International flavour

Comparisons are odious – or so it is said. But how else is anyone to know how well (or poorly) something is performing other than by comparing and contrasting it with something else?

We make comparisons on an almost daily basis – one rugby team over another, one item of clothing or pair of shoes versus another, between two television programmes or even coffee shops...

Having run the rule over roughly 300 wines during the first three days of service on the judging panels of the International Wine Challenge in London, it brought this very concept of contrast and comparison into sharp focus. That’s because I had already had the pleasure of tasting Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough in New Zealand, from France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region, a flight of Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blends from Bordeaux and a flight of their South African equivalents.

Because the competition is ongoing I’m in no position to give any sort of definitive rating or result: that will only be determined after the second – medal  round of judging. What I can do is comment on the differences in styles.

Two decades ago, New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay was the benchmark by which all modern Sauvignons Blanc were measured. It was an easily identifiable wine – and style – with its overt asparagus and canned pea pungency. South African producers emulated that to a degree, but styles and preferences change and the variety of wines tasted earlier this week demonstrated how far removed Sauvignon Blanc is from that ‘in your face’ pungency.

The wines tasted from Marlborough showed restraint at their core. Expression is all about fruit and tangy succulence, rather than high acidity and bold methoxypyrazine character. The wines from France’s Languedoc Roussillon were somewhat reminiscent of those from South Africa’s larger volume producers. The obvious quality that producers, both in France and South Africa, strive for is drinkability and volume; a wine that provides a refreshingly crisp lemony tang without being dilute, thin and watery. It’s a style which works well commercially as consumers love it and their affection for Sauvignon Blanc shows no sign of abating.

The Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blends from Bordeaux and the Sauvignons from two smaller regions in the Cape renowned for their affinity with this grape also bore the same thumbprint – but with that little bit more: a bit more concentration, a bit more density, definitely more minerality and a whole lot more interest as a result. One Master of Wine chairing a panel expressed pleasant surprise after going through the flight of Cape whites. “So much better than what I was expecting,” was the pronouncement. South African retains that ability to surprise with the quality of what it produces.

The International Wine Challenge differs from many other competitions in that the first week is a 'seeding' or triage week. The sole purpose of the week is to decide whether a wine is worthy of commendation, a medal – or rejection. But that’s not necessarily the end of the road for wines which are given out or deemed simply commendable.

There is a high-powered set of ‘super jurors’ who have the difficult task of tasting all wines which are rated 'out' or 'commended'. Their sole job during week one is to ensure that these wines are tasted again and given a second chance. Should they decide that any of the 22 panels has made a mistake and overlooked something delicate and refined, they overrule the decision and have the ability to put it through to round two – the second week of judging when medals are awarded, either bronze, silver or gold.

And that’s done on the basis of their years of knowledge and experience ... by comparing and contrasting each wine that crosses their table with what they know of both the style of wine and the region of origin. Nothing odious about that!

Fiona McDonald