Prior to Concours Mondial du Sauvignon held in Blois last week, secretary of the Sauvignon Blanc Interest Group Pieter de Waal and I spent 48 hours in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.
We visited with a number of leading producers including Benjamin Dagueneau of Domaine Didier Dagueneau, Jean-Dominique Vacheron of Domaine Vacheron, Jean-Christophe Bourgeois of Domaine Bourgeois, Alphonse Mellot Jnr of Domaine Alphonse Mellot and Jean-Paul Labaille of Domaine Thomas Labaille. I also checked out Château de Tracy in Pouilly-Fumé and Baron de Ladoucette plus we got to taste a wide range of less high-profile wines courtesy of BIVC, the regional trade body for the AOP wines of the Centre Loire vineyards.
Such a visit removes any doubt about the potential for greatness of Sauvignon Blanc as a variety. Fine Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé is the match of fine Chablis, not surprising when you consider both the geographic proximity and broad geological similarity of these two areas of vineyard.
Soil is of fundamental importance in determining the character of these wines and there are three major types to take into account. The first is “cailottes”, a pebbly-limestone soil typically making wines which are readily accessible and hence for early drinking. Then there’s Kimmeridgian Marl, a limestone-clay soil, perhaps most famously found on Les Monts Damnés, and I found these wines typically very intense and full. Lastly, there’s silex, a flinty-clay soil which produces wines of great purity and freshness.
The top producers vinify by terroir – either from single vineyards or a selection of grapes from various parcels all sharing the same soil composition. Fascinating to compare wines from the same producer off different soils (e.g. Mont Damné versus Silex from Benjamin Dagueneau) or different producers off the same soils (e.g. Les Romains by Alphons Mellot versus Les Romains by Vacheron).
What might South Africa take from the Sancerre/Pouilly-Fumé model? It seems to me that the time is right to start celebrating single-property wines (towards ultimately celebrating those from a single-vineyard). Because of relatively low production costs and its broad popular appeal, Sauvignon Blanc too often gets treated as commodity wine. If however the notion that provenance matters starts to take hold, then Sauvignon Blanc becomes that much more worthy of contemplation and simultaneously a price premium.
My proposal would be that when the seventh annual FNB Sauvignon Blanc Top 10 is held later this year, multi-regional and single property wines are judged separately and the highest scoring five of each together make up the winning wines. Multi-regional wines (such as those from Delaire Graff, Graham Beck Pheasants’ Run and Kleine Zalze Family Reserve) have their place but so do those where origins are not clouded by blending.