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.
Thys Louw has a simple answer as to why Sauvignon Blanc is South Africa’s – and one of the world’s – most popular single varietal wines. “The taste of the consumer. At the end of the day, after all that is being written, analysed and debated on the topic of wine, it all boils down to the taste of the consumer for whom wine is made,” says Thys who is cellar master and co-proprietor of Diemersdal Wine Estate in Durbanville, one of South Africa’s leading Sauvignon Blanc producers.
To check out the quality of Cape Harvest 2017, I was assisted by the friendly folk from Diemersdal, out Durbanville way. For here two new vintages, bottle, closed and already being sold are waiting for those like-minded vinous souls who want a sneak preview as to what this vintage holds.
While doing some exhaustive research so as to be of service to the informed readers of this publication, it was quite amazing to see how little has been written, spoken and sung about South African Merlot wine. There are reams of missives on Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc and little-known, trendy bottles made from weird grapes like Verdelho and Palomino, but the Merlot voices are largely silent.
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.
There are wine brands that I grow into trusting. Others delicately instil trust through providing impressionable bits of joy and genius. Then, one or three grab me by the throat and force me to trust them through their sheer power of conviction and unbridled brilliance.
The situation of South African Sauvignon Blanc reminds me of one of the great verbal curve-balls thrown by American baseball coach Yogi Berra. When asked if he wants to have dinner at a particular New York restaurant, Yogi answered: “No-one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
The most unique wine-tasting venue in South Africa is the enclosed, cavernous space where Lomond-headman Wayne Gabb and I are spitting Sauvignon Blanc on the floor. Sheltering our fragile and frail physiques from Africa’s southern elements is a wild, cool wall of leaved branches growing out from the gnarled trunk of a 650 year-old milkwood tree.
The nearest South Africa comes to Chablis has nothing to do with Chardonnay. That searing slash of steely minerality found in Chablis is amiss from unwooded South African Chardonnays. Whilst some wines do offer some of those features wine boffins refer to as tense, nervous, edgy or wired, the country’s southern sunshine and its eagerness to ripen Chardonnay prevent the stony and anguished structure of the fruit from penetrating the juice.
Despite efforts to deny it, Afrikaans is the lingua franca of the South African wine industry. Without a cursory idiomatic knowledge of the language and an appreciation for its nuances, much of what wine people wish to convey from their souls is lost upon the ears unfamiliar to the language’s expressive depth.