Whites are Not Equal

A confessed obsession with white wines that have spent a period drawing complexity and cloaking themselves in the flavours and textural nuances provided by oak barrels makes me wonder if George Orwell would not have had something to say in the way white wines are judged at competitions. All wines are equal, but some are more equal to others – to paraphrase Orwell – especially those that have been fermented and/or matured in wood.

Yet, with the Cape wine competition season currently in full go, two of the most important competitions for white wines judge both wooded and unwooded entries under the same banner without distinguishing between the two vastly diverse styles.

Both the Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10 and the FNB Sauvignon Blanc Top 10 do not provide separate categories for wooded and unwooded wines, making a perky sixth-month old tank-fermented Chenin Blanc being scrutinised alongside a wine that was fermented in oak foudre and then matured for 10 months in a combination of carefully selected 1st, 2nd and 3rd full barriques from France.

Same goes for the FNB Sauvignon Blanc where a bracing young wine straight out of steel finds itself having to be tasted in the same line-up as a Sancerre-style Sauvignon Blanc fermented and aged eight months in new Austrian barrels.

Of course, both aforementioned unwooded wines are able of exuding varietal splendour and showing respective distinct tastes of place. But comparing – and scoring – wines of an unwooded style alongside older vintages that have gone through a metamorphosis by means of skin-contact ferment and months in wood does not exactly make for judging apples with apples. It is like having a horse race where Arabian stallions compete in the same lanes as American saddle-horses, Mustangs and South African boer-perde: all are capable of great things, just at a much different level.

Also, these competitions are losing a trick here. Wooded Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc are coming into their own as some of the great white wines from South Africa and are deserved of further attention, discussion and precis. By giving them their own categories, a platform will be offered allowing these specific wine styles to receive the focussed attention they deserve as great categories for South Africa’s wine future.

They’re worth it.

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5 thoughts on “Whites are Not Equal

  1. Hi Emile – obviously wood treatment (and skin contact) is not binary. Where would you draw the line between the two (or more) classes? New vs Old, % in oak, % in old oak, ad infinitum.

  2. Hi David. Personally I think unwooded white wines should, in a varietal competition, be judged in their own category. The effect of wooding on white wine is far greater than on reds, having the potential to change varietal character dramatically – can think of many wooded Chenins being ringers for a Chardonnay. Just makes sense to level the playing field – if competitions are your thing. They ain’t mine.

  3. Very good point Emile. And agree with David that it’s not a clear binary distinction, because one could also delve into aspects like lees contact. But unwooded vs wooded – quite simply stainless steel tank vs some kind of wood receptacle – would be a good start in a broad distinction between two styles of white wine.

  4. Hi Emile at the FNB Sauvignon blanc Top 10 unoaked and oaked wines are judged in separate categories and the judges know that they are judging unoaked or oaked wines. The overall highest scores obviously make up the Top 10 selection.

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