Sauvignon Blanc. The Good, The Bad, The Ugly


2012-03-16 17.43.48-3There’s no reason to drink bad Sauvignon Blanc. The variety, which came to dominate the South African fine wine market from the mid-1990s onwards, has been through many incarnations, so its appearance has changed at least as many times as Joan Collins’.

The lean, green, mean and acidic concoctions offered in the past — by branded wine producers depending on poorly sited plantings to make up their offering — are long over.

There are enough decent vineyards to ensure a reasonable supply across a range of appellations. The fact that Ultra Liquors’ Secret Cellar 2011 picked up the trophy for the best value wine across all categories at the Old Mutual Show a few years back (it was on the shelves for about R27 per bottle) says everything about the market, the cost of basic material, the relative availability of respectable fruit and the competence of the high volume commercial producers.

Of course, it wasn’t all that long ago when Sauvignon producers were under considerable scrutiny for manipulating the flavour profile of their wines. It was obvious to everyone who had given up believing in fairies that the profound and intense greenpepper aromas evident in wines made from grapes grown in places where it might have been wiser to produce muscadel must have been faked. It just took a little time for the authorities to be galvanised into action and, in this case, for some unusual suspects to be rounded up.

If the inspectors have some time on their hands, they might ponder the latest miracle from South Africa’s winelands, or at least from some producers’ cellars. In an age when the pursuit of phenolic ripeness coupled with long-term climate change has seen alcohol levels rising inexorably, the increasing volumes of low-priced, low-alcohol Sauvignons are almost fantastical. True, technology now makes alcohol removal easy, but technology comes at a price. So when the very cheapest of South Africa’s popular brands come to market at around 12%, it occurs to me that the judicious but illicit addition of water to the wine offers the dual benefit of lowering both the alcohol and the input cost.

So what to drink as the year draws to a close and the crop of 2013 Sauvignons occupies the wine shelves of outlets everywhere? A recent tasting revealed that Durbanville Hills has tweaked its house style, allowing the wines a little more flavour and texture, especially across the mid-palate. Both the standard release as well as the premium Rhinofields have emerged much improved, the latter with palpably enhanced and more diverse fruit notes. The Fryer’s Cove is good, not as striking as the first vintages appeared to be when it was discovered that it was possible to produce creditable Sauvignons as far north as Bamboesbaai. The cold Benguela current chills the vines and keeps the fruit flavours intact — a more extreme version of what makes Darling and Groenkloof such important sources for the fresher, greener Sauvignon styles.

This article first appeared in Business Day: 6th December, 2013 and Wine Wizard.