What makes Sauvignon Blanc so special
01 January 1970
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Welcome to Old Mutual Live Wine edition, on mobile, on digital, on demand and thanks for listening, I’m Jenny Crwys–Williams.
Ten very important Sauvignon Blanc wines were revealed recently as South Africa’s finest when the much anticipated results of the 2016 FNB Sauvignon Blanc Top 10 were announced. I was really intrigued, going through this list of ten outstanding Sauvignon Blanc which South Africa loves the varietal.
Just looking at them and thinking there’s a lot of drinking and tasting to be done in order to sort out the men from the boys so to speak. Helping me is the winemaker and also an Executive of the Sauvignon Blanc Society and that is Charles Hopkins. Charles, just tell us a little bit about Sauvignon Blanc in South Africa? They must sell in the most outrageous numbers because it’s the go-to summer wine in particular, is it not?
Charles Hopkins: Jenny, thanks a lot for the opportunity, I’m very honoured to talk about Sauvignon Blanc. I’ve been heavily involved with the variety and previously I was the Chairman of the tasting panel and many times judging on Veritas and numerous different panels, specifically on Sauvignon Blanc. It’s my favourite variety and very close to me and each year provides me, even after 31 years, each year with a brand new challenge.
Let’s just talk of the variety as such. There’s drawings of leaves many, many years ago, if you’re thinking back of 1659 when Jan van Riebeeck wrote in his diary the first wine was made in the Cape. Apparently years after that, if you look at those drawings of leaves, so this is long before cameras, the experienced viticulturists will say there was also ready signs of Sauvignon Blanc in South Africa.
The first root Sauvignon Blanc that made huge inroads and a big impression was in 1986. It was made by the late Ross Gower at Klein Constantia. Today it’s the fifth most planted variety in the country. There’s 9 500 hectares. We crush each year the whole industry, around 110 00 tons, that will give you a total of seven million cases of 12 and 2.6 million cases is consumed on the local market and 2.5 million cases is exported. Then you will quickly tell me that doesn’t add up to 7 million cases and of course the rest is blended or exported in bulk.
In my opinion the three countries that do the best with Sauvignon Blanc in the world is France, specifically the Loire Valley and some people will argue also Bordeaux. But in Bordeaux the wines are all blended with on other varietal and in some cases a little bit of Muscadet. Then of course New Zealand with Marlborough and South Africa.
In my opinion those three countries are the most successful with Sauvignon Blanc in the world today. Of course it’s produced and grown all over the world, but very popular in SA, specifically doing well in the so-called moderate maritime conditions, the belts around the ocean. Darling, where the Olifants River is into the ocean and Durbanville where we are based, Constantia, Elgin, Elan and a few lesser known regions also in South Africa.
The five styles of Sauvignon Blanc
JCW: What strikes me Charles is that you go into a restaurant and somebody says: What would you like to drink and the response is: Sauvignon Blanc because they kind of know what they’re going to get. When I break it down and I did go to your website, the characteristics of Sauvignon Blanc, it varies a great deal.
The spicy and herbaceous, you describe it as ‘racy flavour and aromas’ such as Capsicum, paprika, fresh and canned asparagus. I guess that’s the wild taste that you sometimes get with a Sauvignon Blanc. I love the wild taste, by the way. Flinty and mineral, lime, green melon and grapefruit, tropical and yellow fruit, all of those can be characterised as Sauvignon Blanc.
CH: Jenny, it’s fascinating, that’s why there’s such a love for this variety because I think there’s literally a Sauvignon Blanc for each taste, for reach preference. I narrow it down to five, I know you mentioned quite a bit of different styles now in your description, but in my opinion there’s five different styles.
The first one is earmarked by Esther’s. Esther’s is fine, fruity flavours and there’s slightly more inland Sauvignon Blanc’s do extremely well in the Esther style. But most of the flavours are generated due to the cold fermentation and the specific lees culture and if I must give you two or three descriptions. I will describe it as jasmine, pear, cold tea, those kinds of flavours.
Then there’s an amazing word that surfaced about 10-15 years ago, it’s called Thiole and that’s tropical flavours. It’s flavours like, if you pick up a bowl of fruit with granadilla, guava, paw-paw, apple, pears and that’s what we’d describe as tropical, that’s Thiolw.
Then of course there’s the greener style, you referred to that. Which express the nanograms per litre and that’s the asparagus, the green pepper, the gooseberry flavours. Then there’s a fourth addition in the form of wooded Sauvignon Blanc. A lot of people say: Why in the world wooded? I think there’s definitely a place for that because wood can bring a very interesting new dimension to Sauvignon Blanc.
Then there’s a fifth, new addition and nowadays there’s a group of winemakers that produce wine, specifically white wine in a slightly different style. They ferment it on the skins, some of them are slightly orangey colour, the fruit is not so prominent. But they will argue the wine of a great length and viscosity and mouth feel, so it’s a bit out of the hat thinking. But there’s definitely an interesting portion of the market for all of these five different styles that I just mentioned to you.
