No wood, no good. This phrase was not coined by Elizabeth Taylor or Lady Gaga, rather by the late Graham Beck who abruptly dismissed any Chardonnay that had avoided some face-time with a maturation barrel.
While Chardonnay does indeed make for a perfect dance with wood, my Sauvignon Blanc intake has increased markedly since coming to appreciate the effect oak has on this brisk white variety. Being an early ripening grape and with South African’s thirsting for this Sauvignon Blanc, the temptation is for wineries to get the stuff in and bottled by April or May, with the revenue coming in 30 days later. (Klawer Winery released its Sauvignon Blanc on 20 February!)
The business potential obviously becomes delayed once wood-ageing is into play. But what fabulous wines are there not once the wait is over.
My recent acquisition was a case of MM Louw Sauvignon Blanc 2015 from Diemersdal in Durbanville. This is a fine pedigree if ever there was one. And despite making awarded Pinotage, Bordeaux-blends and Chardonnay – to name a few – the Louws of this sixth generation property have pretty much become synonymous with Sauvignon Blanc. This is largely due to current cellar master Thys Louw’s eternal quest for perfection, his sense of adventure in the cellar and his wonton creativity.
The grapes grown on Diemersdal are not irrigated. This made the dry, hot 2016 vintage a challenge for Sauvignon Blanc, but during a comet vintage such as 2015 the true wonder of this variety is evident. The cool climate of Durbanville. Generations of viticulture excellence. Startling varietal expression from the sweet ripening conditions.
With the MM Louw, the grapes are given their first whack of wood during fermentation. This happens in 2nd fill 500l barrels for three weeks at between 16°C and 18°C. Then it is onto more 500l French oak vehicles, 40% new and the rest 2nd fill. On the lees, nine months with monthly lees stirring.
The first impression is that the wood has not left the slightest hint of bacon or smoke, even for such a relatively young wine. What it has done, however, is to unlock brisk runs of grape- fruit and Mandarin orange peel, with a wash of marine saltiness. This makes the wine extremely succulent and bracing on the mid-palate, the wood having exchanged pyrazine levels for a more complex autolytic influence. This is, obviously, not only in flavour but also in texture, Sauvignon Blanc being known for the chameleon-like change it undergoes after a period on wood exceeding 160 days.
A floral, wet attack on the palate is followed by the aforementioned grape-fruit grip which is clean and assertive as a collar-bone shattered by a Samoan high-tackle. While this is going on, the wine becomes a living thing on the palate, gliding in a vibratory way across tongue and cheek, stirring the senses and ploughing deep furrows of vinous pleasure.
I don’t think I have ever had such a distinctive Sauvignon Blanc and its presence has become lodged in a memory bank filled with experiences of delight, ruthless power and groin-tingling joy. God I love this wine.
Thing is, in the pursuit of journalistic excellence and the affirmation of first impressions I killed the case over a few days. This wine will grow, commandingly so, over the next three to six years and might just take-over a world that needs to be clutched from the current grasp of human innocuousness.