Being savvy

In a week or so there will be some titanic battles taking place in rugby stadiums in Japan – with New Zealand being South Africa’s favourite foe between the white lines. But a more low-key battle is being fought on the shelves in retailers locally and abroad, one bottle of Sauvignon Blanc at a time.

Winemakers from the Land of the Long White Cloud are recognised for “owning” the New World Sauvignon Blanc segment of the market. They even coined the term “savvy” for their favourite white wine.

Yet South Africa’s Sauvignon Blanc producers are being fairly savvy themselves when it comes to this grape, since the thesaurus states that synonyms for savvy include: canniness, astuteness, shrewdness, sharp witted, insightful and perceptive. Winemakers are putting up a lovely range of accomplished, confident wines which display a variety of styles. In my opinion, it won’t be long before the international markets increasingly appreciate this diversity on offer.

10 days ago a panel of tasters gathered for the annual FNB Sauvignon Blanc Top 10 judging – and as one of their number I must admit that I was not just surprised but seriously impressed by the quality of South Africa’s Sauvignon Blanc.

The results will only be announced on October 9 but I believe this is one of the country’s most rapidly improving categories.

As fellow panellist and judge Wilhelm Pienaar of Hermanuspietersfontein quipped at one point during the assessment, “People talk Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc – but drink Sauvignon!” The figures bear him out: Sauvignon Blanc is South Africa’s top selling white wine.

Diners Club Young Winemaker of the Year Rudger van Wyk of Stark Conde served as an associate.

"Sauvignon Blanc is a key variety for South Africa," said chairman of Sauvignon Blanc SA RJ Botha, winemaker at Kleine Zalze echoing Pienaar. "Promoting its excellence locally and internationally is only possible through long-term relationships and we are grateful for the support that FNB provides us." It’s a sponsorship already in its eighth year.

Last year there were 177 wines submitted – and in 2019 this rose to 183, most of which were from the 2019 vintage although a big chunk were also from 2018. Furthermore, 29 oaked examples were submitted along with wines from the 2017 and 2016 vintages.

Although not pre-empting any of the official results, there is so much to be excited about with Sauvignon Blanc. Firstly, the fact that producers are holding onto wines for a year or more is an achievement in itself.

Flagstone winemaker Chandre Peterson, one of the associate judges brought on board.

In the mid-1990s when there were precious few wine farms which grew and made Sauvignon Blanc one of the biggies to try and lay your hands on every year was Thelema – and that was released in the first week of July. By mid-month the “Sold Out” signs would go up and consumers throughout South Africa would be crying into their cornflakes at having missed the boat or ‘only’ being allocated a single 12-bottle case!

At the time Thelema winemaker Gyles Webb advocated drinking it before the cricket season was over. Now, the thinking has changed dramatically: there’s an appreciation for the additional nuances which develop with a year or two in bottle.

Similarly, the criticism of overly green/herbaceous has waned as the liking and approval of riper, more tropical styles has grown. So the overtly stalky or stinky “cat’s pee” examples are thankfully a thing of the past but there are fans – and I’m one of them – of Elim/Agulhas or cool climate wines where pea pod, snapped green bean or asparagus are natural methoxypyrazine characteristics. And there is much to be said for the vivacity and vibrance of the granadilla and blackcurrant leaf thiol-driven fruitier or more tropical styles.

FNB Sauvignon Blanc Top 10 judging convenor, Dr Winnie Bowman CWM.

One class which was praised during the judging session was that of the wooded or oaked class of Sauvignon Blanc. There were precious few where enthusiasm and a generous barrel budget had got the better of the cellar jockeys. The best examplars displayed a remarkable deftness of touch with the oak being almost unnoticeable. The mouthfeel and texture or body of the wines were fuller and structured without there being any overt oak or wood flavour. It just added an extra depth and dimension to the wines.

Bring on summer 2019/2020 because the Sauvignon Blanc is crisp and chilled in readiness!

- Fiona McDonald