Quality and value wines and spirit across price points
The fifth Merit Wine and Spirit Challenge took place in mid-August 2023, and the judges sat down at Nietvoorbij in Stellenbosch, looking for both quality and value. Wines and spirits across all price ranges were entered, with the more expensive entries only being eligible for quality awards.
This event is the only wine and spirit awards in South Africa that awards quality and value independently, providing a hybrid approach. Wines and spirits are judged solely on quality, and wine at R150 and below, and spirits at R300 and below that provide the best value are also awarded. These awards provide consumers guidance within the context of both quality and value.
The event tries to give a voice to a younger generation of wine and spirits consumers. Often, panellists are only of the older generation and not in touch with the preferences of the younger generation. Quality is something everybody agrees on, but taste preferences may differ between generations.
Some people may remember when wine was perceived as better because it was aged, when people did not drink rosé, and when high-acid white wines were the “in thing”. Those days are gone, and at the same time, more subtle changes are taking place right before our eyes.
Younger wine enthusiasts tend to prefer wines that are more accessible and approachable, with a focus on fruit-forward flavours and lighter tannins. They are also more interested in natural and organic wines, with a preference for sustainable and environmentally friendly practices.
Spirits are also going through an evolution, with some styles that were favourites in the previous century, particularly citrus drinks, making a comeback, while others have seen a great evolution, for instance, new style gins. Similarly, natural, high-quality ingredients, like single-origin coffee, are making inroads.
Younger spirits enthusiasts have thrown the book away, and anything that is good, no matter what convention dictates, is open for exploration.
Demographic changes among consumers
In contrast, older consumers may have more disposable income and are more likely to invest in products with a higher price point. They are often willing to pay a premium for brands with a long history, exceptional quality, and rare vintages.
Consumers are driven by both quality and value
The Merit Wine and Spirit Challenge awarded Gold Awards to outstanding products, and Value Awards to wines R150 and below and spirits at R300 or below. Some products achieved both awards and can now proudly display a double gold award. Wines and spirits of every price range may enter, with the products that are over the price limit, only being eligible for quality awards.
The quality award is based solely on the panellists score, whereas the value award is correlated to the price to determine if the products offer real value for money.
Now in its fifth year, we saw that the following wineries performed the best:
- Le Pommier Wine Estate
- Montagu Winery
- Nicholson Smith Agencies
- Slanghoek Wynkelder
The distillers that performed the best were:
- Deep South Distillery
- L’Atelier Distillery
- Select Beverage Company
Tasting comments for the wines
The categories that received the most entries were Sauvignon blanc and Chenin blanc, followed by Blanc de Noir / Rosé and Merlot. Overall, there were more white wines entered compared to red.
The 2023 Chenin Blanc wines had a bright, fresh acidity and often more pronounced citrus and green apple flavours compared to the 2022 wines. Some of the younger wines also had a slight effervescence and a mineral note that added to their crispness and vibrancy.
In contrast, the older Chenin Blanc wines displayed more complex aromas and flavours, with more integrated acidity and a honeyed, nutty finish. The older vintages had a richer texture and a greater depth of flavour, with hints of vanilla and spice that developed over time.
Some of the best Chenin blancs tasted were the 2021 Knorhoek Chenin blanc and the 2023 Slanghoek Private Selection Chenin blanc.
The 2023 Sauvignon blanc wines displayed a vibrant acidity with pronounced citrus, green apple, and grassy flavours. They also had a crisp minerality that added to their freshness and complexity. The younger wines were also marked by a zesty, almost effervescent quality that added to their liveliness and appeal.
The 2022 Sauvignon blanc wines exhibited more subdued aromas and flavours, with softer acidity and a developed, nuanced profile. They had a rounder, fuller mouthfeel, with hints of tropical fruit and vanilla that developed over time.
Overall, the younger Sauvignon blanc wines were more suitable for pairing with lighter, fresher dishes such as salads, seafood, or vegetarian meals. The older vintages were more versatile and better suited to pairing with complex and savoury dishes, such as poultry, pork, or spicy cuisine.
The Sauvignon blancs that performed the best were the 2023 Slanghoek Private Selection Sauvignon blanc and the 2021 Quoin Rock Sauvignon blanc.
Of the other white wine classes, the top performing white wine was the Whalehaven Sandstone Strata Chardonnay 2020.
We asked the panellist what they thought were the most popular white wine classes, and they all agreed that Chenin blanc and Sauvignon blanc were the top two, and after that, Rosé and white blends seem to be the favourites.
