In the world of serious wine recognition, South African Sauvignon Blanc appears to be a victim of its own success. In its own country.
During a recent consumer survey done by MediaVision Communications among wine drinkers in Gauteng, the Western Cape and KZN aged between 25 and 50, Sauvignon Blanc was identified by far as the respondents’ “favourite” white wine variety.
The group was selected to represent consumers with spending power, aged just short of the 50-plussers who are more tempted to fall into “wine geek” territory. In the past, these folk have shown themselves to be irritating respondents as they present an urge to impress those doing the qualitative survey with their wine knowledge and opinions, instead of answering questions clearly and directly.
The survey results were not surprising: as far as Sawis industry statistics go, Sauvignon Blanc is South Africa’s most popular white variety among local consumers and leads the way as far as export profitability is concerned. This despite the white grape from the Loire having to work three times harder than other sectors to get traction from generic export body Wines of South Africa and 10 times harder still to find traction among wine critics.
The Platter’s Wine Guide 2019 being a case in point. Here only two Sauvignon Blancs from South Africa’s vast range of wines representing a diversity of terroir and exciting cellar skills were deemed good enough for Five Star recognition.
This scenario is not surprising, however. Being a former critic of the arts and having moved in these kinds of circles for decades, I have experienced the tendency of the self-imposed know-it-all to frown upon artistic and cultural expressions that dare to be popular among the general public and everyday consumers. For the everyday wine-loving types are obviously not capable of possessing the superior standards of judgement, taste and appreciation as those residing in the rarified atmosphere where critics and judges levitate among mists of knowledge and the right to profound opinion.
With the local 2019 Sauvignon Blancs currently in circulation, I am reminded of the charm and quality of South Africa’s interpretation of this variety, as well as that they easily stand alongside the best the Loire and Marlborough, New Zealand have to offer. And they deserve to be seen in the company of the South Africa’s best white wines.
The 2019 releases are, as of yet, unwooded, and my first two picks originate from Stellenbosch and Durbanville, the latter being a more famous region for Sauvignon Blanc, although Stellenbosch shows brilliantly through this variety.
Neethlingshof Estate’s Sauvignon Blanc 2019 is of a bracing, brisk style driven by this famous property’s exposure to the south. The slopes waken to morning sun which dips behind the northerly hills in the late-afternoon, allowing the south-easterly and south-westerly breezes to fan the ripening fruit in a pyrazine-enhancing low solar radiation environment.
Cellarmaster De Wet Viljoen doesn’t mess around: grapes are picked, crushed and fermented at around 13°C. Lees contact for four months, and simple does as simple says. A pure, unfettered approach allowing focused vineyard expression in a zesty, lean wine with a stony edge.
The nose offers wafts of nettles and cut-grass tinged by a hint of ocean kelp. On the attack the wine bursts yellow and green citrus with a delectable more-ish saltiness one tends to expect from grapes growing within hearing-distance of the ocean. Dry, fresh and deceptively accessible, this is a Sauvignon Blanc of solid personality and visceral rural expression.
Out Durbanville way, Diemersdal needs no introduction on the Sauvignon Blanc side, with the Eight Rows being one of the top offerings made from the variety the estate has become renowned for. The wine is still made from the eight rows in one specific vineyard that current proprietor Thys Louw was allowed to vinify upon him joining the family farm in 2005 under steerage of father Tienie.
Dryland farming on soils rich in clay and specked with granite result in an expression of earth and maritime climate, the Atlantic’s Benguela current being a stone’s throw away. For the Diemersdal Eight Rows 2019 grapes were night harvested at 23.5°B, crushed and de-stemmed reductively. Skin contact of 24 hours was given where after the juice was pressed and settled for 36 hours. Fermentation took place over three weeks at temperature controlled to 12-14°C.
Post-fermentation lees contact of five months was allowed, the lees stirred once a week to enhance mouth feel and concentration and the wine bottled unfiltered.
The wine tastes of cold, late winter afternoons mildly lit by a low sun. Mouthfeel tends towards glycerol and creaminess, with hints of winter pear running off a squishy gob of passion-fruit. A golden-orange pawpaw, falling out of a Paul Gauguin painting, meets a spray of citrus tang while an air of low-growing meadow flowers adds colour and glamour to the general presence of the wine. This is greatness in white wine, and this is South African Sauvignon Blanc.
As Rick Springfield, the greatest rock-star of the 1980’s said: “Success hasn’t spoilt me yet.”