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edited by Sue Courtney

Six of the Best
The Great New Zealand versus South Africa Sauvignon Blanc Taste Off
* 2002 vintage wines *

© Sue Courtney
April 2003

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 magazine Harpers
"Some wines are trendier than others. South Africa is in. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is so yesterday"

The UK Times writer Jane MacQuitty also wrote positively about South African sauvignon blanc.
"It is rapidly evolving into one of the classic New World wine stars", she said. "What is astonishing for a country that has struggled to overcome virused vines and numerous other natural handicaps (not to mention economic and political problems), is how much flavour and stylistic variety Cape producers are able to wring from their Sauvignon Blanc grapes."

Then the question was raised on the 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.
"Consumers will soon discover that what you get out of South Africa is vastly different than what you get from New Zealand", he said. " New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are typically (and particularly those from Marlborough) boisterously aromatic, displaying loads of gooseberries. On the palate they have a distinctive combination of ripe white fruits and/or gooseberries with a wonderfully tart quality. The finest from South Africa are less exuberant, more refined, almost more in the style of the Loire, yet with less minerality and more fruit. I love great Sauvignons from both countries!" he concluded.

Mark Johnson, a Nashville wine writer, summed it up nicely.
Everyone is trying to copy the refreshing, crisp, fruit driven wines of New Zealand. Marlborough, in particular, has captured the world’s attention. It has changed the style of Sauvignon Blancs from all over the world", he wrote.

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 Year.
With its near-sweep of our summer Sauvignon Blanc tasting feature New Zealand leapt to the top of our list of premier wine regions", they said. "The results of our August tasting feature show that the Kiwis are onto something—more than half of the Sauvignon Blancs rated 90 or higher were from New Zealand and half of the New Zealand entries scored 89 points or better."

* * * * * * * * * *

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
The New Zealand wines were chosen from a strong list of worthy contenders to represent their country.

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

  • Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2002 - Marlborough
  • Palliser Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2002 - Martinborough
  • Saint Clair Wairau Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2002 - Marlborough
  • Stoneleigh Sauvignon Blanc 2002 - Marlborough
  • Villa Maria Clifford Bay Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2002 - Marlborough
  • Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2002 - Marlborough

They joined the six South African Sauvignon Blancs that the South African judges had similarly deliberated over. These were

  • Cape Point Sauvignon Blanc 2002 - Cape Point
  • Fleur de Cap Limited Release Sauvignon Blanc 2002 - Coastal Region
  • Havana Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2002 - Coastal Region
  • Neil Ellis Sauvignon Blanc 2002 - Groenekloof
  • Springfield Estate "Life from Stone" Sauvignon Blanc 2002 - Robertson
  • Zondernaam Sauvignon Blanc 2002 - Stellenbosch

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 -

  • Sam Kim, Fine Wine Consultant for Negociants New Zealand Limited, Senior Wine Judge and MW Candidate.
  • Brent Marris, Wither Hills. Senior Wine Judge at many International competitions. Will assume the role of Chief Judge at the Air New Zealand Wine Awards next year.
  • Kay Morganty, Wine Consultant and Senior Wine Judge
  • Simon Nunns, Chief winemaker for Coopers Creek Wines and Obsidian Wines. Wine Judge.

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.

Place Wine Total NZ Score Score Range
1 Saint Clair Wairau Reserve (NZ) 95.5 18.5-19.5
2 Palliser Estate (NZ) 93 18.5-19
3 Wither Hills (NZ) 93 18.5-19
4 Stoneleigh (NZ) 92 18-18.5
5 Zondernaam (SA) 90 17.5-18.5
6 Cloudy Bay (NZ) 89.5 17.5-18.5
6 Cape Point (SA) 89.5 17.5-18
8 Fleur du Cap (SA) 89 17.5-18
9 Havana Hills (SA) 86.5 17-17.5
10 Villa Maria Clifford Bay Reserve (NZ) 86 15.5-18
11 Neil Ellis Groenekloof (SA) 85.5 16.5-17.5
12 Springfield Estate "Life from Stone" (SA) 84 16.5-17.5

The South African Judging

The South African judging panel consisted of -

  • Michael Fridjhon, wine commentator and judge
  • Angela Lloyd, wine writer and judge
  • Christine Rudman, Cape Wine Master, former Principal, Cape Wine Academy
  • Philip van Zyl, Editor of the John Platter Wine Guide
  • Gyles Webb, Thelema winemaker

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.

Place Wine Total SA Score Score Range
1 Saint Clair Wairau Reserve 85.2 15.5-18.5
2 Fleur du Cap Limited Release 85 15.5-18.5
3 Cloudy Bay 83.6 15-18
4 Villa Maria Clifford Bay Reserve 83.4 15-17.5
5 Stoneleigh 78.2 14-17.2
6 Cape Point 78.1 14.6-16
7 Zondernaam 77.9 15-17
8 Havana Hills 77.2 14-17
9 Springfield Estate "Life from Stone" 75.8 14-15.8
10 Wither Hills 75.5 14-17
11 Neil Ellis Groenekloof 75.3 14-16
12 Palliser Estate (Martinborough) 74.6 14-16

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.
"Wineries place too much importance on what would win awards [in NZ], and not on the tastes favoured by the export markets", she said.

The Consolidated Result
Nothing could take anything away from the Saint Clair Wairau Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2002. It won the competition fairly and squarely with both panels choosing this as their top wine and four judges choosing it as their overall individual favourite. And when the scores were tallied the final result was

Overall Result Wine NZ result SA result Combined Score
1 Saint Clair Wairau Reserve   (NZ) 1 1 180.7
2 Fleur du Cap Limited Release 8 2 174
3 Cloudy Bay  (NZ) 6 3 173.1
4 Stoneleigh  (NZ) 4 5 170.2
5 Villa Maria Clifford Bay Reserve   (NZ) 10 4 169.4
6 Wither Hills  (NZ) 3 10 168.5
7 Zondernaam 5 7 167.9
8= Cape Point 6 6 167.6
8= Palliser Estate (NZ) 2 12 167.6
10 Havana Hills 9 8 163.7
11 Neil Ellis Groenekloof 11 11 160.8
12 Springfield Estate 'Life from Stone' 12 9 159.8

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.

Thanks to
Wines of South Africa for arranging and paying for the cost of transporting the wines from New Zealand to South Africa and vice versa;
Dalene Steyn of WOSA for organising and coordinating transport of the wines;
Negociants New Zealand Ltd who provided the NZ tasting venue;
Thelema Wines for providing the SA tasting venue;
The judges who freely gave their time;
Neil Courtney and Tim James who respectively coordinated and poured the wines in NZ and SA;
And of course to the wine companies who supplied the wines.

The wines were tasted in February 2003
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

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