The South African Wine Index identifies the very best wines by aggregating the results of competitions and reviews from around the world. But can wine quality be reduced to a mathematical formula? Claire Hu investigates.

Which cultivars and regions really have the potential to become South African wine icons on a world stage?

That’s the question the South African Wine Index (SAWI) is trying to answer.

SAWI creator Izak Smit uses an algorithm (for some reason my accountant husband laughed at me when I used that word for the first time in my life) to compilate the results of competitions around the world, showing which wines have consistently excelled over the past few years.

It’s the equivalent of a tennis seeding, based on cumulative results rather than a one-off match.

I was invited to the 2014 results, a bash that brought together the great and good of the industry including a surprising number of very young-looking winemakers. Or maybe I’m just getting old …

It was held at Grootbos private nature reserve near Gansbaai – possibly the most naturally beautiful hotel I’ve had the good fortune to visit.

2014 results

Ninety-one out of a possible 6000 wines managed to hit the 93 points out of 100 needed to qualify for an award – around 3% of SA’s wine farms.

Topline results (log on to for more):

99 points – Hamilton Russell Chardonnay, Saronsberg Full Circle, Rijks Private Cellar Pinotage and Kanonkop Paul Sauer.

98 points – Eagles Nest Shiraz and Stellenrust 48 Chenin Blanc.

97 points – Bouchard Finlayson Galpin Peak Pinot Noir, Diemersdal Pinotage Reserve, Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir, Spier Creative Block 3 Rhône Blend, KWV The Mentors Shiraz, Raats Mvemve Raats de Compostella Bordeaux Blend.

Wine Producer of the Year went to Constantia Glen. DeMorgenzon received the trophy for White Wine Producer of the Year while Red Wine Producer of the Year went to Kanonkop.

Chardonnay is emerging as a cultivar capable of producing really top-notch South African wine, winning 17 accolades (up from 13 in 2013) with Hamilton Russell winning Top Chardonnay.

This is followed by Shiraz with 12 awards (Eagle’s Nest won Top Shiraz), Sauvignon Blanc and Bordeaux Blends with 10 each (Groot Constantia and Kanonkop Paul Sauer Cabernet Franc Merlot winning respectively), Pinotage (Rijks) and Pinot Noir (Bouchard Finlayson Galpin Peak) with six awards each and other red blends with five awards (Bouchard Finlayson Hannibal).

Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon have been virtual non-performers in the SAWI awards over the five years it’s been running.

Number crunching

Being a maths dunce, I was nervous with all the talk of algorithms and dubious a mathematical formula could capture the magic of fine wine.

But it seems I was wrong; the winning wines were among the best I’ve tasted in one room.

Unlike many competitions, there wasn’t a single dud which I have to admit is sometimes the case when you’re judging a line-up of 100-plus wines. If you don’t believe me, just look at the red faces of judges when tasting the wines they chose at awards dinners.

SAWI’s Brett Garner’s asserted: “In this room are the best wines in the world.” Many competitions were vague and subjective, he said, but the index meant “Joe Public could look at a score out of 100 and know it means something”.

So how does it work? The system attempts to bypass the subjectivity involved in judging panels by using an algorithm to allocate points to wines based on 84 reviews and blind tastings annually over a period of at least three years, with the aim of building a 10-year rolling ranking.

The wines are non-vintage specific, the emphasis on consistency of quality. One bad or very good year may not massively impact on the overall rating as the score is based on multi-year performances.

Each competition and review is weighted according to whether it’s local or international, with bad performances impacting on the final score, and how many weirdos there are on the judging panel (I may have made up that bit).

Quality Message

The aim, says Izak, is to let the numbers do the talking and make sense of wine scoring for the average consumer. “These wines stand the test of time year after year and I believe the world needs to hear this story,” he says.

Of course, the downside is you need to enter competitions to stand a chance of being ranked which can be unaffordable for new farms.

The emphasis now has to be on preaching the message about the quality end of SA wine, says JC Martin, winemaker at Creation Wines which won four awards.

“The good thing about SAWI is at the end of the day if your wine wins five years in a row this is a bigger achievement than a once-off achievement,” he says. “Their biggest challenge is how to carry this message out to consumers.”