There has been a move away from the sweeter, fruitier styles of rosé towards a drier, more restrained profile. Winemakers are experimenting with different grape varietals and blending techniques to create complex, aromatic wines with a crisp, refreshing finish.
One trend is the use of non-traditional grape varietals, such as Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre. These varietals lend themselves to the production of deeper, more full-bodied rosé wines with flavours of red fruit, spices, and earthy undertones.
From the tasting, it was evident that winemakers were embracing a more refined and sophisticated approach to rosé, with an emphasis on dryness, complexity, and freshness. The trend towards lighter, drier rosé is likely to continue, as consumers seek out more balanced and food-friendly styles of wine.
Many of the Rosé / Blanc de noir wines tended to be on the lighter side of the colour spectrum, ranging from a slight blush to salmon. These wines, in general, had good acidity and were invitingly elegant with good balance. The Le Pommier Meraai Rosé was the top-performing Rosé.
The 2022 and 2023 Merlot wines displayed a vibrant, fruity character with pronounced black cherry and plum flavours, as well as subtle hints of vanilla. The wines were surprisingly fresh, and juicy and had a lively, approachable character that made them enjoyable to drink.
The older Merlot wines were more complex and refined, with a softer, more mature character. They displayed more muted fruit notes, with an emphasis on earthy, leathery flavours and a more pronounced tannic structure in some.
The younger Shiraz displayed a bold, fruit-forward profile with pronounced blackberry and plum flavours, as well as subtle hints of spice and pepper. These wines were full-bodied, with a rich tannic structure and a long, lingering finish.
The older Shiraz wines were more complex and nuanced, with a softer, mature character. They displayed more subdued fruit notes, with an emphasis on smoky, earthy flavours and an integrated tannin structure. The oak notes also integrated well with the wine.
The other red wine classes were a mixed bunch, with some great value wines to be had.
We asked the panellist what they thought were the most popular red wine classes among their peers, and although they could not all agree, Merlot, Red Blends and Cabernet Sauvignon seemed to be the favourites, followed by Shiraz.
We asked the panellist to say in which order of importance they would rate the following factors for a wines’ success, and this was the result:
- How well known a wine is
- Intrinsic quality
- Good backstory
Packaging is seemingly significant, followed by how well known a wine is.
We asked the panellist what are some of the new tends they predict for the immediate wine future, and these were some of the predictions:
- More expensive top quality Chardonnay
- Cap Classique going big
- Lower alcohol wine
- Lighter style reds
- Wine in cans
- Niche varieties
- Cabernet Sauvignon at a high price
Some of these trends have existed before, but there are many indicators in the industry that make these predictions ring true.
Tasting comments for the spirits
This year was one of the most hotly contested years for spirits and liqueur, with some fierce competition. The judges were Dr. Anriënka Vlok, spirits expert from Distell, Danielle Schoeman who is a distiller, and Josh Hendricks, a spirits expert often contracted to Diageo International to taste spirits. During the tasting, these judges did not confer, and were all locked in their own cubicle, but the correlation between their tasting data was spot on. We are indeed lucky to have had these expert judges this year. The spirit entries were dominated by gin, as expected, followed by rum.
The gins entered this year were wonderful in their diversity. Although London Dry gin is known for its dry and balanced flavour profile, with juniper being the dominant note, some of the London Dry gins had more prominent notes of citrus, floral or herbal botanicals.
The new style gins exhibited an intricate bouquet of aromas, with layers of botanicals intertwining to create a sensory journey. A number of gins demonstrated a velvety texture, perhaps attributed to the innovative distillation processes employed. Tasters noted a departure from juniper-forward profiles, with some gins emphasizing unique botanicals, resulting in unexpected yet delightful flavour combinations.
The flavoured gins captured the essence of their chosen flavouring agents, presenting a harmonious balance between the gin’s original character and the infused elements. The versatility of these gins shone through, as they held the potential to be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or as a key component in cocktails. The tasters were intrigued by the diversity within this category, ranging from subtly infused gins to those with boldly pronounced flavour profiles.
We asked the panellist what they though the most innovative gin producers were doing well, and they said besides the use of good ingredients and balance in their spirits, they focussed on innovative packaging and clever ways to serve gin.
Some of the best gins tasted were the Tahlia Farm Cactus Leave Gin from Tahlia farm and African Craft Boabab Handcrafted Premium Gin from Select Beverage Company.
The rums were from a range of ageing periods, up to four years, mostly aged in charred barrels, resulting in a richer, caramelized flavour profile with notes of toffee, chocolate, and spices.
We asked the panel what they thought would improve the image of rum, and the overwhelming feeling was that producers should perhaps aim at producing lighter style rums, produce less spiced rums, and promote premium cocktails, steering away from rum and coke.
