South Africa celebrates its success with Sauvignon Blanc
By Samarie Smith-Meletiou DipWSET - Photographs: courtesy of the estates, posted on 28 August 2023
A global consumer lauds Sauvignon Blanc, and South Africa excels without regional constraints. The myriad styles produced here attest to its potential and exceptional ageability as passionate producers embrace the contrasting landscapes to make mystifying to boastfully aromatic wines with a burgeoning following from both ends. Hence, Sauvignon Blanc remains the country's top-selling and most exported cultivar.
Visitors to De Grendel in the Durbanville Wine Valley can enjoy vistas of Table Mountain or experience the farm’s natural environment and conservation efforts on guided farm tours.
Pinning global Sauvignon Blanc plantings on a world map demonstrates its cunning demeanour, revealing a decorated tapestry across continents. It oscillates between elegant Loire wines, profound examples from Bordeaux and pungent styles from New Zealand. Italy, Chile, America, and Australia have also clinched some of its luminescent glory, with a country like Hungary following in the sweet steps of Sauternes.
South African winegrowers bask in its popularity as plantings spread from the Northern Cape and meander across all corners of the Western Cape like Robertson, Stellenbosch and the Breedekloof. From there, it gravitates toward the coast and cool slopes of undulated valleys (Cape Town and Cape South Coast) and climbs in altitude in the continental Cederberg.
In 2016, Ntsiki Biyela established Aslina Wines, naming it after the woman who inspired her to embrace her talents and dreams, her grandmother.
Blending regions to blending 40 components on one farm
Undissuaded by heat, drought, and wind, Sauvignon stalwarts are applauded for their ingenuity. Owner winemaker from Aslina Wines, Ntsiki Biyela, tells how blending contrasting terroirs imbues Sauvignon Blanc with character, bringing more awareness to the country’s success with the variety. Growing up in Mahlabathini, a rural village in KwaZulu-Natal far removed from the Winelands, didn't curb this black female's pioneering zest in pursuing a winemaking career.
"When I started making Sauvignon Blanc, I aimed for a tropical style, focusing on Stellenbosch fruit, blended with a smaller Elgin proportion to elevate it with a brush of freshness. I quickly learned how complexity is achievable through regional blending, promoting the country and its intricate stories of place. Consumers are fascinated by South Africa and even more fulfilled having tasted the wines."
Its complex expression of passionfruit and capsicum awarded the Aslina Sauvignon Blanc 2021 91 points by Gilbert & Gaillard, setting the bar for an incredible array of South African Sauvignon Blanc to taste.
Matt Day has been the winemaker at Klein Constantia since 2012, and Craig Harris has managed the vineyards since 2013 - a formidable team.
It was Klein Constantia concluding Gilbert & Gaillard's Sauvignon Blanc tasting with a hattrick performance: Klein Constantia Sauvignon Blanc 2022 (90 points), Beau Constantia 2022 reeling in double gold (92) and the older, graceful Klein Constantia Metis 2018 crowned the top performer with 95 points.
Jacqueline Harris is not only the sales and marketing manager speaking on behalf of the team but an avid Sauvignon Blanc ambassador.
"Our Sauvignon Blanc is an extension of our terroir and philosophy. Each vintage is built on the lessons learned from previous vintages. Consistent quality flows from a commitment to precision, understanding vineyard needs, maximising applications of organic products and biodynamic preparations and principles, minimising conventional methods and products."
Sauvignon Blanc on their cool Constantia farm grows on decomposed granite and Table Mountain sandstone, with 40 separate parcels and 13 clones utilised to produce an average of 4.4 tons/hectare.
Winemaker Hannes Meyer is in his element making Sauvignon Blanc at Lomond, situated near Cape Agulhas, against the slopes of Ben Lomond mountain and its unique geological formations and array of soil types.
Sauvignon Blanc South Africa
The first Sauvignon Blanc vines date back to 1880 at Groot Constantia, and the oldest existing Sauvignon Blanc vineyard today is a certified heritage vineyard, planted at Spice Route's Klein Amoskuil in the Swartland in 1965. Through changing trends and new grape varieties gracing the scene, it retained its foothold, and with 9,987 hectares, it is the country's second-most planted grape after plantings increased threefold between 1990 and 2022. In 2022, 14.3m litres were sold in the domestic market, and 67.7m litres were exported, packaged (18.7m litres) and bulk (49m litres).
