Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc: Genius and Youth

Lafras Huguenet

In his marvellous book Drinking With The Valkyries the genius wine writer Andrew Jefford promotes the joy of young wines: “Who doesn’t enjoy being invaded by a young wine, and having your head turned, your horizons altered, your composure rattled? Acidity in wine is never better than in youth, when it, too, remains spliced to generous fruit contours, indeed when it seems to bubble and froth with fruit itself, like a gurgling baby with milk.”

However much I agree with these words and do enjoy Chablis, Alvarinho, Picpoul and Sancerre wines under a year old, I found my Editor’s encouragement of trying a Sauvignon Blanc wine a mere six weeks after the grapes were harvested a bit of a ballsy request. Surely a gimmick, I thought, this Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc bottled, on-market from grapes harvested in January.

But having researched into the pedigree of Diemersdal where Thys Louw established himself as one of the pioneers in the explosion in popularity and quality of Cape Sauvignon Blanc some two decades back, I relented. The bottle of Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc 2024 did not end-up in salad-dressing or as a tenderiser to the batch of glistening squid recently procured in the Eastern Cape. It was chilled until the bottle beaded moisture, iced my rheumatic palms as a unlocked the screwcap. And with Jefford’s words echoing through my tufts of ear-hair, the wine was poured for pondering.

An underage, raw wine will mostly be aggressively sulphery and edgily pungent on the nose. But here this was not thus. Instead, the wine showed assured aromatics, a waft of jasmine-leaf, freshly mowed buffalo grass and just the ever-so slight sunny cirrus layer of guava sap. Very interesting and inviting at the end of a long day behind the steering wheel from Jeffrey’s Bay to Hermanus.

The promise from the nose was delivered onto the palate. A tentative perusal revealed delight that led to thirst and a desire to drink fast and drink deep and drink good.

Thys Louw from Diemersdal.

There must be some intuitively scientific techniques going on in the Diemersdal cellar for such a young wine to achieve this state of excellence. Which leads to wonder and amaze, but anticipation is not conducive to lofty pondering.

The exquisitely bracing revelation the wine’s nose held was furthered by its titillating, tasty and enjoyable presence in the mouth. There is the harmonious balance between the thiols of tropicality and a crisp crest of vibrant flavour so characteristic of fine, pure Sauvignon Blanc.

Expecting acidity, robust in its virile youth, there was, rather, a comforting glycerol mouthfeel making the temptation to glug the wine in huge dollops so much greater. This agreeable texture made the flavours confident and assertive, with everything being in balance. I found on my taste-buds a generous scoop of cantaloupe whetted with rivulets of passion-fruit juice. Gooseberry, tart and teasing, also presented itself, as did a hit of honey-suckle and yellow zest from those thick-peel Cape lemons.

I was reminded, fleetingly of a waterfall thundering into a pool surrounded by a forest filled with trees bearing tropical fruits and citrus, the splash and the roar elevated with each mouthful of a truly lovely, delicious wine. Reminding me that, as I always tell my neighbour’s daughter, there being great pleasure in youth. Indeed.

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Fryer’s Cove: Where the West Was Won

Having traversed the Cape winelands for a few decades, I yet have to find a more unique winery than Fryer’s Cove in Doringbaai, 300km straight-up the West Coast. The winery itself is set in a former crayfish factory that was built in 1928 and is the very reason for Doringbaai’s settlement as a once-thriving coastal village. Back then, Cape crayfish was fished and processed here – first as a canned product, and later frozen whole, adorning the swanky tables of America and Europe. Those in the know would know, too, that when it comes to the consuming of the lobster-species, Cape rock lobster has no equal.

The politicisation of the South African fishing industry post 1990 ended the Doringbaai fishing factory, and after two decades in disrepute it was purchased by Jan Ponk van Zyl and Wynand Hamman. They had begun making wines from the vines they had planted between Doringbaai and Strandfontein, focusing on Sauvignon Blanc set 500m from the icy rollers thundering in from the Atlantic Ocean. This is balls-to-the wall, rugged wine country if ever there was some, and not unexpectedly the fruit showed a visceral concentrated thrust ever since the maiden Fryer’s Cove Sauvignon Blanc release in 2001.

Initially the wine was made in Stellenbosch, but in 2010 Van Zyl and Hamman acquired the decrepit Doringbaai crayfish factory, turning it into a working winery literally on the edge of the ocean where in days of old the fleet of boats would off-load the day’s lobster catch. In 2020, local drinks behemoth DGB bought the Fryer’s Cove winery, taking ownership of this distinctive location and continuing to churn-out the toppish notch wines. It is great stuff, and I never miss the latest offering. Drinking these wines takes me to desolate coastal village of Doringbaai with its murky morning fog, scent of sea-spray and wild-brush and the sound of mussel shells being crunched by ceaseless waves braking in restless unison.

