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New World: Sauvignon Blanc

A big category, with some genuinely high-quality medal winners once the oceans of aromatic rubbish had been discarded


Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are engaged in a game of cat and mouse in the Sommelier Wine Awards for ownership of the Biggest New World White category. And this year Sauvignon sneaked it. Not, however, that its performance was an unqualified success.

Five Golds might be a record (and better than Chardonnay managed), but the small number of Silvers, and large number of Bronzes (plus a high kick-out rate overall) suggested that there’s rather more enthusiasm here than there is quality, and there was little strength in depth.

The biggest submitters were Chile and South Africa, yet both received a mixed reception from the tasters. There were some very good wines, but the early rounds of tasting also saw a lot of poor imitations, clearly planted to cash in on the Sav boom, that reduced our tasters to despair. Too many wines had their wobbly pyrazine cheeks slapped and were sent to bed early.

What quickly became evident for both Chile and South Africa was that the regions that were perhaps making Sauvignon 10 years ago are rapidly being supplanted by more established cool-climate areas. All but one of Chile’s medals, for instance, came from Casablanca, Leyda or Limarí, while the Cape’s medal winners, too, were nearly all washed by cool sea breezes. And when these countries get it right the results can be impressive enough to win over sommeliers whatever the price.

‘The top-end [South African] Sauvignons here are exceptional value,’ said The Vineyard Group’s James Hocking. ‘£12 for a top-flight Sauvignon, with lovely minerality is just excellent.’ The Vina Leyda Garuma Sauvignon, at under £9, was exceptional value too.

By the end our tasters managed to find an impressive array of wines for the Gold List, moving up in neat £2 steps from the exceptionally priced Esk Valley at £6.24 to the Saint Clair Wairau Reserve (yes, them again!) at £15.

‘The Saint Clair was a step up in terms of quality and complexity,’ praised Senthil Kulandhaisamy of Oxo Tower Restaurant. ‘An elegant wine, floral, precise and with some texture and good length. There is a market for premium Sauvignon Blanc and this hits that spot.’

But finding a range of great wines across the price points was not as easy as a few years ago. Prices this year were high – leading a number of tasters to shake their heads in the early rounds and wonder just why so many New World producers are trying to go head to head price-wise with Sancerre when their wines have neither the pedigree nor, in many cases, the elegance.

‘At least you can sell the lower-priced wines,’ complained The Hide Bar’s Paolo Tonellotto. ‘Who’s going to pay £70 for a non-famous New World Sauvignon Blanc?’

Memo to New World: take a long hard look at your fresh, unoaked white before you try to sell it into the UK on-trade at £15 ex-VAT…

‘The problem NZ faces is the critics say it’s all the same, but when they try to do something more ambitious, people say "that’s not what we want".’ Peter McCombie MW, consultant

‘There was a lot of refinement in the South African wines, no matter what the style. There has been a very good evolution of Sauvignon Blanc here.’ Xavier Chapelou, China Tang