I find South African sauvignon blanc a most interesting case study, on a number of different levels.
When I first entered the wine industry, in 1993, winemakers were obsessive – with a capital O – about making fabulous sauvignon. If one is attempting to do something really well obsessive is good; no complaints about that.
The part I didn’t understand was why they were using New Zealand as the benchmark. The growing conditions are quite different, which means that one cannot possibly make wine that tastes the same.
In those days sauvignon was praised for its primary fruit character; barring wines from Constantia, the recommendation was to drink them before the next vintage was released.
To a large extent that remains valid today, but two further changes occurred. Firstly, sauvignon became widely planted in places like Elim, Elgin, Noordhoek and other ‘cool-climate’ regions. Secondly, more and more sauvignon gets bottled under screwcap.
What effect does this have? Cooler regions result in both higher levels of natural acidity and greater fruit intensity as a result of longer ‘hang time’ (acidity is one of the key components that ensures successful bottle ageing). And, screwcaps not only remove any risk of cork taint, but the anaerobic conditions slow down the wine’s evolution.
Iona Sauvignon Blanc sometimes comes to us with cork and sometimes with screwcap. The 2008 under screwcap is still very nice, but the cork example has been on its way out since late last year. By the same token, the 2009 Iona under screwcap was somewhat abrasive in its exuberant freshness, but is now settling down into a jolly nice drink.
By contrast, Cape Point Vineyards (CPV) has never been released under screwcap. As far as CPV is concerned, the biggest coup of all time must be Woolworths (the South African cousin of Marks & Spencer) convincing them to supply a reserve sauvignon. I’d have to believe that this was all about Woolies’ Allan Mullins putting his famous people skills to work. Keeping Allan happy means that they have to disappoint dozens of other customers around the world, because they really don’t produce very much at all.
We bought a few bottles of the 2008 Woolworths CPV sauvignon soon after release. I was initially a little disappointed, but thought that a bit more maturity would count in the wine’s favour and so hid the bottles away for future consumption. Over the last two days I’ve made my way through one of these bottles, and am delighted with the result.
In the early 90s, when all this sauvignon obsession was going on, Marlborough and Sancerre were icons. I believe there’s no doubt that South African sauvignon has joined them in producing iconic sauvignon.
I have been moved – largely as a result of personal experience, it must be said – into the camp that would rather drink a ‘quality’ sauvignon at two years than immediately upon release, as one used to (especially if it’s under screwcap).
Apart from the wine geek stuff, the South African sauvignon blanc case study proves that prejudice and fixed opinions can be very limiting.