Sauvignon Blanc

As part of a research and development exercise, a tasting of 15 big-name South African Sauvignon Blancs was recently presented by managing director of Klein Constantia Hans Astrom. What made the exercise unusual was that  Pascal Jolivet, a leading Sancerre producer, was in attendance and he was particularly hard on some of the wines, adjudging  the likes of De Grendel 2012, Hermanuspietersfontein No. 5 2012, Springfield Life from Stone 2012 , Steenberg Reserve 2011 and Vergelegen Reserve 2012 border-line faulty on account of how pungently green they appeared.

“It’s not necessary to focus too much on aromatics when it comes to Sauvignon,” said Jolivet. “Fruit purity and balance are much more important.”

This caused Duncan Savage, known for very fine Sauvignon Blanc under the Cape Point Vineyards label, to observe as follows: “Green-ness is controversial. The tolerance level for this character is much higher in South Africa but we are at an interesting stage in the development of the category. I would suggest only 25% of production is overtly green down from 80% even five years ago – there’s a realisation that we need to make a more international style.”

Contrast this with Oz Clarke, UK wine writer and broadcaster, and one of the international judges at this year’s Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. “The anti-green movement is a curse. Producers are getting into a terrible tizz about how much pyrazine or thiol character their wines should show and are forgetting the pleasure measure.”

Clarke’s point is that South Africa has the ability to make many different styles of Sauvignon Blanc on account of it being grown in many different places. “You’ve got vineyards from Bamboes Bay to Elim, inland as well as coastal, which means a wider array of special places than France, Chile or New Zealand. Don’t listen to the critics who want you to homogenise.”

For Clarke, it’s about producers having a “vision of flavour” and the courage to pursue it regardless of how the resulting wines are received by the pundits or the mass market seeking easy-to-drink wines. “Elim has the last vineyards in Africa before the Antarctic and the resulting wines must surely be made to taste like this.”

What to take out of the above? Jolivet is surely right that some local Sauvignon Blanc could afford to show more natural balance and less contrived character, which comes about due to human intervention in both the vineyard and cellar aimed at arriving at the most flamboyant expression of the variety possible. Clarke, however, is no doubt also correct in insisting that producers stay true to site, the market not being monolithic, but rather there being as many different consumers as there are different styles of Sauvignon.