Australia and South African wines go head to head in South African Airways Wine Shield

As the Springboks defeated England at Twickenham last weekend, South Africa and Australia fielded 100 wines apiece in the inaugural South African Airways Wine Shield at Capetown. Unfortunately, the host nation copped a drubbing, winning just three categories to Australia’s eight — a not unexpected outcome.

As an observer, the official result was far less interesting than the tasting itself. Australia may have jetted out of Johannesberg with the SAA Shield but the result was not the whitewash it appeared to be.

In each of the eleven classes of wines judged, an equal number of South African and Australian wines were entered. There were 30 cabernet sauvignons, 10 pinot noirs, 10 shirazes, 30 dry reds of any variety, 10 rieslings, 10 sauvignon blancs, 30 chardonnays, 30 dry whites of any variety, 10 dessert wines, 10 methode champenoise, and 20 fortifieds. And for the trophy taste off, 22 wines — the top Australian and South African from each of these 11 classes — were lined up at end of the second and last day of tasting.

There were nine judges — 3 South Africans, 3 Australian and 3 non partisans — tasting the wines blind then ranking all the wines in each class in order of preference. The judges worked independently of one another and no discussion was permitted until score sheets had been handed in.

Australia was represented by Andrew Caillard MW of Langton’s Wine Auctions; Huon Hooke, writer and author; and James Halliday, author/winemaker. South Africa was represented by internationally known writer/wine judges Michael Fridjohn and John Platter and accountant-turned-wine-maker Gyles Webb of Thelema Winery.

These national sides were balanced by Zelma Long, President of Simi Winery, California; Robert Joseph of London’s Sunday Telegraph and founding editor of ‘Wine’ magazine; and Dr Paul Pontellier, former Professor of Enology at the University of Santiago and now director and wine maker of Chateau Margaux, Bordeaux.

As well there were associate judges from Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom plus press observers from The Australian Financial Review, The Melbourne Age and The Canberra Times (yours truly). This group tasted and assessed the wines blind at the same time as the judges, but our scores were not counted in the tally.

Australia won the cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, shiraz, open dry red, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, methode champenoise and fortified classes, while South Africa triumphed in the riesling, open dry white and dessert wine sections. The top scoring Australian and South African wine from each class were re-tasted as a separate class to determine trophy winners.

The Vintage Cellars Trophy for top scoring South African wine of the show went to KWV Jerapigo 1953, a rather pleasant old fortified grape juice; trophy for best Australian wine of the show went to a new star from the Mornington Peninsula, Paringa Estate Shiraz 1993, a blockbuster of a wine. The New World Wine Trophy went jointly to KWV Jerapigo 1953 and Australia’s Coldstream Hills Reserve Pinot Noir 1994.

Those were the arithmetic results. But a study of how individual judges ranked the wines showed enormous variations — one person’s top wine in a class being another’s least — and highlighted the largely subjective nature of the tasting. The results were in some ways absurd: most tasters thought there were better South African wines there than the old Jerapigo and who would seriously argue that pinot noir is Australia’s long suit in reds?

To me, the pinot noirs made a comparatively poor showing. But there were two very strong wines from Australia on my score sheet, Coldstream Hills Reserve 1994 and Lenswood 1994, and one South African, Cabriere 1994.

As you would expect there was a very solid array of shirazes, my top three were Penfolds Grange 1990, Jasper Hill Georgia’s Paddock 1994, and Henschke Hill of Grace 1991 in that order. One South African shiraz, Stellenzicht 1994, from a brand new winery and vineyard near Stellenbosch, impressed for its massive aroma and flavour — good enough to prompt a visit to the winery after the show. Could be a winner in the making .

For me there was little joy amongst the sauvignon blancs as wines from both countries tended to deliver the special pungent aroma of the variety but not the juicy, fleshy flavour it is capable of. Shaw and Smith, Stafford Ridge and Brokenwood Cricket Pitch scrubbed up reasonably well for Australia, with Stellenzicht 1995 and Thelema 1994 rating well for South Africa.

More on the SAA Shield and South Africa over the next few weeks.

