Sauvignon Blanc: Beyond the obvious

By , 14 October 2019



Post the Elgin Chardonnay Colloquium that was held this weekend and on the eve of the release of the ninth annual Chardonnay Report convened by and sponsored by multinational financial services company Prescient, you might think that this column would be indeed be about this most famous of varieties. And yes, the Paul Cluver Estate 2009 as shown at the Colloquium was one of the most riveting wines I’ve tasted all year but actually my subject will be Sauvignon Blanc.

Apparently, according to industry figure Emile Joubert tweeting during the announcement of this year’s FNB Sauvignon Blanc Top winners last week, the variety commands 44 per cent of South Africa’s ultra-premium wine category and good luck to those producers that have correctly read the market and cashed in accordingly. South Africa is capable of world-class Sauvignon Blanc witness Cederberg Ghost Corner Wild Ferment 2017 winning the trophy for best in class at this year’s Six Nations Wine Challenge, a feat that entailed beating New Zealand in a category that it pretty much owns.

Sauvignon Blanc might be commercially successful – along with Pinotage, these are the only two varieties among South Africa’s top 10 most widely planted where area under vineyard has increased rather than decreased between 2008 and 2018 – but the prospect of drinking a 2019, no matter how celebrated the grower, no matter how highly decorated the wine, frankly doesn’t set my heart racing – too primary, too precocious, too facile.

This is not, however, intended as typical wine geek Sauvignon Blanc bashing. Another of last week’s more memorable Pascal Jolivet Sancerre 2014, bought on clearance sale from one of the larger liquour retailers. Regardless of what might have been questionable storage conditions, it was in its pomp with plenty of complexity and nicely filled out in terms of structure. This prompted me to open a bottle of Blocks 361 & 372 2015 from local producer Klein Constantia a few days later which was also rather fine.

Top-end Sauvignon Blanc producers always counter that the market just doesn’t care for the variety with some age on it. Similarly, Blanc Fumé and Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blends are other ways of adding interest to the variety but again the lack of a popular following for such wines is well documented. Even, so my contention that those of us who care for Sauvignon Blanc should not give up on trying to persuade punters to engage with the variety on a higher level. There is a huge element of fashion to wine and however unlikely decline in fortunes for Sauvignon Blanc might seem, it’s not utterly beyond the bounds of possibility. Chenin Blanc’s reputation continues to grow, for instance, while Chardonnay is increasingly made tauter and fresher than it used to be and there might come a point when those who currently opt for Sauvignon switch allegiance…

One way of ensuring that the Sauvignon Blanc category doesn’t become a victim of its own success is to ensure is that at least some of it is made in a way that doesn’t pander to lowest common denominator tastes but rather produces wines of contemplation and wonder. Entries for the seventh annual Sauv-Sem Blend/Wooded Sauvignon Blanc Report are now open.


10 comment(s)

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    Gregory | 21 January 2020

    My favourite Sauvi is still Tim Martins TMW 2016 off the heldeberg. Ripe fruit and older oak give it such complexity. Someone coax him out of retirement please! All my attempts have failed

    Kwispedoor | 16 October 2019

    Some good suggestions here by everyone. I’m surprised nobody mentioned Lismore’s Barrel-Fermented Sauvignon, a gorgeous wine that matures with great benefit. There are actually quite a few more, like Neil Ellis Amica, Reyneke Reserve White, Hermit on the Hill The Infidel, Klein Constantia Perdeblokke, Fryer’s Cove, some of the wines from Durbanville, etc. As far as most of the Sauvignons from Elim in particular go, I don’t really drink many of them before they are at least eight years old.

    Just over a week ago I opened a 2003 Thelema that was delicious and seemed way younger than it was (confirmed by the guesses for vintage by the blind tasters with me). Pretty impressive for Stellenbosch fruit!

    Has anyone tasted the Adam Fumé from Adam Mason? It’s a non-vintage (but made from 2013 grapes) that I tasted just very quickly a couple of months ago and on that one rushed taste it impressed me enough for me to buy a few bottles. I’m in no rush to open them yet for a proper taste, so would love to hear if anyone else has an opinion about the wine.

    Schalk Burger | 15 October 2019

    Completely agree with the previous commentators – SA SB can and does age with great benefit. I found this out the hard way – gradually overstocked on white wine to the extent that I had to make an extended, concerted effort to reduce the numbers (terrible job, but someone had to do it!) and found that many SBs had aged better than their (supposedly) more age-worthy chenin and chardonnay counterparts. Stand-outs included Ataraxia, Cape Point, Tokara Walker Bay, Steenberg (the wonderful, original Reserve, vines unfortunately ripped out after the 2011 vintage), and some others – all 6-8 years old and beautifully balanced, still fresh and lively but with tertiary flavours well developed and that SB acidic snap somewhat tempered and softened. Great experiment!

    Pieter du Toit | 15 October 2019

    YOU GUYS are full of compliments. Thank you.

    So the history of the Ghost Corner series: 2007 saw the launch of Ghost Corner Sauvignon and Semillon and in 2012 we launchedthe Wild Ferment, The Bowline (Sauv/Sem blend) and the Pinot Noir.

    These whites are made to open much later and the Wild Ferment 2017 proofs the latter. We have long way to go to get the public to understand this, but we are slowly talking the talk and the pallets are following.

    Maybe that is why our wine club split up a few years back: a 35 year old Constantia Sauv was received with 50% Ooohhs and 50% “WTF’s wrong with you”!
    To this day it remains one of the wines I will never forget.

    Lisa Harlow | 15 October 2019

    I have been saying this for years. I don’t get South Africans obsession with drinking SB in the year that it is made! Often very taut and high levels of acidity that have me reaching for the Rennies!
    I recently had a 5 year old Ghost Corner, it was absolutely delicious and as good as any aged Sancerre or Pouille Fumé,
    On a recent visit I had the Shannon Capall Ban, also an amazing wine and 4 years old.
    Here’s hoping to more SB with Semillon or oak aged, aswell as having some bottle age.
    However, I suppose your trends are no different to the young NZ SB obsession here in the UK!

      Kevin R | 15 October 2019

      Totally agree Lisa – sad it’s a fashion, sooner it changes the better because so many SBs age with interest.
      Any decent RSA Sauv Blanc I wait min 4 years. Even the early Ghost Corners (2012 – 2013) are still drinking pretty well now.

    Rolff vd Linden | 15 October 2019

    Diemersdal Winter Ferment 17, 18 or 19. All utterly ama….zing!!
    Looking forward to trying Cederberg Wild Ferment SB!!

    Ryan | 15 October 2019

    Spioenkop…unique in the SA SB space and utterly delicious.

    Erwin | 15 October 2019

    I was recently pleasantly surprised by the Baleia SB 2019. Top Sauvignon at excellent pricepoint.

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