There are too many ways of recognising a wine snob to mention in one brief column, but I think I have pretty much seen them all. Lord knows I might even be one. For what is a snob other than someone passing condescending opinions on the whims of others?
In any event, the wine world is known for attracting self-appointed arbiters of taste and manner who loftily opine on all things to do with the modest fermented grape. The correct glasses from which to sip the respective nectars and which foods must accompany them; the dissing of certain countries and regions as not being able to vinify a specific grape variety to a state of suitability; knocking wines for showing a generous alcohol-level or the winemaker having used too much new oak for the judger’s liking; asserting that certain wines from certain countries are only drinkable after 15 years in the bottle… and so on.
Having returned from a lengthy stay in Casa Huguenet’s abode at Abingdon Villas in Kensington, I can say that wine snobbery is a universal trait. One of my neighbours still – after 23 years of mostly agreeable friendship – refuses to accept that some Stellenbosch Bordeaux red blends deserve status as honouring the soul and spirit of the Medoc in terms of quality. At Lord’s for the test match between Australia and England, I got irritable, frayed stares for putting one ice cube into my glass of Chablis. Even my Spanish house-help Juanita crapped on me upon discovering I dared to serve some Jamón Iberico ham with a sweet Pedro Ximenez sherry.
However, the kind of wine snobbery I did not find in the UK, but one which is all around me here in the Cape, is the “oh, I don’t drink Sauvignon Blanc” line. Or the general impression South African wine critics have that Sauvignon Blanc is some kind of homogenous, one-trick pony.
Even the official bodies of the Cape wine industry are in on the fix, starkly refusing to promote Sauvignon Blanc as South Africa’s leading variety with the most commercial export potential, instead putting their weight behind promoting Chenin Blanc. Which a fine wine makes. But due to Chenin Blanc’s lack of universal identity and failure to have gained recognition in global wine markets, it has about as much chance of capturing the attention of the wine world as pineapple pizza has of taking on Naples.
Sauvignon Blanc is huge in the UK, which does happen to be a knowledgeable and mature wine market – far more so than South Africa. Of course, New Zealand is still a prime runner in the offering of Sauvignon Blanc, but Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are growing at over 20% a year in terms of sales. So too Sauvignon Blancs from Austria, Italy and Chile and if anyone would like to question the diversity in deliciousness this variety offers, one trip to a decent wine bar off the King’s Road will have one thinking differently.
It was at a dinner-party two days before my return to the Cape that I was asked to show a few wine-slinger guests what South African Sauvignon Blanc tastes like. A challenge, as my homeland of diversity has established itself as a producer of Sauvignon Blancs showing a vast variation in styles varying from goose-berry bombs out-Marlboroughing Marlborough, to classy Sancerre-styled wines with a refined complexity enhanced by the moderate use of oak barrel.
The wine I chose, however, was the Eight Rows Sauvignon Blanc 2023 from Diemersdal, to me the most South African-tasting Sauvignon Blanc of all Cape Sauvignons.
Thys Louw, current winemaker and proprietor at Diemersdal, created the legacy of the Eight Rows. Upon arriving on the family’s Durbanville farm in 2005 to work under his father, Tienie, the young Louw was not going to be allowed to jump into the vineyards and cellar to do it his way. Wise Tienie demanded Thys first prove himself, and thus the lad was initially awarded eight rows of a Sauvignon Blanc vineyard to vinify to show what he can do. Okay, this rite of passage is not quite as dramatic as a young wannabe Viking being sent by his father to decapitate a British priest and bring back the head, but it still smacks of rustic family charm.
Thus, the legend of the Eight Rows was born after Thys’s first winemaking foray proved to be, well, a success.
The Eight Rows 2023 was but eight months old when I pulled its stopper and filled my guests’ awaiting glasses, and I immediately knew that the wine was going to be received with respect and rapture. As what to me is a defining Cape Sauvignon Blanc.
Vineyards grow in cool Durbanville, with chilly south-easterly breezes a feature of the long summers and layers of Atlantic Ocean mist covering the region in spring and autumn. Unwooded, the grapes from these eight rows of Sauvignon Blanc are kept on the lees, in stainless steel, capturing the essence of terroir and of purity, and of distinction.
On the nose, Eight Rows’ South African roots are evident in the whack of dry fynbos meeting a rush of seaside rock-pool on an incoming tide. There is aroma, raw and vivid, with just a slight waft of the floral.
In the mouth, the Sauvignon Blanc is exciting and boisterous but not without a confident dignity. There are stern and focussed elements, reminding of the steely thrusts found in Dagueneau’s Pouilly-Fumés. But the wine has an openness, a truly South African grip of hearty hospitality in its generosity. Flavours are substantially portioned with chunks of loquat, slivers of grape-fruit peel and juicy cuts of green-melon. A breezy note of gooseberry floats around, while a stony grittiness gives the wine swagger and presence.
It tastes of country and the flag flies high, and it flies proud.
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