What does the wine world do when it grows weary of chardonnay?
What does the wine world do when it grows weary of chardonnay? It turns to the fresh and fragrant charms of summery sauvignon blanc. Sauvignon may only be the first rung on a ladder of quality whites that include riesling, viognier and semillon, but our growing thirst for sauvignon is encouraging wine producers from around the world to take on the challenge of re-inventing Sancerre, or, if they're New World focused, Cloudy Bay. New Zealand was the first to break the mould. Now others are turning their green fingers to exploring the cooler areas in which the sauvignon grape flourishes. Australia is making a fist of it, as is Chile, but I believe that the most exciting up-and-coming arena for sauvignon blanc today is South Africa.
Progress in the Cape, until recently, was painfully slow. The ambitions of its growers were curbed by the pariah status of apartheid on the one hand and on the other, the prohibitive diktat of the KWV, the regulatory authority, which refused to countenance new vineyard areas. When planting restrictions were lifted a decade ago, growers enthusiastically set about re-shaping the vinescape. Kicking out ubiquitous brandy-producing grapes such as colombard, ugni blanc and chenin, they started to play catch- up by planting to make wines consumers actually wanted to drink. Initially it was cabernet sauvignon that caught the eye, but the latest demand for white wines has given sauvignon blanc a new lease of life.
Take a tour beyond the established Cape winelands, and you'll find sauvignon sprouting up in both the most likely and the most unlikely of places. The more obvious locations are the cooler areas hugging the western and southern coasts of the Cape. Already wineries such as Steenberg and Buitenverwachting have shown that Constantia has the necessary sunshine, slow ripening conditions, and cooling ocean breezes to provide ideal conditions for the development of flavour and acidity in the sauvignon grape. Others, including Vergelegen and Mulderbosch, have exploited sea breezes and south-facing slopes in Stellenbosch, while the pioneering Neil Ellis has branched north to Darling and east to the apple-growing region of Elgin to good effect.
With sauvignon grapes bringing in 40 times the price of wheat, it's not surprising to see the golden wheatbelt of the Cape increasingly splashed with green. Cape Point has planted sauvignon on the south coast, Bartho Eksteen in Walker Bay, Iona in Elgin and Nitida in Durbanville. Meanwhile, at Elim, close to the southern tip of Africa, a group of four farmers has pledged to make Sancerre in South Africa. Even in Robertson, Abrie Bruwer at Springfield Estate has shown that a warm climate need not be a bar to producing quality sauvignon if the application is there. "Judge the wine as it is, not by the area," says his sister Jeanette.
Clearly, much of the hot African continent doesn't lend itself to refreshing sauvignon - a few unscrupulous producers from warmer areas even added green pepper flavouring to try to reproduce the sort of capsicum flavours found naturally in cool-climate sauvignon. If the scandal is confined to a few small players, my hunch is that it will blow over without tarring the good reputation of the majority. But action has to be taken for the credibility of Cape sauvignon. It would be a monumental injustice to all the good work that's elevated sauvignon to its current status if a few bad apples were allowed to turn the whole barrel rotten.