Sauvignon's terroir tale
While Stellenbosch continues producing stellar Sauvignon Blanc with the likes of Thelema Sauvignon Blanc 2022 (90) and Zevenwacht Sauvignon Blanc 2022 (93), it now shares the limelight with newer frontiers.
Annually, tourists swarm to Cape Agulhas, wanting to visit the most southern tip of Africa, their adventurous itineraries quenching their thirst for whale watching, shark diving, and yes, bespoke Sauvignon Blanc.
En route, Lomond's Sauvignon Blanc vineyards overlook Dyer Island, a playground for marine animals; while on land, the winemaker Hannes Meyer plays to his strengths, producing distinctive Sauvignon Blanc from vines growing in sandy, weathered soils.
Pofadderbos vineyards overlooking the farm.
"It's incredible how Sauvignon effortlessly expresses its terroir. White stone fruit is a marker for this area with natural acidities and a super low pH ensuring great ageing potential," says Meyer.
Their vineyards benefit from great diurnal temperature ranges, and the wines' character also echoes something of this marine spectacle with a noticeable thread of salinity. Both the Lomond Sauvignon Blanc 2023 (91) and the Lomond Pincushion (90) fared well, commended for their classic and expressive styles. Farther south, Elim is the coldest wine region in the country, where a combination of ferricrete, chalk and koffieklip creates lighter, grey soils. It is home to Strandveld Vineyards, where cellarmaster Conrad Vlok crafts distinctive wines from marginal vineyards. In 2022, he was awarded the Dinersclub SA Winemaker of the Year in recognition of the Strandveld Pofadderbos Sauvignon Blanc 2021, the 2022 vintage receiving double gold (92) from Gilbert & Gaillard.
"Our vineyards are seven to ten kilometres from the sea, " Vlok says, an avid fisherman who proudly serves his wines with his catch.
"Sauvignon loves the cool weather brought on by winds in the growing season. From any side, prevailing winds are always sea winds cooling the vineyards and contributing to low yields in the flowering season. We make the best wines when crops are at most 3.5 tons per hectare. Stressful conditions, the salty wind and brackish water add to the wines' mineral quality."
Strandveld winemaker, Conrad Vlok, at the Pofadderbos vineyard.
They say you don't buy land in Elim; you buy wind, banters David Nieuwoudt, owner and sixth generation at Cederberg Wines and a member of the Cape Winemakers Guild.
He considers Elim, home to his Wild Ferment and Ghostcorner Sauvignon Blancs 2022 (92), "the Cape's best-kept secret."
"It is an absolute joy selling this wine internationally. Besides its maritime character, there is a brightness to these wines."
Approximately 350km inland from here at 1,100m above sea level, his Cederberg vineyards are the highest in the country. Where fynbos meets the edge of the Succulent Karoo biome, this 5,500ha farm boasts 74 ha under vine, presenting a completely different style of wine; the Cederberg Sauvignon Blanc 2022 scored 91 points.
"Sauvignon can only be influenced by heat or rain in South Africa. Cederberg is the only cool continental area; the vineyards are super site-specific."
The cool southeastern-facing slopes are predominantly clay and shale, picked later for more aromatic tropical flavours adding palate weight. Sandstone components are picked earlier, showing a more mineral, steely edge.
"Wind contributes to the cooling effect here, and vineyard management remains crucial. We are also in no rush to release our wines early like many others, so it spends adequate time on the fermentation lees."
Nieuwoudt's experience with altitude vineyards led to a partnership with Julio Bouchon from Chile where they make the Longaví Sauvignon Blanc in the Maule Valley, at the foot of the Andes mountains.
Morgan Steyn joined Charles Hopkins, a member of the Cape Winemakers Guild, at De Grendel as a part of the Guild’s Protégé mentoring programme. He was since appointed as winemaker.
