South Africans Shine at the Five Nations Challenge

The dark horse South Africa came from nowhere – as they say at the racetrack – to be the stand-out performer at this year’s inaugural Five Nations Wine Challenge, judged in Sydney in August.

Always the underdog for the eight years of the Five Nations’ previous incarnation, the Tri Nations Wine Challenge, South Africa bolted away with this year’s event and scooped the pool, winning nine of the 17 trophies on offer.

The link with rugby, always rather tenuous, became completely irrelevant this year with the involvement of two other important Southern Hemisphere nations, Chile and Argentina, both better known for their soccer prowess. Perhaps we should re-name the competition the Southern Hemisphere Wine Cup – although that sounds more like a fruit drink than a wine show.

The competition is in effect a completely new one, totally re-invented by the inclusion of these two exciting, emerging wine countries.

How does it work? Each of the five nations is represented by a wine writer, whose task it is to select 100 wines across 17 classes, invite their producers to enter them, and then meet in Sydney once a year to judge them against the wines the other judges have selected. Those people are Bob Campbell from New Zealand, Michael Fridjhon from South Africa, and myself, joined for the first time by Fabricio Portelli of Argentina and Eduardo Brethauer of Chile. Not only did these two grasp the concept with alacrity and judge well, they and their wines added a whole new dimension. In the end, after three days of tasting, each nation came away with successes. Argentina, Chile and Australia each won two trophies for top wines of classes, New Zealand five and South Africa six. In addition, South Africa won best wine of show with a great sweet wine, Nederburg Private Bin Eminence Noble Late Picked Muscadel 2009. It also won trophies in two of the most hotly contested classes, chardonnay (Paul Cluver ’09; also white wine of show trophy) and shiraz (Eagle’s Nest ’09).

Australia won the show in terms of total aggregate points, with 1492 over New Zealand’s 1197 and South Africa’s 1030, winning six of the 17 classes on aggregate score, those classes being shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, Bordeaux blends, other red blends, merlot and rose. In a topsy-turvy show, Australia topped the pinot noir class (which has been our bete noir for years, thanks to New Zealand) with Paringa Estate ‘Estate’ Pinot Noir 2009 (tasting). New Zealand won the pinot class (aggregate score) in what was effectively a two-horse race.

On the other hand, the most disappointing class for Australia was chardonnay, which New Zealand won narrowly from South Africa. Leeuwin Estate Art Series 2008 (tasting) excelled, winning double-gold and running second to the Paul Cluver, and Hoddles Creek 1er 2009 (tasting) won gold, but on the whole our chardonnays were unlucky on the day.

The workings, and results, of the competition are complex and the best way to check them is to look up the web-site of, the organiser.

Simply, of the 16 classes, each judge chooses the 14 that best suit his nation, and nominates seven to eight wines in each class. These are then invited to enter their wines. Most accept. The five judges taste and score without any consultation, allocating points in order of preference to their top 10 wines in each class. These are tallied and using a specially calculated formula, final points are allocated to each nation for each class. Class winner, runner-up, double-gold medals and gold medals are allocated by consensus.

It’s a great system because the glory gets shared around. For instance, Australia won the cabernet sauvignon class by the length of the straight (it usually does win it), but the trophy cabernet this year came from an unexpected quarter: New Zealand. Even in Hawkes Bay, where the winning Kidnapper Cliffs wine was produced, it’s usually a bit too cool for cabernet on its own, and the best wines are merlot-cabernet blends. But 2009 was a great vintage, and it’s a beautiful, ripe wine. For Australia, Vasse Felix ’08 (tasting) was runner-up and double-gold, Plantagenet (tastings) 2010 and Penfolds Cellar Reserve 2006 (tasting) both won gold and Wynns John Riddoch ’08 (tasting) won double-gold.

The great joy in judging this show, for the five judges but also for a number of young stewards – largely sommeliers – who serve them, is that we get to taste wines we seldom see in our usual line of work. And we see how well (or badly) the top wines of each country stack up against the other nations.

In keeping with that observation, below are listed the places you can start looking for some of the successful wines of Chile, Argentina and South Africa.

Some of the Chilean medal-winning wines are for sale through which is owned and run by Hector Munoz. His company, Wines of Chile, sells the gold medal-winners De Martino, Finca Flichman (tastings), Perez Cruz and William Fevre.

Some of the Chilean wines are with Sydney retailers The Oak Barrel, Darlinghurst Cellars, Potts Point Cellars and Amatos of Leichhardt.

Argentina’s Pulenta Estate XI Gran Cabernet Franc 2008 topped the ‘other red varietals’ class. A bright cassis and raspberry, elegant, ripe-fruited wine, it’s available from Potts Point Bottle Shop, 34 Degrees South, The Winery Boutique Bottle Shop, Barrio China, The Rum Diaries and Nirvana Liquor.

As for the South Africans, importer William Botha ( sells KWV Wines’ The Mentors Orchestra 2009 ($27), a gold-medallist in the Bordeaux blends class: a clean, tidy, well-balanced red with lovely soft tannins.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 13 September 2011. 


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