The best rum tasted was the Mooka Rum from Earthbound Distillery.
The Liqueurs varied a lot in style and quality, and there were some excellent examples. The liqueur that scored the highest was the Cannameister from L’Atelier Distillery.
2023 Spirits and Liqueur judges:
We asked the panellist what areas they predict growth in for the future of the spirits categories, here are their predictions
- Growth in Tequila and Agave products
- Lighter style whiskies
- Premium Non-alcoholic spirits
- New and premium quality flavours in spirits
We asked the panellist in what order they would put the following factors that make a spirits brand stand out, and the order was as follows:
- Good backstory
- How well it is known
- Intrinsic quality
It was quite surprising that they rated the intrinsic quality of the spirits the least important of these factors.
Overall, the judges were pleased with the spectrum of quality wines and spirits entered.
We would like to thank everybody who entered, the judges, the staff and Nietvoorbij for their time and effort.
Individual awards were below fifty per cent of the total entries. Details about the Merit Wine and Spirit Challenge 2024 will be announced in the last week of January 2024.
The winning entries this year were as follows:
|African Sun Wines||MARA NYEKUNDU||2022||Double Gold|
|Bottega Family Wines||Whalehaven Granite Rock Pinot Noir||2020||Gold Award|
|Bottega Family Wines||Whalehaven Sandstone Strata Chardonnay||2020||Gold Award|
|Brandvlei Cellar||BC Wines Sauvignon Blanc||2023||Double Gold|
|Darling Cellars||Darling Cellars Reserve Bushvine Sauvignon blanc||2023||Double Gold|
|Darling Cellars||Darling Cellars Reserve Six Tonner Merlot||2021||Double Gold|
|Darling Cellars||Darling Cellars Chocoholic Pinotage||2022||Gold Award|
|Darling Cellars||Darling Cellars Reserve Arum Fields Chenin blanc||2023||Gold Award|
|Deep South Distillery||Old Reserve East Indiaman||NA||Gold Award|
|Deep South Distillery||Old Reserve Overproof Spirits||NA||Gold Award|
|Deep South Distillery||Old Reserve Premium Arrack||NA||Gold Award|
|Dieu Donné Vineyards||Dieu Donné Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz||2021||Gold Award|
|Distell||Drostdy Hof Natural Sweet Rosé||NV||Gold Value|
|Distell||Drostdy Hof Natural Sweet White||NV||Gold Value|
|Dragon's Keeper||Dragon's Keeper Aurum Gin||NA||Gold Award|
|DuVon and DeVries Vintners||Slate Slide||2023||Gold Award|
|Earthbound Distillery||MOOKA Rum||NA||Gold Award|
|Groote Post Vineyards||Salt of the Earth||2020||Gold Award|
|Koelenhof Wynkelder||Siwela Brut Chardonnay||2022||Gold Award|
|Koelenhof Wynkelder||Siwela Brut Rosé||2022||Gold Award|
|Koelenhof Wynkelder||Siwela Gewürtztraminer||2022||Gold Award|
|Koelenhof Wynkelder||Siwela Grace Red Blend||2020||Gold Award|
|Koelenhof Wynkelder||Siwela Red Blend||2019||Gold Award|
|Kolle.Gin||Rooibos - Boho Sienna||NA||Gold Award|
|Kolle.Gin||Rose Petals - Romantic Emily||NA||Gold Award|
|La Vierge Wines||Redemption Chardonnay||2022||Gold Award|
|L'Atelier Distillery||Bushcraft Safari Gin||NA||Double Gold|
|L'Atelier Distillery||Cannameister||NA||Gold Award|
|L'Atelier Distillery||Pakalolo Pineapple Liqueur||NA||Gold Award|
|Le Pommier Wine Estate||Le Pommier Saivignon blanc||2023||Double Gold|
|Le Pommier Wine Estate||Le Pommier Meraai Rosé||2023||Double Gold|
|Le Pommier Wine Estate||Le Pommier Summer Court Chardonnay||2023||Double Gold|
|Le Pommier Wine Estate||Le Pommier Mac||2022||Gold Award|
|Meerhof Wines||Chardonnay||2023||Double Gold|
|Meerhof Wines||Red Blend||2022||Double Gold|
|Montagu Wine and Spirits Company||John Montagu Verdelho||2023||Double Gold|
