Monday, July 26, 2010

South African Sauvignon Blanc is full of suprises

A brillaint article by Jamie Goode and posted on

South Africa is full of surprises. Before the World Cup tournament, most commentators were expecting trouble as the world’s soccer fans arrived en masse. The challenges of logistics and security were deemed to be too great, and many were predicting disaster, but instead the tournament went without a glitch. Overall, it was a great advertisement for the rainbow nation – even the Dutch thuggery in the final as they tried to kick the Spanish off the pitch couldn’t spoil things.
Warwick Estate
'Professor Black'
Sauvignon Blanc
In terms of wine, probably the biggest surprise about South Africa is how well it has done with Sauvignon Blanc. It’s a variety that flourishes in cool conditions, and if you were to sit down with a chart showing the growing degree days (a measure of average temperature) of South Africa’s key wine regions, Sauvignon wouldn’t be your first choice grape for planting. But winegrowers have managed to find combinations of vineyard sites and soils where Sauvignon can flourish, have managed these vineyards well and worked hard in the cellar, and as a result Sauvignon is now South Africa’s fastest rising variety.
Back in 2002 it accounted for 6.7% of vineyard area; by the end of 2009 this had risen to 9.3%. There is now more Sauvignon than Chardonnay in South Africa, and the only white varieties more widely planted are Chenin Blanc and Colombard (most of which is used for brandy production). It may surprise you to learn that with 9446 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc planted, South Africa now ranks third, behind France and New Zealand, in the Sauvignon league table.
Sauvignon Blanc is an interesting grape variety, because it’s probably the one where we have a better handle on the science underpinning how the viticulture and winemaking affect the flavour than for any other variety. There are two groups of chemicals that are considered to be key to the flavour of Sauvignon Blanc.
The first is the methoxypyrazines. These are responsible for the herbal grassy/green pepper flavours and aromas, and are an important part of Sauvignons varietal character. If you want to train your nose and palate to recognize methoxypyrazine, then take a green pepper and cut it open. That’s methoxypyrazine, and in high levels it can be quite pungent and even unpleasant. It’s produced by the grapes, and levels are initially high during the early stages of ripening, falling as the grapes get riper. Viticulturalists have been working hard on ways of managing the grape vine canopy (the leaves) to get just the right level of methoxypyrazine when the grapes are ripe and ready to pick. These methoxypyrazines are stable and the levels remain unchanged during fermentation and ageing.
The second is the thiols. These are sulfur-containing compounds produced during fermentation by the yeasts, from precursors present in the grapes. They’re closely related to compounds that can cause problems in wine, so it was a surprise to find out that three thiols – 4MMP, 3MH and 3MHA – are actually responsible for attractive fruity notes in Sauvignon Blanc. Their typical signature is passionfruit, grapefruit and boxwood, and if you want to get a handle on what they smell like, take a passionfruit, slice it in half and take a good sniff. Thiols aren’t all that stable, and can be lost with ageing. Because they are seen as desirable in Sauvignon Blanc, a lot of work is taking place trying to identify the precursors that the yeasts use to make them from, and then finding out ways of enhancing these precursor levels in the grape by intervention in the vineyard.
The key to successful Sauvignon Blanc is getting a balance between these more tropical fruity aromas and the green herbal notes, and this is what South Africa seems to be doing very effectively. Part of this comes down to growing the grape in the right place, either in cooler regions (such as Constantia, Darling or Elgin) or in cooler spots (such as south-facing vineyard blocks) in otherwise quite warm regions. But it is interesting to note that even among the leading examples of South African Sauvignon there are stylistic differences.
Perhaps the biggest difference in style relates to the level of greenness, contributed by the methoxypyrazines. Some people just can’t get enough of them, while others can only tolerate them in small quantities. A little grassy, green pepper character is an important element of Sauvignon style, adding freshness and focus to the wine. Sometimes, however, this character can be dominant, resulting in overtly green herbal wines. Still, the high-methoxypyrazine style is very successful with some consumers. An example would be Springfield Estate’s Life From Stone Sauvignon Blanc, which is one of South Africa’s most celebrated Sauvignons. Personally, I find this level of greenness off-putting, but this is very much an individual taste issue. My preference is for wines with less of this character, such as Warwick Estate (Professor Black) or Vergelegen.
While Sauvignon Blanc has proved immensely popular with consumers, there has always been a feeling that it is a non-serious variety. You just don’t find many Sauvignons priced £15 and over, whereas for most other varieties, this sort of price ceiling doesn’t exist. For this reason, it’s exciting to see the work being done by Duncan Savage at Cape Point Vineyards. From this cool, maritime spot Duncan has for some years been making one of South Africa’s top Sauvignons. With some oak and a bit of Semillon in the blend, the Cape Point Isliedh is one of the world’s best expressions of Sauvignon, complex and precise and capable of ageing. This is the sort of wine that could see Sauvignon taken much more seriously by the fine wine community.

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