Greg Sherwood MW: On the pervasiveness of Sauvignon Blanc in times of crisis

By , 10 June 2020

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I was sitting in front of a small colour television, perched on a hard hotel-room bed, my chilled glass of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc in hand, watching in silence as Gordon Brown, the then prime minister, announced his emergency measures to prevent the UK banking system from collapsing. We were, as it transpired, a mere 24 hours from commercial banks imploding, economic collapse and ATM cash points literally running out of money. This wasn’t about another “run on the banks” scenario, this was a “no banks scenario”!

Yes, that was the 2008 financial crash saga which unfurled in front of our very eyes like a car crash in slow motion. I was away at the time in the leafy green Cotswolds with the family for a long weekend break and was fortuitously well stocked with Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc to keep the other half happy with her favourite tipple. But of course, there are wines and wine styles that lend comfort and extra enjoyment in times of shock or distress. During the financial crisis, this appeared to be the classical wines of France, with a massive and instant consumer migration back to Chablis, Sancerre, Pouilly Fume and Burgundy literally overnight. Still to this day, an inexplicable phenomenon.

Well, after the Covid-19 lockdown wine rush in London, these 2008 memories have been brought back to mind in a very vivid and real way. As consumers queued to buy wine in the first days that lockdown was announced across the UK, their buying patterns again seemed to shift instantaneously. Within 24 hours, our entire business had run out of… yes you guessed it… Sauvignon Blanc of every description. Marlborough Savvy, Sancerre, Pouilly Fume, Touraine Sauvignon and even the two or three examples of South African Sauvignon Blanc we were stocking at the time, namely Wild Air from Hannes Storm, the Creation from the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge and the Lismore Reserve Barrel Fermented from Samantha O’Keefe.

Now I am no shock therapist or social psychologist, but I know a buying trend when I see one! Not one crisis to exercise my mind on but two! What is it about Sauvignon Blanc that makes it the go-to beverage of choice in times of crisis and national emergency? Is it the vinous equivalent of clutching one’s comfort blanket or the panic buying of loo rolls I wonder? Who knows? What has crystallised, however, as I am sure the Sauvignon Blanc Associations around the world will celebrate, is that this trend has not been short-lived. The sales, three months into the Covid-19 crisis in London, of Sauvignon Blanc of all description have continued to boom. Unsurprisingly, I have even seen one of the biggest fine wine brokers in London, Bordeaux Index, offering Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2019 on a Pre-release offer, mid-pandemic, something not witnessed since the lofty days of Savvy scarcity in the mid-noughties!

I have not yet had sufficient time to quiz my fellow South African wine merchants to see if a similar seismic Sauvignon Blanc demand was witnessed across the country when Level-3 lockdown was announced along with the easing of the ban on the transportation and sale of alcohol. But the consumer trend has certainly focused my mind as a wine trade buyer. Sauvignon Blanc tends to be not only a seasonal seller in the UK, flying off the shelves during spring and summer, but more latterly, there did seem to be a sturdy resurgent trend towards Chardonnay again until the Covid-19 crisis hit. With so many substandard expressions on the market, it’s easy to forget that this is indeed one of the main varieties that led the democratisation of wine for the masses around the globe. No, it wasn’t Sancerre and Pouilly Fume manning the barricades, with the varietal name banned from the front labels, it was New Zealand and South African Sauvignon Blanc that led the charge.

One that has caught my eye recently is the Thorne & Daughters Snakes & Ladders 2019 from John Seccombe, produced from a vineyard in the Skurfberg planted in 1997. Described by Winemag.co.za editor Christian Eedes as being “intensely aromatic with notes of citrus, blackcurrant, granadilla and pineapple plus some leesy complexity. The palate is super-rich with a slightly oily texture but also has a great line of acidity – an extravagant rendition of the variety (see here).” This is sadly not a release I managed to taste when I last visited the Cape in February but was most certainly a wine which was on my radar to taste on my next visit to the Cape planned for April 2020, until this annoying global pandemic thingy put the kybosh on my travel plans and everyone else’s.

To my knowledge, John’s Sauvignon Blanc must be one of the newest and most interesting releases to emerge onto the South African market of late. Being a true pioneer of creativity, John Seccombe sounds Like the perfect custodian to reignite my passion for top drawer South African Sauvignon Blanc. No disrespect to the incredible producers of Elgin, Stellenbosch or the Hemel-en-Aarde, but I certainly am fascinated by the tantalising prospect of a Skurfberg Sauvignon Blanc. This is after all, an appellation that has started to transcend any specific producer and any specific variety. In the UK, the name itself has taken on a cult brand gravitas that demands a drinker’s attention.

So, as I now contemplate my next quarantine-free visit to South Africa and the long list of delicious South African wines I plan to taste, who knows, there may just be a few more Sauvignon Blancs on the list than I initially envisaged!

  • Greg Sherwood was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and as the son of a career diplomat, spent his first 21 years travelling the globe with his parents. With a Business Management and Marketing degree from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, Sherwood began his working career as a commodity trader. In 2000, he decided to make more of a long-held interest in wine taking a position at Handford Wines in South Kensington, London and is today Senior Wine Buyer. He became a Master of Wine in 2007.

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  • Vic10 June 2020

    Well I don’t think you can expect the same rush to Sav blanc here seeing it’s winter time. And are we talking 100% SB or the trend to adding Semillon.

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