Sauvignon Blanc has undergone a dramatic rise in prominence in South Africa in recent times with plantings increasing by 81% between 2000 and 2011 to over 9 600ha. But now is precisely the time the industry should take stock of what has been achieved with the variety and where it wants to take it in the future.
The issue of the day is how much methoxypyrazine (the compound that gives Sauvignon Blanc its “green” aromatics and flavours) to tolerate and talking to some of the winemakers who had wines among the 20 finalists in this year’s FNB Sauvignon Blanc Top 10 competition, it appears that the category is undergoing a subtle but definite stylistic shift.
Suzanne Coetzee of Devon Valley property Clos Malverne
excelled in having both her 2011 and 2012 in the last 20. Asked about her approach, she says, “I pick at full ripeness – between 21.5° and 22.5° Balling. It’s about being true to terroir. Super-green is not what we’re supposed to make.
Nicola Viljoen, assistant winemaker at D’Aria in Durbanville had a hand in another finalist The Songbird 2011. She graduated with a degree in oenology and viticulture from the University of Stellenbosch in 2006 and recalls drinking plenty of Sauvignon Blanc around that time in order to benchmark. “The wines were all greener in style – it’s what everybody thought good Sauvignon was supposed to taste like. Now we’re starting to realise that basically we were dealing with unripe fruit. There’s a move to pick at higher Ballings later in the season”.
José Conde, meanwhile, was responsible for the Stark-Condé Pepin Condé 2011, a wine from Elgin fruit, 20% fermented and matured for seven months in older oak. On the winery’s website, he writes as follows: “My winemaking approach for this Sauvignon Blanc was influenced by two ideas that I have regarding this varietal: first, that many South African Sauvignon Blancs are dominated by green, unripe flavours; and second, that with so many similar wines on the market, why make the same wines as everyone else?”
Carl van der Merwe, previously of Quoin Rock where he made his unusual take on Sauvignon Blanc called The Nicobar, saw his De Morgenzon DMZ 2011 (including grapes from Stellenbosch, Durbanville and Elgin, 5% fermented and matured in barrel) finish well in this year’s competition. “Until now, most winemakers have favoured a very technical, reductive approach to making Sauvignon. I work carefully but not reductively – less free sulphur, less CO2, less ascorbic acid. I want a wine that’s not just about aromatics but has weight and texture on the palate.”
Of course, methoxypyrazines aren’t the whole story when it comes to Sauvignon Blanc. The other big talking point is thiols, a set of compounds formed from precursors during fermentation which produce the cat’s pee, grapefruit and granadilla characteristics. Once thiols are introduced into the debate, it’s easy to arrive at a grassy versus fruity dichotomy but this is not helpful – the best examples aren’t that readily labelled.
In fact, the Sauvignon Blanc Interest Group, which now convenes the Top 10 competition, is keen to promote all of five different styles, these being: 1) green and herbaceous, 2) yellow fruit/tropical fruit, 3) flinty and mineral, 4) blackcurrant and elderberry or wooded and 5) barrel fermented and matured. This, however, might be too detailed and intricate to have ready application for the man in the street.
Perhaps the most sensible observation that’s been made recently was by Erika Obermeyer of Graham Beck Wines
and chairperson of SBIG, who said “Ultimately it should always be about the balance and synergy between pyrazines and thiols in any particular wine”. The point is that the issues at stake when determining Sauvignon Blanc quality are the same as they are for all wine - things like complexity, purity, balance and length are what should be rewarded. And if we’ve got beyond the running joke that you needed to take a Rennie antacid tablet with your glass of Sauvingon Blanc so much the better.