particular allure.

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Bonnievale’s New Wines Show Big can be Best

In the co-operative wine cellar we trust. Or should trust. Co-operatives are the heartbeat of the South Africa wine industry, some would say the unsung heroes. They produce large volumes of wine, most are situated in locations deemed untrendy by commentators on matters vinous and do not have the sex appeal of single estates or irreverent fashionable brand of hot, hip and happening kind.

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Ramaphosa Dream City to get Own Vineyard

South Africa looks set to become home to the largest urban wine vineyard in the world. This is if President Cyril Ramaphosa’s vision of a brand-new city built in the country is realised. During his recent State of the Nation Address, Pres. Ramaphosa suggested it was time to build such a new modern city in South Africa. But besides featuring shiny skyscrapers and sleek bullet-trains, the new city is also to host a vineyard from which various wines are to be made.

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Arco Laarman Steals the Show with Vermaaklikheid Wine

The sweetest grapes in South Africa, wrote Afrikaans short-story maestro Abraham de Vries, are found in Vermaaklikheid. And as a former resident of this rural community on the banks of the Duiwenhoks River some 300km east of Cape Town, the recent vinous ambitions shown here are being watched with interest.

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A New Path to Superb Old Wine

I never miss an Amorim Recorking gig. Not that I want to indulge in the delicate opening of rare vintage wines with crumbly corks that need to be extricated with the skill of a brain surgeon and the patience of space-shuttle pilot in landing mode. But whenever the Amorim team sets-off to put new corks in old bottles, one gets to taste the contents that have been slumbering for three, four decades.

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