As a grape variety, and as a wine, Sauvignon Blanc has attracted its fair share of clichés. “One-trick pony”, “crowd-pleaser” and “bring the indigestion pills” being just a few. Tim Atkin, South Africa’s best-loved wine critic, was invited to New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc Celebration a few years back, but declined, saying he could not make it as he had his “sock-drawer to re-arrange”.
It must be remembered, however, that it is success and popularity that tends to attract the clichés. And so it is with South African Sauvignon Blanc which is by far the country’s best-selling white varietal wine – locally, as well as internationally. Some producers see this self-selling variety as a cash-cow with which to fund their endeavours concerning more esteemed varieties and wines. On the other side there is a band of Sauvignon Blanc acolytes who, through the making of their own wines, and by promoting the traits of Cape Sauvignon Blanc in general, are busy putting this variety on the pedestal of quality and international recognition it deserves.
Bartho Eksteen clearly falls into the latter category. Having espoused his obsession with Sauvignon Blanc since first finding the grape on his winemaking to-do list at Wildekrans Estate in the Botrivier back in 1993 – as well as making some of country’s best wines from this cultivar – Bartho is busy promoting the merits of the Hemel-en-Aarde region in terms of this cool-climate region’s extraordinary potential for his beloved savage white variety.
“The issue with being this guy on a small spread in the Hemel-en-Aarde obsessed with Sauvignon Blanc is that the region’s reputation is built on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay,” says Bartho. “And quite rightly so, as the terroir here is the best in the country for these two Burgundian varieties. But most of the producers also have Sauvignon Blanc in their stables. And having gotten to know the region and its wines over the past three decades, as well as making wine here, I’m on a mission to let the other winemakers, as well as the wine-consuming public, know that Hemel-en-Aarde is also one of the Cape’s areas most suited for making great Sauvignon Blanc.”
Great Sauvignon Blanc is something Bartho knows of, and he has proved it. Not only with his own wines from the various addresses at which he has hung his winemaking hat over the past 35 years, but also in his pioneering role in placing Cape Sauvignon Blanc alongside the best from New Zealand and Sancerre to see how the local wines weigh-up against the world’s perceived best.
“Since 1993 I held celebratory events, bringing-in international wines and having them tasted alongside South African Sauvignon Blancs,” says Bartho. “Looking back now and going through the scores from these informal ‘competitions’ it is amazing to see how many times the South African Sauvignon Blancs have come out top against the best New Zealand and France have to offer.”
In this context he reckons Hemel-en-Aarde is a leading Sauvignon Blanc region in its own right. “From day one of being introduced to and working with the variety in nearby Botrivier, I knew that the potential of Sauvignon Blanc can only truly come to the fore in a cool climate,” says Bartho. “And this feature of cool-climate is more pronounced in Hemel-en-Aarde than my early dealings in Botrivier, the temperatures here obviously having also resulted in its attraction for the planting of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.”
Last winter saw him measuring an early morning of -1°C at his Bartho Eksteen farm entrance to Hemel-en-Aarde Valley from Hermanus, with mid-day temperatures running to between 12°C and 14°C.
“Excessive heat kills acids, and in wine – especially Sauvignon Blanc – natural acidity is needed for life and freshness,” he says, “In summer, daytime temperatures seldom pass 26°C, although in January and February you can get a belter of a day well into the 30°C’s which, fortunately, does not hang around long enough to become uncomfortable for the vines or ripening grapes.
“The cool, mild conditions are largely the result of the cooling air dropping down from the valley’s upper reaches, as well as the air-movement from the ocean which, where I am, is only 4km away. Being a maritime region, however, does not give us the sharp diurnal variation of Marlborough, New Zealand or the continental climates such as Sancerre. But the air-movement off the sea, which is found all-year, coaxes the vines and ripening grapes with a constant touch of coolness and plays a profound role in the balanced expression of Sauvignon Blanc in this region.”
Balanced expression, says Bartho, is a feature of the Hemel-en-Aarde Sauvignon Blanc wines. “With Sauvignon Blanc the winemaker is dealing with two major aspects within this grape, and those are methoxypyrazines and thiols. The former makes for the green features, such as cut-grass, asparagus and canned pea. While thiols are responsible for Sauvignon Blancs tropical notes of granadilla and goose-berry.”
The variety’s penchant for offering one of these two elements – or both – in amounts that can euphemistically be described as powerfully exuberant has led to many of the clichés for which Sauvignon Blanc is infamous. Fruit-bombs. Cat-pee on a gooseberry bush.
“This is where Hemel-en-Aarde Sauvignon Blancs have one overarching feature, in that there is balance in the wines,” he says. “Yes, there is lovely variation with some showing hints of aromatic and tropical flavours and others being a touch on the pyrazine-driven green side. But in all of the wines, no one aspect overshadows the complete wholeness of what is in the glass. Freshness and energy, those aspects that help make Sauvignon Blanc the crowd-pleaser it is, are shown in abundance – even on wines of five years and older. And the balance between the tropical and pyrazine characteristics is spot-on, accurate and linear. These Hemel-en-Aarde wines are, for me, a perfect example that in Sauvignon Blanc – as probably in all wine – you don’t have to be showy to be great.”
Bartho is a firm follower of the movement promoting the aging of Sauvignon Blanc. “Especially with the quality of wines Hemel-en-Aarde terroir provides, it will be a waste to release or drink these wines at too young an age,” he says. “The quality and health of the grapes harvested here make for wines of tremendous structure and balance, the kind that needs time in the bottle to truly evolve into the world-class and unique expression that is putting Hemel-en-Aarde – and South Africa – into the global Sauvignon Blanc spotlight.”
Tasting through a line-up of 14 wines from the region, two observations are made of which the first is agreeing with Bartho’s emphasis on balance and restraint. Direct and invasive fruit-forwardness is absent, with primary flavours seamlessly stitched into bright acidity and all wines showing a pleasing combination of varietal freshness, satisfying palate-weight and brisk, grippy finishes. Some bordered on the edge of tropical expressions with delightful strokes of white flower and ripe pear, while there were wines offering a very classy Sancerre-like gritty austerity that truly tastes of cold and rocks, and of the wild.
However, even in the confined borders of Hemel-en-Aarde it is evident that Sauvignon Blanc is no one-trick pony. Quality and cold terroir expression might harness the galloping herd, but each wine offers a discernible unique character worthy of top-notch recognition in its own right.
Like all the offerings from the Hemel-en-Aarde, Sauvignon Blanc shows a pride of place that continues to beguile and impress, as well as reinforcing South Africa’s status as one of the best wine addresses on earth, and as it shall be in heaven, too.
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