When it comes to marking a South African wine that has been the victim of its own success, Sauvignon Blanc wins by a gooseberry-lined country mile. The people, they love Sauvignon Blanc. It outsells any other white varietal wine three-to-one. Which is also why it is the most profitable grape to farm with. Yet when it comes to attracting critical assessment and attention, Sauvignon Blanc gets about as much air-time as a khaki-clad member of Afriforum at an EFF rally.
The reason for this is that old line summed-up so astutely by the late great American baseball coach Yogi Berra. When asked if he still frequents a particular Manhattan restaurant, Berra answered to the negative: “No-one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded.” And that appears to be the view-from-above on Sauvignon Blanc in South Africa: a wine that is so popular, so well-liked and – heaven forbid – so darn easy to understand, well, surely can’t be interesting and rating-worthy. Can it?
But this is what sits in the DNA of the reviewer of wine or any other cultural endeavour where popularity does not line-up with worthwhile estimation. That’s why it is about as easy for a Sauvignon Blanc maker to get five stars from the Platter’s Wine Guide as it is for the Zondo Commission to muster an appearance from Jacob Zuma.
While in the brief posts of winemag.co.za, Sauvignon Blanc has to work ten times harder than any other white variety to get an innings, never-mind a commendable rating.
This was not always so. Only nine years ago, Sauvignon Blanc attracted the most five-star ratings of any white variety in the Platter’s Guide – five, compared to four for Chardonnay and two for Chenin Blanc. Match this to the 2020 booklet with only three Sauvignon Blanc fivers, while Chenin Blanc roped-in 26 and Chardonnay 11.
One does not have to have certifiable paranoia to question the anti-Sauvignon Blanc agenda when assessing the current dismissal of this variety on that specific forum of review, a tendency lustfully repeated by others.
The irony is that the Cape is making the best Sauvignon Blancs in its history. Varied in terroir-expression, stylistically refined and breathtakingly innovative, the wines are as diverse and exciting as any other of the Cape’s offerings.
Edgy comes to mind with the Bokmakierie Fumé Blanc 2019 from the energetic Leon Coetzee and Margaux Nel of The Fledge & Co., purveyors of a motley crew of white and red wines made from fruit sourced off-beat. For this vintage of the Bokmakierie, grapes were hauled in from Stellenbosch, Elgin and Agulhas. A bit of skin-contact before pressing, then three-weeks fermenting in big old oak, preceded by seven months’ aging in weathered barriques. Then, and I like this, back into the tank for six months for levelling-off at a cold 12°C before bottling.
This Bokmakierie Fumé Blanc 2019 is one of the most fascinating South African Sauvignon Blancs I have experienced in a while, although its true beauty will arrive in three-to-five years from now. It is a dead-ringer for a rural Sancerre, the only indicator of Cape pedigree being that beguiling waft of dry fynbos on the nose.
The wine’s entry on the palate is prying and curious, a line of salt and tartness seeking to awaken the senses. Once this has been done, a melange of tantalising flavours takes over whilst remaining discreet and unobtrusive. There is just-ripe quince, green pear and a sliver of lime-peel, Sauvignon Blanc purity without the slightest hint of pyrazine.
Despite the ferment and maturation in wood, no discernible lumber-jack activity is noted. The wood has, however, allowed for a breezy structure to the wine, ensuring nothing rises above the whole where all is in harmony, and naturally so.
On the other side of the Sauvignon Blanc spectrum, there is the torpedo-strike purity of Diemersdal’s Winter Ferment 2020 which has just won a FNB Top 10 Sauvignon Blanc accolade for the fourth year in a row. Made more remarkable by the fact that this is only the fourth vintage Diemersdal’s Thys Louw has bottled the wine.
It began as an experiment in 2017. Some Sauvignon Blanc juice from that vintage was frozen solid upon harvest in February. Then six months later – in winter – the ice- were thawed and the run-off vinified. Stainless-steel, only.
The result is Sauvignon Blanc at its most expressive due to the massive thiol presence in the flavour profile. The wine is clean and pure as a sanitised whistle, with classic and unfettered New World Sauvignon Blanc flavours shooting off the wine’s pale, cool surface. Ripe gooseberry, green melon and hand-peeled Kiwi fruit tantalise, while the oceanic freshness causes the wine to surge into the mouth like a high-tide shore-break at equinox. And present a finish as long as any mile, country or other.
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