Showing my age I’ll admit that when first meeting the John Martin Sauvignon Blancfrom Backsberg Estate Cellars I assumed the wine was named after the iconic South African yachtsman. This John Martin was to round-the-world sailing what Cristiano Ronaldo is to football, and if ever a sailor needed a wine named after him, it would have to be our John.
Not, I later learnt. The John Martin in question was an equally legendary business manager at Backsberg who had worked on the estate since the days of Sydney Back. And with whom, one could presume, the latter sailed through quite a few storms together in the choppy days of the wine industry.
John Martin the Wine was also one of the pioneering South African Sauvignon Blancs, introducing local and international consumers to the depth and complexity a bit of wood maturation can bring to this steely, pyrazine-driven white grape which today outsells any other local white varietal by three-to-one.
I was especially perked to see that the John Martin 2017 was already on shelf, as this is begin hailed as one of the finest South African vintages in recent years. With the past two years of warm winters, dry soils and intense summer heat, doomsayers were predicting the 2017 vintage to be as disastrous as the Donald Trump presidency and the Brexit vote put together.
Not so, nature said. Come grape-picking time and night-time conditions cooled, days were mild and the refreshed fruit produced grapes of splendid quality.
The John Martin 2017 is made from grapes grown on the Backsberg Estate in soils of weathered granite and clay loam. After crushing the juice is immediately placed in barrel for a few weeks’ ferment, before taken out for lees contact in stainless steel tanks.
Here we are dealing with a tropical style of Sauvignon Blanc, one for which Backsberg is famous for seeing that ocean breezes and sea mists are largely absent out Simonsberg-Paarl way. Flavours of asparagus, cat-pee and cut grass are thus largely absent, with notes of melon, gooseberry and citrus peel coming to the fore.
Now to this, bring a mild cloak of brief oak contact, and the wine becomes something quite marvellous. There is no discernible evidence of toasty wood as such – barrel contact was to brief. But the oak gives the wine a fuller mouthfeel and a denser palate weight, allowing the charming fruit and floral elements to linger longer in the mouth. This is complemented by a rapier-thrust of stone and fynbos that lifts the wine, giving it verve, life and freshness.
Patient wine-lovers can be assured the wine will age well for the next few years, but I am not one of these. Currently I am enjoying this Sauvingon Blanc with the first winter runs of snoek, cauldrons of black mussels steamed in white wine and garlic, as well as some amazing wild oysters from Cape Infanta.
Both John Martins – and all others – can be proud of their name on this wine.
- Lafras Huguenet