December 3rd, 1995

In the Cabernet Sauvignon class of the South African Airways Wine Shield (held in Capetown two weeks ago) Australia and South Africa entered fifteen wines apiece. The official placings were Australia first, second and third — the accolades going to Mildara White Label Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 1993, Peter Lehmann Barossa Cabernet Sauvignon 1993 and Cullens Margaret River Cabernet Merlot Reserve 1993 respectively.

Nine judges determined the outcome by ranking the thirty wines in order of preference. Thus, a judge’s favourite cabernet scored 30 points, the second favourite 29 points, and so on. There was a wide disparity of preferences and, perhaps, the only valid conclusion to be drawn, after tallying the nine independent ratings, is that the Australian wines drew more applause than the South African wines.

On my score sheet (it was a blind tasting, the identity of the wines being revealed a day after the event) I rated Cyril Henschke 1992, Yalumba Signature Reserve 1991, Penfolds Bin 707 1992, and Wynns Coonawarra Estate John Riddoch 1992 in a tight group at the top of the pack.

But, in my view, there were a number of very good South African wines mixing it with our wines at the next level down. Some of these are imported into Australia and are worth trying if spotted on retail shelves or wine lists.

Thelema wines showed well in several categories and its Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1991 was a terrific, rich, firm wine, even in this company. Thelema vineyard backs onto the steep, spectacular slopes of the Simonsburg Mountains at Scared Pass, between Stellenbosch and Paarl.

Proprietors Gyles and Barbara Webb commenced planting in 1984, choosing to plant between 600 and 750 metres above sea level to achieve suitable ripening conditions for a range of classic French grape varieties, including cabernet sauvignon.

Kanonkop Paul Sauer 1991, a blend of cabernet and other Bordeaux varieties, is another outstanding Simonsburg Mountain wine, from a vineyard sited beneath a rounded granite peak (kop) that once accommodated a cannon (kanon) used for signaling the arrival of ships (and hence trade opportunities) in Table Bay, Capetown.

Australia outgunned the South Africans three nil in the chardonnay line up, too. The official results saw the really big, gutsy wines winning, with Hardys Eileen Hardy 1994, Leeuwin Estate Art Series 1992 and Penfolds Barrel Fermented 1994 ranking first second and third.

But the judges were all over the place — my top wine, Tyrrells Vat 47 1994, for instance, ranking number four with James Halliday and number 26 with Chateaux Margaux’s Paul Pontellier. In general, the South African wines were less full-bodied than ours and some I rated very highly.

I put Bouchard Finlayson Kaaimansgat 1995 in the top rank with Mulderbosch 1994 and Thelema Reserve 1994 a notch behind and looking good against some of Australia’s big names.

The open red class was one of the most interesting as it allowed both sides to trot out its more exotic wines. For the South Africans that meant an airing for the country’s signature red variety, pinotage, a pinot noir–cinsault cross created on the Cape in 1925.

Officially, Australia’s Paringa Estate Mornington Peninsula Shiraz 1993, Tim Adams Aberfeldy Shiraz 1993 and Jim Barry The Armagh 1992 topped the list.

But again, individual preferences varied widely. My top three were Wolf Blass Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 1991, Penfols Magill Estate Shiraz 1991 and Wendouree Shiraz 1992.

Against the sheer power and opulence of these wines, South Africa’s more restrained styles stood little chance and, in truth, it was almost impossible to make any valid comparison of what were in many cases non-comparable styles.

Amongst the South Africans, I particularly liked Plaisir de Merle Merlot 1995; Ryman Pinotage Reserve 1995; Kanonkop Pinotage Reserve 1993; Warwick Estate Trilogy 1991; Simonsig Pinotage Reserve 1991; and Yonder Hill Merlot 1993.

The better Pinotages, in particular, are a unique Cape style and subsequent encounters with the variety over meals suggests a great future as the unique aromas and flavours provide an attractive alternative to shiraz, cabernet and pinot noir. Kanonkop appears to be an accepted local Pinotage leader and I can vouch for the happy marriage of Kanonkop 1990 Pinotage with rare Ostrich steaks.

Verbal war erupted over the serving of a full blooded Australian sparkling shiraz in the methode champenoise class. The South Africans saw it as bowling underarm. But the British and Australians leapt to its defence as we’ll see next week.