What it takes to crack the Top 10
JCW: Let’s look at the Top 10 wines. What stood out for me, there are obviously estates that we know well, Hermanuspietersfontein, I mean more and more people, I think, are becoming aware of it. Jordan, is there anything that Jordan can’t do? The Outlier Sauvignon Blanc, Ken Forrester, of course, Takara, Uitkyk, but there are also a couple of places that are not so well known. Is there a common thread going through these Top 10 wines, other than the fact that the varietal is Sauvignon Blanc?
CH: I must just mention, we’re also part of that, we’re extremely happy about the fact that we’re part of the Top 10 and it just proves something. But what’s interesting, if you read through, first of all, let’s just refer to the vintages Jenny. In a great year like 2007 and 2009 and 2010 and 2013 and 2015, it’s proved that about seven of the ten wines will be of that specific vintage.
If I remember correctly, the outcome of this Top 10 wines, there’s only two or three that’s from 2016. It just proves to you that it was quite a tricky year. I think for all Capetonians, will know it’s been hot, it’s been early, it’s been a small crop. I think it’s providing huge challenges to winemakers. We are even happier about the outcome of the fact that we are the wine in the Top 10.
JCW: You’re talking about the De Grendel Sauvignon Blanc 2016 because you’re intimately involved with that. 2016, I think there are three of them.
CH: And again, referring to years ago, I’ve been a judge and been involved, I think it was completely dominated 5, 6, 7 wines out of the 10 originated from Darling. It’s in my opinion one of the special wine regions in SA for Sauvignon Blanc. Although my roots are very much here in Durbanville. But Darling, in a year where there’s enough moisture in the soil, remember, all the vineyards in Darling are dry land.
But if there’s enough moisture and they receive rain at critical times, it’s probably one of the great growing Sauvignon Blanc regions, not just in SA, but in the world. It’s fascinating that last year in the Top 10, I was still the Chairman, the 10 wines originate from eight different regions.
If I remember correctly, I think this year the Top 10 wines is growing or derived from six or seven different regions and that’s fantastic. That’s why there’s wines from Elgin that you referred to as Almenkerk and an older, wooded wine from Hermanuspietersfontein and a Ken Forrester, that’s very famous for Chenin Blanc.
It just shows you that him and his team can also produce Sauvignon Blanc. Jordan is so well known for Chardonnay and red blends, but their wooded Sauvignon Blanc is probably one of the best examples of wooded Sauvignon Blanc in South Africa.
A great commitment in producing Sauvignon Blanc
JCW: Listen, there’s a wealth of wonderful drinking for people to try out from this Top 10 wine list, but also one has to say that there are very inexpensive Sauvignon Blanc that are available just for a drink at the side of the swimming pool, maybe a wine to take down to the beach with you. These, you don’t want to spend huge amounts of money, you want to drink it, you want them to be cold and you want to have fun.
CH: Jenny, what’s fascinating, one wine we didn’t even mention and I’m so cautious that we missed one, is probably one of the not new surprises. The wine has been successful for a few years now, is Merwida, as you know it’s in the Rawsonville Valle. That’s not maritime influenced and let’s be honest, it’s hot and maybe it’s not the most ideal place for Sauvignon Blanc. But these guys are doing wonders with the variety.
I think they know their pros and cons and they just work around that. If I remember correctly, I may be wrong with a year or two, but Merwida being part of the Top 10 I think for the last four or five years. So that really shows you how versatile and what new challenges it provides to a winemaker that’s keen to produce a successful Sauvignon Blanc.
JCW: Does the same thing apply to De Grendel? Is this your first –
CH: The De Grendel, the conditions are very different, we are 7km away from the ocean on the Western side of the Tygerberg and it’s so much part of our make-up. We produce 50 000 cases on average, if I round it off, of which 15 000 cases of that is two Sauvignon Blanc’s. The one that we refer to as just De Grendel Sauvignon Blanc.
Then a wine that’s a combination from vineyards here from our farm and Darling called Huis Sauvignon Blanc, Coach House Sauvignon Blanc. It’s extremely important, but if there’s two completely different growing conditions. The one is us here on the Western side near Cape Town and the maybe the most interesting and the most challenging one to produce Sauvignon Blanc, Merwida in the Rawsonville Valley.
JCW: Listen, that’s a wonderful guide and a wonderful background to one of South Africa’s top varietals and I love the idea of the Top 10. Because it just gives you a guide to what you could be tasting and maybe fall in love with one of those wines.
CH: Jenny, just something to add. South Africans are very much in love with the freshness and the in your face flavours of Sauvignon Blanc but it’s for me encouraging and great to start seeing, again referring to the thirteen of Hermanuspietersfontein, that’s a wooded Sauvignon Blanc, that people also start appreciating the wine that’s slightly more mature, positive matured and that’s extremely drinkable.
That brings a bit of a kelpy, seaweed abalone, I don’t know if people are familiar with the flavours of abalone. That sort of mineral, seashell character and that’s amazing. It’s really a group of ten wines and I must give a lot of credit to Neil Ellis that’s been the Chairman this year with the panel of five, I think they did a jolly good job.
JCW: Listen, you’ve done a jolly good job because you’ve made it so accessible and Charles, I hope to bump into you, not necessarily on the phone, but I’d love to come and visit one day.
CH: Please ma’am, you are more than welcome, come break some bread with me. We’ll definitely enjoy a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.
JCW: I promise I will. Charles Hopkins, thank you very much.
CH: All right, have a good day, bye-bye.