The latest releases of the two premium Fryer’s Cove Sauvignon Blanc wines are the Hollebaksstrandfontein Reserve and its brethren Bamboes Bay, both from vintage 2023. They are made from the same Sauvignon Blanc vineyard outside Doringbaai, with vines varying between 12yrs and 25yrs, cropping yields of five, six tons per hectare. Same piece of wind-swept, ocean-splashed sandy red earth; two varying vinification regimes.

The Bamboes Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2023 is an expression of pure Bamboes Bay terroir and was made to the principles of minimum intervention. Free-run juice is settled overnight and then racked to stainless steel tanks for seven day’s fermentation. The wine is then left on lees for seven months where texture takes hold and the grapes’ inner secrets are allowed to unfold.

The result is a Sauvignon Blanc of truly singular and distinctive terroir expression. On the nose, Bamboes Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2023 exudes aromas of nettles and white flowers with a pronounced oyster-shell note, a familiar feature of Sauvignon Blanc fruit grown in extreme maritime conditions. The palate is dense with flavours of green citrus-peel and goose-berry with an intoxicating line of wild-herbs. A firm, lasting presence on the palate is elevated by the typical bracing Sauvignon Blanc freshness leading to a commanding and persistent finish.

Then the other wine. After destemming of grapes and pressing, Fryer’s Cove’s Hollebaksstrandfontein Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2023 underwent a spontaneous fermentation and was aged in a combination of 500l Austrian oak barrels and ceramic amphorae for seven months. The time spent in these vessels elevates the textural nuances of the wine’s terroir origin, resulting in a Sauvignon Blanc of statuesque, regal presence yet still expressing the unique flavour-profile of this wine’s Bamboes Bay origin.

The nose is led by a rakish maritime edge with underlying aromas of cut-grass and an exotic whisper of sage. In the mouth, Hollebaksstrandfontein Reserve 2023 offers a luxurious density of flavours which include grape-fruit, kumquat and grenadilla leading to a discernable minerality. The tastes are presented in sumptuous layers lying beneath a luxurious veil that creates an experience harbouring both charm and excitement. An extraordinary white wine which will only grow in character through aging of five years or more.

In the rising tide of great South African Sauvignon Blanc, Fryer’s Cove is, for me, a force lifting all boats.

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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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Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc at the Heart of the Country

Lafras Huguenet

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.

Vines on Diemersdal Estate in Durbanville.

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.

Thys Louw

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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The Real Great White Hope

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.

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Ramaphosa Dream City to get Own Vineyard

South Africa looks set to become home to the largest urban wine vineyard in the world. This is if President Cyril Ramaphosa’s vision of a brand-new city built in the country is realised. During his recent State of the Nation Address, Pres. Ramaphosa suggested it was time to build such a new modern city in South Africa. But besides featuring shiny skyscrapers and sleek bullet-trains, the new city is also to host a vineyard from which various wines are to be made.

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The Force of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc – but is it Culture?

BLENHEIM, New Zealand. – When renowned American wine writer and critic Matt Kramer referred to it as the biggest single success story the modern wine world has seen, he wasn’t kidding. The category known as New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has in 46 years grown from literally zero vines and nada litres to 24 000ha of vineyard planted in the dry alluvial and clay soils on the South Island’s Marlborough region, seeing 340 000 tons of grapes crushed annually and making 255m litres of wine.

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Riding the Epic with Sauvignon Blanc, and Winning Gold

Thys Louw, left, from Diemersdal with cousin Thys after Stage One of the Epic.

Diemersdal wine maker Thys Louw had just finished the first stage of the world’s toughest mountain-bike race, the Cape Epic, when he heard that he’d won two gold medals. Not on the bike, but at the Concours Mondial du Sauvignon 2018, the world’s premier international showcase for Sauvignon Blanc wine. Diemersdal took gold for the MM Louw 2016 and Eight Rows 2017, two of the wines from this Durbanville estate renowned for its interpretations of South Africa’s and one of the world’s most popular white wine varieties.

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A Dry White Reason for Sauvignon Blanc

So here we are, the first discussion of a wine from the 2018 vintage. That’s right, this is the Dry Year characterised by the worst domestic water shortages in the history of Cape Town, black-bass having to learn the leopard crawl due to empty dams and Premier Helen Zille sporting a water-saving, unwashed hair-do resembling a wombat that had gotten hold of a tub of Vaseline.

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