Tide Turns for Cape Sauvignon Blanc

American base-ball legend Yogi Berra was also known for his way with words, such as when being asked whether he still goes to Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York, the Berra quipped: “Man, nobody goes to that place anymore, it’s too crowded.”

This line always reminds me of the opinions on Sauvignon Blanc, South Africa’s – and one of the world’s – most popular wines. As a variety, serious wine circles are lean in allowing mention of or encouraging discussion on Sauvignon Blanc due to its image of being commercially successful, extensive in its presence on the wine shelves, and widely likeable. Enjoyable, it is, to the millions of people who reach for the wine’s fresh, vital approachability.

Those who frown on this variety and its wines, well, I can read your mind: Like the novels of John Grisham, the films of Jerry Bruckheimer and the tunes of Taylor Swift, your cultured opinion states that if it is omnipresent and appeals to the populace, then this must be devoid of profound merit and lacking in profundity.

Tim Atkin MW, South Africa’s most loveable international wine voice, summed it up acutely. When asked to attend an international Sauvignon Blanc gig in Marlborough, New Zealand a while back he stated that he was unavailable for the event as rearranging his sock-drawer was more important.

But the waves in the world of wine are always alternating directions, the currents ever-shifting. Thus, Sauvignon Blanc appears to be moving in a direction towards its commanding more attention as a fine wine variety rather than a one-dimensional agreeable quaffer. While it might handsomely add to the bank balance of its producers, the cultivar is also becoming worthy of filling the editorial space so keenly devoted to “sexier” and “off-centre” white cultivars.

RJ Botha, cellarmaster at Kleine Zalze Wines in Stellenbosch and chairperson of Sauvignon BlancSA, is realising this. During this year’s FNB Sauvignon BlancSA Top 10 he said it’s opportune to talk less of the commercial success and overall popularity of South African Sauvignon Blanc. “Now is the time to get the message out that our Sauvignon Blancs are diverse in their expressions of the Cape’s multi-dimensional terroir, but also to grow the emphasis on the attention and adventurous approach Cape winemakers are using to ensure their Sauvignon Blancs are world-class in complexity and structure,” he said. “While it will always be one of the world’s most popularly enjoyable wines, Sauvignon Blanc does not have to stand-back when it comes to offering excellence and status as a world-great variety.”

RJ Botha

RJ’s words were scarcely cold when Andrew Mellish from Mellish Wines in Durbanville presented a tasting of South African and European Sauvignon Blancs with the view of underscoring precisely this: The cultivar is no one-trick pony and presents a multi-layered white wine spectrum. Andrew’s line-up offered 12 Cape Sauvignon Blancs, three French (one of which a Sémillon blend) and an Austrian wine. The line-up: Iona Elgin Highlands Wild Ferment 2021, Tement Ried Zieregg Karmileten Berg 2019 (Austria), Bartho Eksteen Houtskool 2019, Mellish Family Vineyards Blanc Fumé 2021, De Grendel Koetshuis 2019, David Nieuwoudt Ghost Corner Wild Ferment 2019, Vergelegen Reserve 2019, Alphonse Mellot Edmond 2016 (Sancerre), Thorne & Daughters Snakes & Ladders 2019, Dagueneau Buisson Rehard Blanc Fumé de Pouilly 2015 (Pouilly Fumé), Bloemendal Suider Terras 2015, Klein Constantia Clara 2021, Trizanne Signature Wines Sondagskloof White 2018, Reyneke Reserve 2017, Diemersdal The Journal 2019 and Le Petit Cheval Bordeaux Blanc 2018 (Bordeaux).

Served in four flights, each including an international wine, the major impression was the deliciousness of the Sauvignon Blanc cultivar. A purity and vibrancy, a polished cleanliness – without sterility – characterised the wines, with various levels of thought-provoking depth found throughout the line-up. The multi-pronged onslaught on the senses was complemented by the fact that the youngest offering was two years old, going right down to 2015. All the Sauvignon Blancs, thus, had been exposed to silence and stillness for at least 24 months, a period of rest and breath, pausing after the fervours of their lusty youth and ready to awaken in the mouth with refreshed and mannered confidence.

The experiences ranged from the stony maritime bursts resonating in Trizanne Signature Wines Sondagskloof White 2018 and Iona Elgin Highlands Wild Ferment 2021, to the mature palate-weight of Bloemendal Suider Terras 2015 with its glow of bruised apple and jasmine, still a stunner at eight years of age.

Mellish Family Vineyards Blanc Fumé 2021 and Diemersdal The Journal 2019 are both generously wooded, but the oak both discreet in allowing white fruit to show, while being directive in piling the solid layers of edification required to give the wines weight and presence and respect.

Reyneke Reserve 2017 and Klein Constantia Clara 2021 are world’s apart as far as terroir is concerned, namely Stellenbosch the former and the latter hailing from Constantia. Yet both are knee-tremblingly graceful in their restrained harnessing of the sometimes pugnacious Sauvignon Blanc thiols and pyrazines, here presenting wines of extraordinary life-affirming appeal with firm, vital cores yet donning a subdued and courteous cool cloak of white wine elegance.

The foreign wines were gorgeous but by no means overshadowed Brand Sauvignon Blanc South Africa. Tement Ried Zieregg Karmileten Berg 2019 from Austria is like something carved from a cold slab of Carrera marble, unbreakable and permanent with flowing curves and jagged, defined cuts of beauty. Dagueneau Buisson Rehard Blanc Fumé de Pouilly 2015 might not be as vigorously captivating or hold the impending danger as the same producer’s Silex cult wine, but it is rapturous with sappy green fruit running over upturned clods of fossilised earth.

One of the leading narratives among those assembled at the tasting was: So, how does South Africa stack-up to the international wines on offer? With respect, I am getting past this kind of question with its undertow of inferiority. It is not how do we measure against the world, but to what degree does the world welcome South Africa as a brother and sister of the Family of Wine Excellence? And with Sauvignon Blanc, it should be welcoming with open arms. Deservedly.

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