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Letter to the editor: Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc and surviving lockdown

By , 30 September 2023

The following received via email from Pippa de Bruyn, travel writer and wine lover:

“My name is Pippa, and I am a Sauvignon Blanc addict.” Literally the WhatsApp I sent to a complete stranger during South Africa’s second severe lockdown. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

During that first protracted lockdown ban, I ensured I was well stocked with wine. Nine cases of Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc to be precise, a wine that hits the sweet spot of value and quality, easily accessed under my desk. When restrictions eased up, and the sale of alcohol was limited to certain hours on certain days, long queues and depleted shelves made it trickier to stockpile, and my planned drive to Durbanville kept being delayed. Then the rumours surfaced: a new ban was on the cards. On Saturday 11 July 2020, I took precautions and purchased 48 bottles online from Diemersdal. A comfort in all the uncertainty. The next day at 8pm ‘Uncle Cyril’ banned all alcohol sales. The words ‘with immediate effect’ a solar-plexus moment.

Early the next morning, after a sleepless night, I set off for the cool-climate terroir that spawns such a dense array of award-winning Sauvignon Blancs. My husband had offered to accompany me, but desperation is a card best played without someone rolling their eyes.

I drove through rolling hills semi-shrouded in mist, heart rising with hope …  But the Diemersdal approach was ominously barred by closed gates. I abandoned the car; bent low over to the intercom. “Hello!” I said jabbing the Cellar Sales button repeatedly. “Hello, hello?” No answer. Winetasting. No answer. Winemaker. “Hello?” A male voice.

“Dank die goeie Vader,” I bleated. “Ek is net hier om my wyn op te pik!” The muffled sound of a hand over the speaker.

“Hello? Can I help you?” A woman’s voice, unreasonably chirpy, given the circumstances.

“I really hope so,” I respond. “I am here to collect the wine I purchased on Saturday. It’s paid for, so I’m just here to collect.”

“I’m very sorry,” she says. “But we can’t let you in. Have you not heard the news?”

“Yes of course I’ve heard the news. That’s why I’m here. Technically I purchased my wine before the news. The transaction took place before the ban.” Deep breath – aggression never a winner – and force a smile at the metal box. “Please, it’s just a quick collection.”

“Look lady, we can’t help you. The ban includes distribution.”

“But you don’t understand.” The hysteria now bubbling up. “I open a bottle of Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc every evening. Every evening!” My voice cracks. “And I only have two bottles left. Two bottles!” I wail.
“I am really sorry.” Not so chirpy anymore. “But we can’t risk losing our trading licence.”

I am crying now. “Please! You have to help me!”

“Ag shame man,” the disembodied voice does sound compassionate. “Really, if I could, I would. But I just can’t.”

By now there are several vehicles queuing behind my stationary vehicle, doubtless all ready with their own sob story. The Diemersdal desperados. I got in my car and started calling around for help. Which is how I came to be sending WhatsApp messages, declaring my addiction to some stranger, hopefully with hidden stockpiles.

Two and half years later, and I still avoid looking at the intercom of shame. I whizz past on a sunny Saturday. Aside from stocking up (I still buy in caseloads, a kind of lockdown PTSD), I intend to knock back the entire range of Sauvignons made by sixth-generation winemaker-owner Thys Louw. Arguably the country’s most innovative Sauvignon Blanc winemaker, the 41-year-old first proved his mettle aged 18 years ago with a flinty Eight Rows Sauvignon Blanc, made from eight vineyard rows his father Tienie gave him as an experiment when he joined as fledgling winemaker. It was a success that would grow into an obsession: from Tienie’s 26ha to Thys’s 120ha, this is the family owned farm that produces the biggest volume of this most popular white varietal.

In addition to producing his entry-level Sauvignon, blended from 10 different blocks (and 2023 a particularly fine year), Thys makes Sauvignon Blanc in six distinct styles. He also makes a Sauvignon Rosé, a Sauvignon Sparkling – even a Noble Harvest made from Sauvignon – but I’m here to compare my everyday workhorse with the rest of the stable. There’s the predictably delicious Diemersdal Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, made by New Zealand’s Ben Glover Family Vineyards with Marlborough grapes, but to the specifications of Thys … The revolutionary Diemersdal Winter Ferment, made from juice that Thys freezes at -20 degrees Celsius for five months before thawing and starting the ferment in July. A stark contrast to the Diemersdal Wild Horseshoe Sauvignon Blanc, and the Journal Sauvignon Blanc (the latter a 2022 Concours du Mondial trophy winner), both fermented in oak and giving much more layered notes, beautifully complex (but neither a top pick for me personally, being a less honest expression of terroir).

 “They all have their place,” Thys answers when I ask if he has a favourite Sauvignon. (The impossibility of asking a parent!).  “For me the interesting part lies in producing a diversity of styles. I like the elegance and accessibility of the Marlborough-style, and the pure terroir expression of Eight Rows. But I also like working with oak – the first time I tasted the Didier Dagueneau Pouilly Fumé and Alphonse Mellot from Sancerre, it was life-changing, as is every visit to the Loire Valley. This year I have just started fermenting in glass, and it’s a terrific addition to the cellar.”

 In one way this tasting is a bit of a disaster. I survey the price list. The Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2023, made from the highest vineyard block on Diemersdal farm, and totally the equal of the Diemersdal Marlborough, is only R45 more than my everyday Diemersdal workhorse. A deserved winner of the 2023 Concours du Mondial gold and Double Gold Veritas, it is out of this world delicious. Tropical notes of granadilla and gooseberry to delight the nose, and unbelievably it gets even better on the tongue, with citrus zest and lime layered into the tropical fruit. And at R130 a bottle… an absolute bargain, right?


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