|Montagu Wine and Spirits Company||John Montagu White Muscadel Muscat Blanc||NV||Gold Award|
|Montagu Winery||Montagu Winery Red Muscadel||2022||Double Gold|
|Montagu Winery||Lady Mary Montagu Pink Moscato||NV||Gold Value|
|Montagu Winery||Lady Mary Montagu Sauvignon blanc||2023||Gold Value|
|Montagu Winery||Montagu Winery Chenin blanc||2023||Gold Value|
|Montagu Winery||Montagu Winery Merlot / Ruby Cabernet||2022||Gold Value|
|Nicholson Smith Agencies cc||Pandora's Box The Gooseberry Sauvignon Blanc||NV||Double Gold|
|Nicholson Smith Agencies cc||Bella Vino Sassy Sweet||NV||Gold Value|
|Nicholson Smith Agencies cc||Bella Vino Seductively Sweet - Natural Sweet White||NV||Gold Value|
|Nicholson Smith Agencies cc||Bella Vino Sultry Red||NV||Gold Value|
|Nicholson Smith Agencies cc||Bob's Your Uncle A Perfect Storm Sauvignon Blanc||NV||Gold Value|
|Nicholson Smith Agencies cc||Bob's Your Uncle Head Over Heels Cab Sauv Merlot||NV||Gold Value|
|Nicholson Smith Agencies cc||Pandora's Box The Black Bird Merlot||NV||Gold Value|
|Nicholson Smith Agencies cc||Pandora's Box The Persian Connection Shiraz||NV||Gold Value|
|Quoin Rock Wines||Knorhoek Chenin Blanc||2021||Gold Award|
|Quoin Rock Wines||Knorhoek Chenin Blanc||2022||Gold Award|
|Quoin Rock Wines||Quoin Rock Sauvignon Blanc||2021||Gold Award|
|Quoin Rock Wines||Quoin Rock Simonsberg Blend||2018||Gold Award|
|Quoin Rock Wines||Quoin Rock Simonsberg Blend||2020||Gold Award|
|Running Stream Wines||Running Stream Cape Blend||2021||Double Gold|
|Running Stream Wines||Running Stream Chardonnay||2021||Gold Award|
|Select Beverage Company||African Craft Baobab Infused Handcrafted Premium Gin||NA||Gold Award|
|Select Beverage Company||Elderflower Handcrafted Premium Gin||NA||Gold Award|
|Silkbush Mountain Vineyards||Silkbush Rosé||2023||Double Gold|
|Slanghoek Wynkelder||Slanghoek Hanepoot Jerepigo||2023||Double Gold|
|Slanghoek Wynkelder||Slanghoek Private Selection Cabernet Sauvignon||2022||Double Gold|
|Slanghoek Wynkelder||Slanghoek Private Selection Chardonnay||2023||Double Gold|
|Slanghoek Wynkelder||Slanghoek Private Selection Chenin Blanc||2023||Double Gold|
|Slanghoek Wynkelder||Slanghoek Private Selection Merlot||2021||Double Gold|
|Slanghoek Wynkelder||Slanghoek Private Selection Sauvignon Blanc||2023||Double Gold|
|Slanghoek Wynkelder||Slanghoek Private Selection Shiraz||2021||Double Gold|
|Slanghoek Wynkelder||Vinay Vin Blanc||NV||Double Gold|
|Slanghoek Wynkelder||Slanghoek Legends Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc||2021||Gold Award|
|Slanghoek Wynkelder||Slanghoek Private Selection Pinotage||2021||Gold Award|
|Slanghoek Wynkelder||Slanghoek Red Muscadel||2023||Gold Award|
|Slanghoek Wynkelder||Vinay Vin Rosé||NV||Gold Value|
|Slanghoek Wynkelder||Vinay Vin Rouge||NV||Gold Value|
|Tahlia Farm||Tahlia Farm Cactus Fruit Gin||NA||Double Gold|
|Tahlia Farm||Tahlia Farm Cactus Leave Gin||NA||Double Gold|
|Van Loveren Family Vineyards||VRL Blanc De Noir Red Muscadel||2022||Double Gold|
|Van Loveren Family Vineyards||VLR Daydream Chardonnay Pinot Noir||2023||Gold Award|
|Walker Bay Vineyards||Llyswen Sauvignon Blanc||2023||Double Gold|
|We Got Spirits||Pink Elephant Gin||NA||Double Gold|
|We Got Spirits||Circa1430 (Mollases)||NA||Gold Value|
|We Got Spirits||Royal Falcon Whisky||NA||Gold Value|
|Welbedacht Wines||Meerkat Chenin blanc||2023||Double Gold|
|Welbedacht Wines||Meerkat Pinotage Rosé||2023||Double Gold|
We are thankful to our partners who helped to make this event possible:
For all enquiries, visit https://themeritchallenge.com, or email firstname.lastname@example.org