Anyone who has visited South Africa and loves the outdoors has made an acquaintance with its flower kingdom and is in awe of how quickly the vegetation can change over short distances. For an aromatic variety that doesn't need a lot of cellar intervention, it often embodies something of this flora, adding a fresh, savoury twist.
Bartho Eksteen (Bartho Eksteen Wine Estate) and Charles Hopkins (cellar master at De Grendel Wine Estate) are CWG members whose Sauvignon Blancs regularly come under the hammer at the annual CWG Auction where collectors worldwide want to get their hands on these wines.
Eksteen chose Hermanus as his Sauvignon Blanc playground and shoots straight from the shoulder to defend it.
"People can say what they want, Sauvignon wants to be as close to the ocean as possible unless you have the altitude advantage like Cederberg."
Hopkins cut his teeth on Sauvignon Blanc some 30 years ago and agrees with Thys Louw, proprietor and winemaker at Diemersdal, that they have not seen any pertinent influences from climate change in the Durbanville Wine Valley.
"We are like a small Peninsula," says Hopkins, looking at a clear vista of Table Mountain from their tasting room, "and by receiving cool air from both sides, we may have somewhat sidestepped significant changes."
According to Louw, it was mainly due to its cool night-time temperatures that made them plant Sauvignon Blanc here in the first place.
"By the end of May 2023, before mid-winter, we've already had 40% of our annual rain, the same as 40 years ago," says Louw, who now produces nine different Sauvignon Blancs, a tenth in conjunction with Ben Glover Family Vineyards in Marlborough.
Morgan Steyn started working with Hopkins as part of the CWG's Protege Programme in 2019 and was later appointed winemaker. As Durbanville already hosts the annual Season Of Sauvignon festival, it was time for a collective strategy to showcase this variety. In 2022, 13 wineries in the valley collaborated for the maiden vintage of Durbanville Sauvignon Blanc, and Steyn was responsible for blending the diverse components.
"We made the second vintage this year. Each producer contributed a component true to their vineyards and winemaking philosophy which was then blended to represent the diversity of the whole valley."
Iona 420m above sea level, high above the picturesque Elgin Valley, surrounded by the Kogelberg Nature Reserve and overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in the South.
Elgin is another area nudging the ocean, and albeit on a plateau surrounded by mountains, this cool appellation forms part of the Cape South Coast region, home to Iona. The farm is 420m above sea-level and the Iona Wild Ferment 2022 had the tasting panel on the edges of their seats with its intensity and staying power (93).
Winemaker Werner Muller proudly shares how confident they are about Iona's unique style.
"The diversity in Elgin is phenomenal. Our Sauvignon grows on sandstone and lighter soils. Some vineyards are older than 20 years, adding palate weight, and younger vineyards contribute to freshness. We have a long growing season, and the long hanging time forms the basis for more apple and pear aromas retaining the natural acidity and low pH that adds a defining saline quality.
In the cellar
Sauvignon Blanc doesn't need a lot of intervention in the cellar if the vineyards are allowed to revel in the best growing environments. Yet, the judicious use of oak has introduced a profound chapter.
Eksteen: "We learned that Sauvignon is unforgiving with inexact oak regimes, and we had to pay studious attention to coopers, craftmanship and toasting intensities. It has an affinity with large, older barrels for the best integration."
While some producers are fishing or exploring the caves of the Cederberg mountains, Hermanus is known for its abalone industry, and the pearly shell of this protected species was the inspiration behind Eksteen's labels. Proudly Afrikaans speaking, his wines are some of the few bearing Afrikaans names: Bartho Eksteen Houtskool 2021 and Bartho Eksteen Meester 2022 rewarded 91 points, respectively.
"From the start, our Sauvignon breezed through fermentation without being inoculated, and year after year, we saw a golden thread of minerality, creaminess and integration. It fascinated me."
A sample inside one of the barrels was analysed, and a unique flora was discovered, likely to be the impetus of their consistent style in the Hemel-en-Aarde-Valley.
"We use whole bunches, a long gradual cycle, and don't wait for the wine to settle; it goes straight to the barrel where it ferments wild, creating its magic."
Early harvesting at Klein Constantia.
