A lot has happened in the local Sauvignon Blanc category since Jeff Grier of Stellenbosch winery Villiera won the title of Diners Club Winemaker of the Year back in 1997 for his Bush Vine Sauvignon Blanc of the same year.
Platter’s replaced Star ratings with either a single or double bunch of grapes icon to denote high quality that year (and for 1998 although sanity prevailed in 1999 and the Stars were back) but a 1996/1997 personal short list of the “best of the bunch” by then-editor John Platter included the following: Buitenverwachting, Stellenzicht, Thelema, Mulderbosch, Klein Constantia, Saxenburg and Bouchard Finlayson.
Wine magazine meanwhile rated the following wines from 1997 4 Stars (none higher): Bloemendal, Jordan Blanc Fumé, Kaapzicht, Mulderbosch, Neil Ellis, Neil Ellis Groenekloof, Simonsig, Steenberg Reserve, Stellenzicht, Villiera, Villiera Blanc Fumé, Villiera Traditional Bush Vine and Welmoed Reserve.
It’s clear that back then the consensus among industry observers was that Stellenbosch was the epicentre of quality Sauvignon Blanc whereas now Cape Point, Constantia, Darling, Durbanville, Elgin and Elim all provide stiff competition.
The appeal of Sauvignon Blanc for most is its purity of fruit and freshness. Wines which show these characteristics tend to come from cooler as opposed to hotter climates, and hence why Stellenbosch is increasingly usurped as a source of high quality Sauvignon Blanc by areas that are more maritime or at altitude.
There are those that find cool-climate Sauvignon Blanc too thin and too green and advocate a fatter, richer style achieved by picking riper and deft technique in the cellar (the right fermentation regime to achieve the right flavour profile). The resulting wines might be more expressive but questions can be raised about purity.
Usually, however, a complex wine will trump a simple wine even if the latter appears to have greater “purity” and so I think what we should be looking for in Sauvignon Blanc is the greatest possible range of flavour: from grassy, herbal notes through citrus to tropical fruit.
We opened the Villiera Bush Vine Sauvignon Blanc 2009 last night (which snuck into the 2009 Wine Magazine Sauvignon Blanc Top 10 after Havana Hills 2009 was disqualified for exceeding the maximum residual sugar requirement) and I thought it just about complete: it showed grassiness, citrus and a hint of asparagus on the nose while it had good texture on the palate with fresh but not seering acidity. It appears Stellenbosch is not totally out of the running yet when it comes to top quality Sauvignon.