December 10th, 1995

What would it mean if a panel of judges were asked to compare perfect, ripe samples of peach and mango, then decide which was the better fruit? It wouldn’t mean anything, of course. We’d simply learn which fruit a majority of judges preferred. For with different fruits, as with different wines, there is no absolute measure of quality and, at times, not even any basis for comparison.

We were confronted with a peaches versus mangos situation in Cape Town when organisers of the South African Airways Wine Shield allowed a robust, deep-red Australian sparkling shiraz into the methode champenoise class.

We were to rate twenty wines in the class — 10 each from South Africa and Australia. Seventeen bubblies were white and two were pink. But the lone red sparked a long debate in our table of one Englishman, five Australians and three South Africans.

The debate polarised around two viewpoints. South Africa’s Tony Mossop saw red: it was under arm bowling, not cricket and not really methode champenoise in his opinion. England’s Oz Clarke, actor turned wine writer and author, filled the room with his big, friendly voice: here we had, in his view, a wonderful, warm, ripe, unique wine style and he was definitely rating it top wine.

A day later the wine was identified as Seppelts Show Sparkling Shiraz 1985 (formerly sparkling burgundy), a benchmark in Australia, and a style appreciated by the widely experienced U.K. palates. But it was not in any way comparable to the white bubblies and it’s easy to sympathise with the disquiet felt by the South Africans. To put it against the whites just because it was sparkling seems no more logical than pitting shiraz against chardonnay in the table wine classes. In any event, the Seppelt wine didn’t rate in the top three.

The judges ranked Australia’s Seaview Pinot Noir Chardonnay 1992 as top sparkling wine, followed by JC Le Roux Chardonnay 1990 (South Africa) and Hanging Rock NV (Australia).

Certainly the modestly-priced Seaview wine is pretty good, and great news for wine drinkers. It consistently knocks off far more expensive bubblies in wine shows. In this instance it beat Jansz Brut Cuvee, Salinger 1991, Croser 1993 and Taltarni Clover Hill 1993 — all $20 plus wines.

That is, it outscored the big names but not in everyone’s books (perhaps not even in any one judge’s books). I was particularly attracted to Domaine Chandon’s Brut Rose for its delicious, delicate fruit; to Jansz Brut Cuvee for its intense but fine fruit; and to Pongracz and JC Le Roux Chardonnay 1990, both made by the Bergkelder — a central wine making facility for several estates — at Stellenbosch.

If these wines ever come to Australia, try them for a change. The JC Le Roux, showed a wonderful richness that comes with age but without the heaviness that we often see in older wines; and the Pongracz appealed for its soft, fruity, easy-on-the-gums flavours.

In the open white class, I was suprised to see amongst the twenty entries (ten from each country) only two South African Chenin Blancs. Accounting for about twenty per cent of all the countries plantings, chenin blanc is about to be overtaken by the combined output of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. These two varieties were virtually non existent in South Africa in 1980 and now total about 19 per cent of the area under vines.

West Australian wines shone in this class, the vibrant fruitiness of Cullens Reserve Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 1993 and Cape Mentelle Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 1995 coming to the fore on my score sheet. And from left field, there was a knockout Pinot Grigio 1994 from Mornington Peninsula winery, T’Gallant.

On the South African side, Thelema Sauvignon Blanc 1995 (Simonsburg Mountain, Stellenbosch) leapt out with its pungent aroma and lean, dry palate; and Perderberg Chenin Blanc 1995 (from the Perderberg Co-Operative, Paarl) was a lovely, modern, light wine, very dry and a quite distinctive flavour.

The fortified wine class was really an opulent display of both countries’ high achievements. Historically, both have been fortified specialists, the transition to table wine production having taken place largely in the last thirty years.

KWV Jerapigo 1953 really was a knockout and I rated it in a tight little group of fabulous, very old wines from both countries. My South African choices were: KWV Jerapigo 1953, KWV Red Muscadel, KWV Muscadel 1968, and Monis Marsala 1983. And from Australia: Penfolds Grandfather, Seppelt DP 90, Hardys Vintage Port 1977 and Baileys Winemakers Selection Old Liqueur Tokay.