Hopkins regards the late Ross Gower as the father of Sauvignon Blanc in South Africa, who revolutionised it in the 80s with riper pickings and skin contact.
"At that time, French consultants were brought out to advise us on how to add a broader mid-palate. They recommended dirtier ferments, leaving more solids in the wine to add dimension and depth. It worked."
Nieuwoudt concurs about whole bunches, comparing his Sauvignon components to 28 temperamental kids that require scholarly attention.
"It is vital to ferment cold in the barrel at 14 degrees, which is much easier to do naturally with Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay that is not aromatic. Wild ferments produce fatter wines that need bottle maturation before reaching their ultimate drinking pleasure."
Bartho Eksteen, a member of the Cape Winemakers Guild, has made Sauvignon Blanc a focus in his career.
A myriad of styles
As guidance, Sauvignon Blanc South Africa (SBSA) has defined four major styles: tropical and yellow fruit flavours; spicy and herbaceous; flinty and mineral; and lime, green melon, and grapefruit.
Hopkins's insatiable passion for the grape has led to numerous workshops for industry members and wine writers to discuss the chemistry that gives rise to these styles.
"First, you have ester-driven styles where cold fermentation evokes delightful jasmine, pear and tea aromas. These aromas are volatile and fade after eight months. Secondly, you have thiols, identifiable by aromas of grenadilla, citrus and blackcurrant. Your third style hails from specific regions like Darling, Durbanville, Constantia, and Elgin, embracing the natural occurrence of methoxypyrazines (reminiscent of grass and green herbs). Fourthly is the wooded style category, which is becoming increasingly important and made in smaller volumes. Lastly, winemakers embrace organic and biodynamic practices with more quirky and phenolic wines making headway."
For Nieuwoudt, winemakers need to enjoy this canvas of opportunities as long as the wines retain their liveliness with a balance between pyrazines and fleshier notes of grenadilla, with a salty, mineral core balanced by richer nuances.
"Because Sauvignon Blanc is so descriptive, consumers know what to expect. It will remain popular as long as it boosts consumer confidence."
Cederberg farms sustainably, and because this isolated area is virus-free and has minimal disease, there's little to no chemical intervention.
Age, price and market perception
Can Sauvignon Blanc age? Unequivocally, reckons Eksteen.
"France has the advantage of the oldest Sauvignon Blanc heritage. So much so that Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and Bordeaux speak for themselves without stating Sauvignon Blanc on the label. It has been my prerogative to experiment with and improve Sauvignon and address its ageing potential."
Also, a recipient of the title of Diners Club SA Winemaker of the Year (2010) with a Sauvignon Blanc, Tim Atkin MW included his 2013 Sauvignon Blanc in an article regarding wooded Sauvignon Blancs of the world, outscoring eminent names such as Didier Dagueneau, Alphonse Mellot and Henri Bourgeois.
Formerly Attaquaskloof, this picturesque location of Bartho Eksteen Wines is situated 4km from the Atlantic Ocean, near the beautiful coastal town of Hermanus in the Walker Bay Wine Region.
But why are many Sauvignon Blanc consumers not embracing older wines?
Eksteen: "Sauvignon can be its own worst enemy because of its versatility. It can produce delicious young wines, released early at lower prices, to fine wines with a heftier price tag and exceptional ageing potential. However, greater marketing efforts are needed to inform consumers of its premium potential, and my son, Pieter Willem, and I, take advantage of every opportunity to do so."
Louw explains that offering many styles of Sauvignon Blanc in their tasting room in Durbanville, with a restaurant to explore their wine with food, is helping the consumer over this hurdle. But, at the same time, big supermarkets, locally and internationally, cannot stay ahead as the quality improves year on year.
"We need to promote the Cape and its extraordinary sense of place," says Werner Muller, advocating Iona’s cool climate in Elgin and opening a 2001 vintage to prove his point. A wine from the other side of the Cape Peninsula, Cape Point Reserve (92) reflects the same, affirming that no Sauvignon Blanc vine is planted in vain.
Sauvignon Blanc South Africa (SBSA) is committed to promoting the variety's diversity and excellence in South Africa.
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