South African wines are pitched against Chilean this month. Susy Atkins was at the tasting
Wines from both Chile and South Africa are enjoying a wave of popularity. As the price of good-quality Australian wine starts to push upwards and New Zealand suffers from a temporary shortage of stock, it is to Chile and South Africa that many are turning for the upfront, fruity flavours of New World wine.
Last year, exports of Chilean wine to the UK burst through the one-million-case mark for the first time. And South Africa, now that its products are politically correct, is also enjoying a boom in wine exports.
The two countries are in close competition in the mid-section of the market, particularly over their similar style of red wines, which are produced from the classic Bordeaux grapes Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Chile has been famed for its Cabernet for more than 100 years - its phylloxera-free vineyards are said to produce some of the world's most distinctive Cabernets, characterised by an intense colour and blackcurrant flavour. Varietal Merlots, as well as blends of the two grapes, are appearing in growing numbers. In any blend of Cabernet and Merlot, the soft, plummy Merlot fruit is intended to tenderise Cabernet's tougher character.
In South Africa, there is now more Cabernet Sauvignon planted than any other grape variety, although the wines produced from it have often been criticised for having too austere a character.
South African Merlot has attracted more positive coverage and blends of the two are widely perceived to be the most promising Bordeaux-style reds to emerge from the country.
New World examples of Cabernet and Merlot should never oust quality red Bordeaux from a restaurant list. Good examples, however, could complement any selection of fine clarets, casting the traditional varieties in a new light. The exuberant, fruity flavours of the New World wines should make excellent matches for robust and spicy dishes - more appropriate, arguably, than more elegant, aged clarets, which may be dominated by the food.
Caterer decided to let Chile do battle with South Africa by testing their reds made from these grapes. We aimed to discover whether Chile really does have the upper hand when it comes to Bordeaux-style reds, and to take a look at whether the current vogue for red wines from either country is justified.
Tasters from both the restaurant and wine trades were invited to judge a selection of 20 wines at restaurant 192 in Kensington, London, shortly before Christmas. Our panel comprised: Emanuel Defever, sommelier at the Lanesborough, London; Patrick Ashe, wine-buyer for Payne & Gunter; Anna Hugo, manager at 192; wine and food writer Susy Atkins; and Fiona Sims, wine editor of Caterer.
Despite Chile's better reputation in this field, South Africa won the day, achieving the best set of marks overall. The straight varietal Cabernets performed better than the Cabernet/Merlot blends.
Nonetheless, there were some "wines of dubious quality", as one taster put it, from both countries. Criticism focused on heavy tannins and unbalanced acidity. Oak treatment was unimpressive in several cases, and excessively "hard wood" was noted several times by the panel.
Tasters agreed unanimously, however, that the fruit flavours they encountered throughout were impressive. Attractive Cabernet character notes were present in many wines and Emanuel Defever spoke for the panel when he said that the most appealing and ripest fruit flavours were to be found in the South African samples. The worst wines overplayed this card and appeared too jammy.
Overall, the stars of the day were the most balanced wines - the best managed an elegant poise as well as the brightness of flavour consumers have grown to expect from the New World.