Is SA fine wine finally getting beyond variety?
By Christian Eedes, 10 August 2021
It was on a trip to France that started in Chablis and finished in Sancerre in the early 2010s that I came to a particularly acute realisation that place is more important than grape variety when it comes to great terroir – tasting extensively, it was extraordinary how similar the white wines of the two regions presented in terms of their inherent sappiness even though they are constituted from different varieties, Chardonnay in Chablis and Sauvignon Blanc in Sancerre.
The quality of South African fine wine has tracked seemingly endlessly upward in the modern era, a phenomenon that has been delightful to follow but also difficult to explain. Perhaps, however, a consideration of varieties was less important than any of us imagined, and it all comes down to terroir.
On a basic level, we all buy into the idea that the best wines reflect the interplay of soil, climate and topography. There is also a human element that is crucial to the concept in that it is only by experimentation, decades if not centuries of trial and error, that wine starts to take on regional character rather than variety.
Get terroir right and place becomes paramount. The classical European model of wine is that it has an address. When it comes to Barolo or Montrachet or Paulliac, the grape varieties involved are almost immaterial.
It may well be time to re-introduce the concept of terroir into the local wine debate and it was an experience I had last week that helped crystallize this thought. I was tasting with Matt Day, winemaker at Klein Constantia, an array of wines made up of various examples of Sauvignon Blanc in front of us, and while the overall quality was undeniable, their success was not premised on being true to variety but rather to site. Less about pyrazines and thiols and more about a local flavour, a certain “South African-ness” if you will.
Klein Constantia, of course, has come a long way with Sauvignon Blanc, this being a key focus since the Joostes took over the property in the 1980s, the maiden vintage 1986 as made by the late Ross Gower very much steeped in legend. The property changed ownership in 2011 and the variety has only received more attention since then. Philosophically, however, everything that Day does is aimed at removing any winemaking imprint and letting the property’s identity come to the fore.
My moment of epiphany came when tasting the 2019 vintage of Block 382, this vinified in a second-fill 500-litre barrel but a wine that initially left Day so nonplussed that he transferred to a much older barrel and left if to mature for 20 months altogether, much longer than he would usually. Now, however, it stops you in your tracks.
On the nose, it has a note of fynbos to go with pear and lime plus a little flinty reduction and that fynbos, as opposed to an under-ripe green-ness, is starting to become a defining feature of SA’s very best wines, whether they be white or red. Does it have anything to do with growing vines in the Cape Floral Region, the smallest and relatively most diverse of the world’s six floral kingdoms? Apparently, something special is going on with these skies, slopes and soils…
The palate, meanwhile, has the same mouthwatering vinosity, the same weightless intensity that the very best examples of old-vine Chenin tend to show. Drink this Sauvignon Blanc next to Plat’bos 2019 from David & Nadia, say, or Huilkrans 2019 from Alheit and their respective varieties that the wines are made from becomes pretty much irrelevant relative to their country of origin. The sense of visceral excitement that these wines generate is the same. South Africa has long struggled to use place to sell its wine perhaps because there was no real overarching flavour or character. Until now, that is.
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