A Lesson In Sauvignon: Gateway To Summer
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“Sauvignon Blanc is the gateway variety for new wine drinkers. It dominates every wine industry in the world for new and old wine drinkers”. At the annual FNB Sauvignon Blanc Top 10 awards, Thys Louw of the Sauvignon Blanc Interest Group (SBIG) urged producers to meet the rise in demand for the variety on domestic and export markets.

With exports of over twenty million litres of Sauvignon in bottled form, it is South Africa’s best-selling variety on key export markets - and a varietal pioneer of plantings in new cool-climate vineyards from the west coast to Cape Point.

Panel convenor Neil Ellis, a key player in highlighting new Sauvignon Blanc vineyards from Groenekloof to Jonkershoek over the last three decades, said that the 190 entries in this year’s FNB Sauvignon Blanc Top 10 represented “good expression of sites and styles”. The third-most planted variety in South Africa after Chenin Blanc and Colombard, Sauvignon Blanc represents almost 10% of the national vineyard - with over nine thousand hectares planted - and the signature white variety of wine regions from Constantia, Darling and Durbanville to Elim, Elgin and Walker Bay.

Durbanville (Diemersdal, Groot Phesantekraal), Elgin (Highlands Road, South Hill, Vrede en Lust) and Elim (Strandveld) were again the source of many winning entries. Thys Louw, who has made his family’s sixth-generation cellar in the Durbanville Wine Valley, a specialist producer of eight styles of Sauvignon Blanc - won a place in the Top 10 2017 with his newest creation: Diemersdal Winter Ferment 2017, a new-world style Sauvignon made four months after harvest from a delayed fermentation which joins his maiden skin-fermented Wild Horseshoe Sauvignon Blanc. Etienne Louw, consultant winemaker at Groot Phesantekraal in Durbanville also won a place (and Veritas double gold) with its expressive, leesy cool-climate Sauvignon Blanc from their vineyard which has won other producers Top 10 places over the last five years.

I’ve enjoyed an ongoing lesson in the finer points of Sauvignon on the annual wine tasting circuit. Over an inaugural vertical flight of Tokara Director’s Reserve White from 2006 to 2015 - a benchmark for white Bordeaux blends in South Africa - outgoing winemaker Miles Mossop and viticulturist Aidan Morton spoke about the art of making Sauvignon Blanc in Stellenbosch. Miles comments, “Evenly, slow-ripened Sauvignon ages so well. We don’t want too much pyrazine. Pyrazines show greater concentration and balance the older they get - whereas thiols are expressed much more in barrel-fermented components. The great thing about the Director’s Reserve White -a flagship Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend - is the texture and ability to age”.

Tokara makes four signature styles of Sauvignon Blanc - with separate bottlings of grapes sourced from their high-lying Stellenbosch and Elgin vineyards - as well as the Sauvignon-led reserve blend made from own Stellenbosch grapes and a noble late harvest Sauvignon made from own Elgin grapes. Tokara Elgin Sauvignon 2017 is a stunning example of cool-climate expression of the variety which combines wonderful thiol and pyrazine aromas and flavours fermented in steel and old wood.

My lesson in Sauvignon was fine-tuned at Buitenverwachting, an acclaimed producer at the forefront of the Constantia Wine Valley where it is the signature white grape for Constantia Glen to Steenberg. Over a tasting of four styles of Sauvignon, co-owner Lars Maack explained why they have planted this heritage farm to 80% Sauvignon Blanc. He comments, “At the last Cape Wine, we were worried buyers were suffering from Sauvignon fatigue. But Sauvignon doesn’t seem to have hit a ceiling. We like to push our ripeness - to look for yellow fruit (apple, quince and melons) - not for green herbaceous qualities. We don’t sweeten our Sauvignon. We want a dry style.”

When it comes to Sauvignon Blanc, yeast plays a key role. Lars explains, “If the fermentation is too cold, to maximise flavours, they fade after nine months in the bottle. We use up to seven yeasts. We don’t want the yeast to leave a signature. The primary task of yeast is to ferment the sugar, not to add flavour. You lose the character of the terroir. We don’t have to add acid - we get great natural acidity”. The freshness, purity of fruit and minerality is the golden thread in these Sauvignons.

We enjoyed a tasting of Buitenverwachting’s flagship Maximus 2014 (a leesy, wooded version), Hussey’s Vlei Sauvignon Blanc 2017(an acclaimed highlying single vineyard version made in the Sancerre style) and the standard Sauvignon Blanc 2017. Buiten Blanc, the Sauvignon-led blend which is the biggest brand in the valley, is sold as Beyond Sauvignon in the US - Buitenverwachting is as big a mouthful as its best-selling wine. Lars concludes, “Ideally, Sauvignon Blanc should spend eight months on its lees - to open up the lees and build more structure”. Winemaker Brad Paton was delighted to win a record eight 4,5 star ratings in Platter’s 2018 Wine Guide. 

At the recent launch of Platter’s 2018 Wine Guide, six Sauvignon Blancs won five-star ratings - a white category only surpassed by Chenin Blanc with 17 five-star winners. The top-rated Sauvignon Blancs again came from newer, cool-climate regions like Elgin (Oak Valley and Highlands Road), Elim (David Nieuwoudt’s Cederberg Ghost Corner), Walker Bay (Hermanuspietersfontein), and Constantia Glen. Sauvignon Blanc in a winning blend with Semillon also played a major role in the five-star white blend category - from Cape Point Isleidh and Savage White to Delaire Graff Reserve White and Groot Constantia Gouverneurs Reserve White.

A splash of Semillon and longer lees contact in the barrel appears to be another key winemaking technique when it comes to making award-winning Sauvignon Blanc. Many of the single varietal Sauvignons I’ve tasted over the last few months - from Paul Cluver’s scintillating Sauvignon Blanc 2017 to Buitenverwachting’s stunning Husseys Vlei - demonstrate the advantages of adding a small portion of Semillon.

Multi-regional blends are another winning formula, showing that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts in Top 10 blends like Mulderbosch’s wooded 1000 Miles (a blend of sites from Elgin and Stellenbosch to Piekenierskloof) - and in The Pledge (sourced from ten key sites from Lutzville, St Helena Bay, Ceres, Darling and Durbanville to Bot River, Elgin, Stanford, Stellenbosch and Sundays Glen). Or you could take the other route and sample Diemersdal’s superb Eight Rows Sauvignon Blanc 2017, the first wine released under the new wine of origin Cape Town appellation, made by Thys Louw. He adds, “This was the first vineyard I worked with when I came to farm at Diemersdal in 2005. Since then I have been convinced that for top-quality Sauvignon Blanc, dryland farming in cool climate conditions delivers South Africa’s best wine from this variety - and post-fermentation lees contact of five months, stirred up once a week to enhance mouth feel and concentration.”

Pass the Sauvignon - tis’ a dry white season, the gateway to a thirsty, sipping summer.

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