Once unimpressive, even acidically offensive, the recent crop of South African Sauvignon blancs are opening up into a new spectrum of flavours.
I used to be famously unimpressed by Sauvignon blanc. About ten years ago I suggested that it offered no more pleasure than a five-minute thrill in a dark alley. I couldn’t see the point of assaulting myself with a beverage that had roughly the same pH as pool acid but without the same charm or finesse. These were not popular sentiments at the time. Sauvignon was the beverage of choice at most Johannesburg northern suburb lunches, the vinous equivalent of a quick sniff of white powder on your way out on a Friday night. No one really thought about how it tasted – it cleansed your palate between mouthfuls and made suitably gentle adjustments to your blood alcohol levels.
How did it get to have such a hold on the nation’s wine consciousness? Nothing about its intrinsics gave a clue to its potential to invade and dominate the aesthetic heart of the wine trade. It was as unexpected a conquest as vodka’s blitzkrieg of the brown spirits market a few decades previous. The whisky men thought vodka would never take off. Why should it, they argued, “It doesn’t taste of anything”. What did the Sauvignons of 10 years ago offer to anyone who actually liked the taste of wine? One shade of the colour spectrum away from spring water, searing acidity and a taste reminiscent of unripe rhubarb steeped in green pepper extract. It was easy to be rude and impossible to disguise the aversion.
But then, for no apparent reason, things changed. It may have been the revelations of the use of fake flavorant by some of the country’s leading winemakers (and the suspicion that those who were caught out using homemade capsicum extract or nature identical aromatics were but the tip of the proverbial iceberg). Something made everyone stop and take stock. Producers knew they would be under greater scrutiny, and the punters started asking themselves questions about what they were actually drinking. It may also have been that the pendulum, having swung as far away from Chardonnay as it was ever going to go, on its return alerted some white wine drinkers that there was more to life than Eno’s.
In any event, suddenly there were a few really interesting Sauvignons about. Instead of the under-ripe green notes (wine geeks know these as methoxypyrazines, or just as pyrazines if you want to be on familiar terms), there were some more interesting flavours. Words like “canned gooseberries”, “pineapple” and “passion-fruit” started to appear regularly in the not-so-nerdy tasting notes. I found myself actually drinking the wine I had been poured rather than nursing it politely while waiting for a gap in the conversation to empty the contents of the glass into the nearest pot plant.
This trend has continued to gain traction and so the other day as I wandered around a wine show I found myself making really enthusiastic notes about several of the wines. Some, like the Diemersdal MM Louw, would probably have been on my shopping list anyway. The wine is oaked, so it has the weight and feel of a white Bordeaux blend and is more interesting as a result. But the Diemersdal Reserve is unoaked and equally delicious. The Ataraxia Sauvignon Blanc 2013 has real honeysuckle aromas (not the fictional fragrances imagined by wine writers looking for flavour analogies to bulk up column space). The Sumaridge 2012 and the De Grendel from the same vintage both offer plenty of fresh lime, but none of the green pepper you’d expect with all that bracing freshness. The Cape Point Reserve 2011 is palpably honeyed, plush rather than tart on the palate and almost creamy on the finish. The Paul Cluver is edgier, but also more savoury.
There’s a whole new Sauvignon world out there and I’m feeling a little like an 18 year old with a new driving licence, a generous allowance and parents who’ve just left on three-month cruise. There are discoveries to be made – and quite a lot of innocence still left to lose.
Michael Fridjhon is South Africa's most highly regarded international wine judge, the country's most widely consulted liquor industry authority, and one of South Africa's leading wine writers. Chairman of the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show since its inception, he has judged in countless wine competitions around the world. Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town, he has been an advisor to the Minister of Agriculture and is a recipient of the French Chevalier de l'Ordre du Mérite Agricole. Worldwide winner of the Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year award in 2012, he is the author, co-author or contributor to over 30 books and is a regular contributor to wine publications in the UK, France, Germany and China. He is the founder of winewizard.co.za , a site which specialises in scoring South Affrican wine and guiding consumers to excellent value for money and quality.