edited by Sue Courtney
Six of the Best
Part 1 of 2. The Tasting notes follow.
"Let's do it again" said Angela Lloyd, a British born South African wine writer who was on a whistle stop tour of New Zealand after judging at the Sydney 2003 International Wine Competition last October.
She was referring to the 'Six of the Best Sauvignon Blanc Taste-off' that we had held at the beginning of 2002 - six of the best South African Sauvignon Blancs versus six of the best New Zealand could offer.
All 12 wines were from the 2001 vintage and the tasting evaluation had taken place almost simultaneously in both countries. Wines were tasted in the same order by the respective panels of five judges.
The overall winner was the Saint Clair Wairau Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2001 from Marlborough, which was the top placed wine by the New Zealand judges. It was not clear cut, however, as the South Africans chose the Steenberg Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2001, one of their own, as their preferred wine.
A count back of points decided the top placing. It was close but I was relieved. New Zealand had won. That outstanding Steenberg Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2001, an imitator of the Marlborough style, had to be content with second. The same wine was also a 2002 Sydney International Wine Competition blue-gold winner and Top 100 selection and would fool many tasters as to its origins in the Top 100 tastings around the world.
A vintage follow-up seemed like a good idea, especially as the South African Sauvignon Blanc was getting so many rave reviews by the British wine press and there were whisperings from the US as well. The freshness and vitality of the new wave of South African Sauvignon Blanc was getting the pundits excited.
But at the same time an undercurrent of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc bashing seemed to be emerging, especially in the UK where some writers are becoming quite vocal in their anti-NZ Sauvignon Blanc statements.
Joanna Simon, for example, wrote in the British trade
The UK Times writer Jane MacQuitty also wrote positively about South African sauvignon
Then the question was raised on the erobertparker.com Internet 'Wine Talk' forum.
"How worried should New Zealand be about South African
Sauvignon Blanc" asked one contributor. Only Pierre A. Rovani, the reviewer of
Sauvignon Blanc wines for Robert Parker's wine newsletter, 'The Wine Advocate', could
bring some sanity to the discussion.
Mark Johnson, a Nashville wine writer, summed it up nicely.
The US wine magazine, 'Wine Enthusiast' is right behind the New Zealand Sauvignon
Blanc. In its Best of Year 2002 issue, New Zealand was selected as 'Wine Region of the
So what exactly is it about South African Sauvignon Blanc that is getting everyone excited?
Is it really the wines or a terrific marketing campaign? Our 2002 vintage 'Great New Zealand versus South African Sauvignon Blanc Taste Off" would help us put the issue into perspective. Teams in both countries would compare the same wines in the same order as close as possible to the same time.
Choosing the Wines
Saint Clair Wairau Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2002 and Palliser Estate Martinborough Sauvignon Blanc 2002 were top of the list. These two wines had been vying each other for the crown in several competitions that had taken place by the end of November 2002.
Saint Clair Wairau Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2002 had won the trophy for Best Sauvignon Blanc in the Bragato Wine Competition, a competition that growers rather than wine companies enter for single estate wines.
Palliser Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2002 had won a gold medal and a trophy for Best Sauvignon Blanc in the Air New Zealand wine awards. Cuisine Magazine (NZ) had rated the Palliser Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2002 as the top wine in their Sauvignon Blanc tasting while the 5-star rated Saint Clair Wairau Reserve was runner-up. Winestate Magazine (Australia) named Palliser Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2002 as top Sauvignon of the year.
Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2002 was also an automatic selection. It has long been the benchmark and is the most internationally well known. Although it has its fair share of knockers, it is always a good wine. And this vintage was stunning, in my opinion the best Cloudy Bay since 1996.
The Air New Zealand gold medal winning Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2002 was a consensus among the judges.
I had wanted a Nelson wine in the competition. I consider Sauvignon Blanc from Nelson the best from the 2002 vintage on a regional quality to quantity ratio. It was a small harvest in Nelson and the reduced yields contributed to the complexity and concentration of these wines. Greenhough Sauvignon Blanc 2002 was my favourite from the region and Kaimira Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2002 and Neudorf Moutere Sauvignon Blanc 2002 were also outstanding but none of the other prospective judges had tasted or remembered these wines.
Villa Maria Wines had two contenders with a gold medal and trophy for the Villa Maria Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc 2002 and a gold medal for the Villa Maria Reserve Clifford Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2002.
Likewise Montana, with the outstanding Saints Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2002 and the Stoneleigh Sauvignon Blanc 2002 to choose from. I had secretly hoped they would put in the Montana Brancott Reserve, which is a personal favourite.
I asked both Montana and Villa Maria to send me the wine they thought they would do best and this they did after their own in-house tastings.
So the six wines selected to represent New Zealand were
They joined the six South African Sauvignon Blancs that the South African judges had similarly deliberated over. These were
How did our New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs stand up to the challenge? Breath a sigh of relief if you are a Kiwi for its 'no worries, mate'.
Joining me in the tasting room were -
Last year it seemed easy to pick the South African Sauvignon Blancs - they seemed a little flatter and duller in comparison to the vitality of the New Zealand selection with the outstanding Steenberg Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2001 the only one South African that really fooled us. But the three New Zealand judges (BM, SK & SC), involved in the 2001 Sauvignon Blanc taste off commented how closer in style the wines were this year. The vitality of the wines was more evenly spread.
Nevertheless, the New Zealand wines dominated the top places in the New Zealand tasting - South Africa didn't get a look in until position 6. And the judges' scoring was consistent across the panel for almost every wine.
The results of the New Zealand tasting, with each judge scoring out of 20 for a combined maximum score of 100 points, is as listed in the following table.
The South African Judging
The South African judging panel consisted of -
The results from the other side of the Southern Hemisphere told quite a different story. The judges firmly agreed with our assessment of our top-rated wine, the Saint Clair Wairau Reserve but our second placed Palliser Estate Sauvignon Blanc was a hate-hate relationship. Four New Zealand wines placed in their top six.
As we found last year, the South Africans judged the wines less positively than the New Zealanders and there was greater variation across their scores.
Several judges' comments indicated that they thought some of the New Zealand wines not cellar-worthy.
Cellaring of Sauvignon Blanc is a personal preference. Many New Zealand wine producers look at Sauvignon Blanc as a wine to be consumed while it is young and fresh as the wines can develop green pea, asparagus characters with a little age. Or perhaps it is simply the producers' well-worked marketing ploy, as there will always be a new vintage of Sauvignon Blanc that has to be sold.
Angela Lloyd also wrote to Anthony Rose, a UK wine writer, for comment about the controversial result on the Palliser Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2002. "It is a love-it or hate-it wine", he affirmed.
Perhaps the statement by Sainsbury's Australian and New Zealand wine buyer Laura Jewell
on a visit to New Zealand earlier this year, is poignant.
The Consolidated Result
So there you have it. New Zealand wines firmly dominated the tasting with five of the six entries in the top half of the pack. It was a better result for New Zealand than the 2001 taste off, when New Zealand wines shared equally the top six placings with South Africa.
Tasting notes follow on Page 2.
The tasting was run in conjunction with the South Africa's independent wine magazine, Grape, with the results being published in Issue 18, April-Jun 2003. Check out Grape on the web at www.grape.org.za.