Opinionista Michael Fridjhon 25 October 2013

Sauvignon blanc: The incredible voyage

There are never wine competitions without controversy – a function as much of personal styles/aesthetics as the axe-grinding agendas of producers, commentators and consumers. The latest storm in a wine glass is over the FNB Sauvignon Blanc Top 10, by no means a mainstream event, but one of considerable interest both to consumers (sauvignon blanc is still very much the gout du jour) and to the many hundreds of winemakers who cannot resist the (cash flow) charms of the variety.

This time round the issues relate more to unsubstantiated allegations of impropriety – made by someone who was uninvited from the judging panel – and thus unfriended. This is not the kind of discussion from which to expect much substance, or anything of abiding value. However, in raising questions about sauvignon blanc judging, the issue has highlighted how significantly the world of tasting and wine appreciation has changed in the past few decades.

South Africa really only began developing its plantings of the so-called noble or premium varieties in the late 1970s. Until then the industry (whose primary purpose was to furnish the high-yielding grapes required by the brandy and cheap wine producers) depended on plantings of chenin, clairette and ugni blanc, together with the red wine equivalent – in those days, Cinsaut. Cabernet sauvignon was really the only serious cultivar available from nurserymen. When the industry woke up to the expectations of modern fine wine market, it obtained (initially very restricted quantities of) merlot, pinot noir, shiraz, sauvignon blanc, riesling, and chardonnay. Much of this material was genetically compromised. Almost all of it was chosen on the basis of availability, rather than clonal quality.

The next few decades saw continuous replanting – as better material became available, as the competition increased and it was clear that merely having chardonnay or merlot was inadequate as a commercial advantage, and as the winemakers came to understand which clones performed best in the South African environment. By the time South Africa re-entered international commerce after the sanctions era of the 1980s, the white wine vineyards were well enough established; it required a further ten years before there were sufficient plantings of healthy premium red cultivars.

However, throughout this period of dramatic and continuous change, no one was paying much attention to the issue of quality judgement and the appreciation of stylistic variation. In other words, no one was training wine judges and no one of any real influence in the industry was looking at how these new-to-South-Africa varieties were shaping up elsewhere in the world. It is only in the last decade that there has been any real investment in honing palates and engaging with the wider world of wine.

Sauvignon Blanc has probably been the greatest beneficiary of this process, partly because it has the potential to produce a wide range of styles, partly because of the cynicism which underlay many of the planting decisions. At the turn of the millennium exporters and wholesalers could not get enough sauvignon blanc: so great was the demand that growers in areas wholly unsuited to the variety were planting vast tracts of sauvignon vineyard, and selling every litre of over-cropped juice. Since sauvignon is heat-sensitive, common sense would ordinarily have dictated minimal or zero plantings in the warmer climatic regions – Paarl, Worcester, Rawsonville. Common sense in this case followed the money. If the trade was willing – in 1999 – to pay an average of almost R8,000 per ton in 2012 money terms (the current average is around R4,800), why wouldn’t you stick sauvignon stockies into the ground and saturate your vineyards to maximise your crop?

In warmer locations, the sauvignon aromas blow off more easily: a combination of this, as well as the high yields from over-irrigated vineyards, produced bland white wine which lacked the zesty racy notes the punters expected of this supposedly food-friendly variety. For several years this posed no problem at all to the country’s more innovative (but less ethical) producers. The illicit addition of flavourant to the bulk wine transformed the dull (if somewhat acidic) yield into a pungently aromatic commercial success.

This served well enough until the whistle was blown and the authorities were forced to act. Without flavourant to do their work, producers started to pay attention to site, and this in turn segmented demand and polarised pricing. Today we have an industry that offers a wide spectrum of styles across an equally wide range of prices. At this year’s Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show British wine judge, writer and industry commentator, Oz Clarke spoke the renaissance of sauvignon in South Africa, suggesting that South Africa now led the world in terms of the breadth and quality of its offering.

When a panel sits down to judge this category now, it faces a line-up of around 300 different current release wines. It can expect a fair spread from the less ripe, greenpepper/capsicum style right through to riper, often sweatier samples. In between there will be a selection of so-called tropical characters, canned gooseberries, passionfruit and even blackcurrant aromas. Since the use of oak has become increasingly legitimate in the vinification of sauvignon in South Africa, the variables have increased dramatically: more oxidative fruit handling, barrel lees notes, marzipan and vanilla from the wood.

It is clear that the certainties which drove sauvignon blanc judging a decade ago have been replaced with a nightmarishly relativistic choice. Right and wrong as concepts can only be applied to broad technical issues (and even here I can hear some judges denying that a wine is ‘excessively oxidised’ and refusing to fault it on this account.) Panel chairmen will either risk the wrath of a significant number of recognised players, by narrowing the choice down to a single style, or of the arm-chair critics who will find at least one style in the final line-up which they believe should have been excluded. Either way, it’s a mug’s game (though as we say of wine-judging, someone has to do it.)

No wonder this year’s FNB Sauvignon Blanc Top 10 elicited commentary, and no wonder there were stones for the axe-grinders to whet their blades. None of this – except the dishonesty and the malice – is a bad thing: if you cared for quality espresso in Johannesburg (or Cape Town, for that matter) ten years ago, you needed to know your way around town pretty well simply to avoid disappointment. Today even a perfect stranger is in with a reasonable chance. I believe that this is a generally accepted measure of progress. Applying the same rules to sauvignon blanc in South Africa, it’s clear we’ve come a long way in very little time. DM

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