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The Changing Face of Sauvignon Blanc in South Africa

Oct 26, 2021

While some may see Sauvignon Blanc as nothing more remarkable than a favourite poolside quaffer, enthusiasts have long recognised it as a cultivar of exceptional depth and complexity.

Whatever your take on the matter, there’s no denying its unparalleled popularity. Sauvignon Blanc is South Africa’s most sold cultivar by the litre and according to the South Africa Wine Industry Information and Systems (SAWIS), it more than doubled its domestic sales from 2009 to 2019.

This begs a couple of questions: What is the secret behind its momentum? And how can South African producers better position themselves to meet the market where it's at?

In the latest Vinimark Webinar, we aimed to unpack how this fascinating grape variety performs, by gathering a panel of Sauvignon Blanc experts and enthusiasts.

Chaired by wine journalist and creator of HanDrinksSolo, Jono Le Feuvre, the panel included Alexander Grier, Villiera winemaker; Charles Hopkins, Winemaker at De Grendel, and authority on South African Sauvignon Blanc; Dr Carien Coetzee, PhD Agric Oenology and panel judge for the International Concours Mondial de Sauvignon; RJ Botha, Kleine Zalze Cellarmaster, and Chairperson of The Sauvignon Blanc SA Committee; and Nuschka De Vos, Winemaker at Reyneke Wines.

A short history of Sauvignon Blanc in South Africa

Preceding its rapid rise to stardom over the past few decades, Sauvignon Blanc had been something of an obscure variety on the South African wine scene.

Although there are records of it having been planted in Constantia at least as far back as 1880, the oldest known block of Sauvignon Blanc in South Africa can be found in the Swartland and dates back to about 1965. The grapes these bush vines produce go into Spice Route's Fino sherry-style bottling called "The Amos Block".

So, what happened during those 80-something years in between?

As RJ Botha explained, in the early years of South African winemaking, planting materials were riddled with viruses – most notably phylloxera – and generally of low quality.

“This led to Sauvignon Blanc going into hibernation soon after those first records, only to resurface again in about the 1970s,” says Botha. “From there it just grew exponentially.”

Covering about 10,000ha – more than 10% of all local vineyard hectarage - it is currently the fourth most planted variety in South Africa and, as Charles Hopkins pointed out, results in the sale of 2.4 million cases of 12 to the local market on an annual basis.

Why has it become so popular in South Africa?

“Well,” says Charles, “I think it has a lot to do with the fact that we love to be outside. We live in a hot country, we love to braai and have picnics and Sauvignon Blanc is just perfect for that.”

Finding our niche

Despite this resounding local success, South African Sauvignon Blanc hasn’t necessarily been making notable waves in the international market.

At least not in comparison to regions such as the Loire in France and, of course, Marlborough in New Zealand.

As host, Jono Le Feuvre pointed out that Sauvignon Blanc may originate in France, but in less than 50 years, Marlborough, New Zealand has become its throne room.

“I think the success of the region lies in their unique flavour profile and consistency – they tend to produce Sauvignon Blancs that are high in pyrazine but also thiol-driven wines,” said Botha. “When consumers started tasting this wine, it was completely different to anything they had tasted before.”

Inspired by Marlborough’s massive success, many South African winemakers started trying to emulate this style in the production of their own Sauvignon Blanc in the 1990s and early 2000s.

“We ended up learning by mistake that we are not Marlborough and that, actually, we can make our own unique wines from our own vineyards,” concluded Botha.

Technological advancements

There is, of course, a lot more to making a good Sauvignon Blanc than being blessed with the perfect terroir.

Dr Carien Coetzee - who completed her doctoral dissertation on the effect of oxidation and ageing on Sauvignon Blanc's chemical and sensory composition, unpacked a few of the technological advancements that have had the greatest impact on improving the quality of Sauvignon Blanc over the past 20 years or so.

Firstly, she highlighted the massive scientific leap that came with the discovery of and ability to measure some of the potent aromatic compounds found in a mere nanogram of wine.

“It was not long ago that we were actually able to identify things like methoxypyrazine (pyrazine for short) and the volatile thiols, and also how to quantify them,” Coetzee said. “In research circles, that has really opened up a lot in terms of being able to look at different winemaking practices and new technology and see what the effect is on the quality and aroma of Sauvignon Blanc.”

Coetzee said that when it comes to technological advancements in the cellar, one of the main things would have to be the development of yeast strains and the improvement of closures.

“Yeast plays an enormous role in terms of Sauvignon Blanc’s aromas, and you can really change your wine’s style just from that,” she said.

“In terms of closure types, screwcaps have also been a big technological advancement, especially for Sauvignon Blanc which has those sensitive aromas.”

The reason for this is that screwcaps typically allow less oxygen in than corks, which helps to slow down the breakdown of volatile thiols, which are very sensitive to natural hydrolysis and oxidation.

Coetzee concluded: “Although some people may feel that these types of technological advances are manipulating the wine styles and taking away from the terroir, I must say, I believe they are just tools for the winemaker to really bring out the full potential that is already in the grapes.”

Keeping it natural

Of course, when it comes to biodynamic and natural wines, the ideal is to keep manipulation to the absolute minimum – preferably beginning and ending with farming practices such as pruning and trellising in the vineyards.

“To be certified biodynamic, it literally has to be the purest form of the wine,” says Nuschka De Vos. “At Reyneke, we try to get the balance right to get a good, healthy crop. Our biggest focus is making sure that our vineyards and soils are healthy.”

Echoing this, Alexander Grier and the winemaking team at Villiera have moved away from inoculating their still wines with yeast strains and have instead been focusing on spontaneous fermentation. One of the methods they’ve been experimenting with is fermenting different batches at different temperatures to create a variety of flavour brackets.

“We’re still learning at this stage as well – we’ll take it block by block, keep it separate, crush it differently and that sort of thing,” Grier said. “At the end, we’ll look at all the best blocks and then blend it together. We want to bring that sustainable focus back into the cellar as well. It’s a bit more stressful, but at the end of the day, the results are showing.”

Microbial magic

Returning to Reyneke’s focus on healthy soil, De Vos also shared that initial results from a new scientific study being conducted on the farm show that microbial diversity may even play a role in the development of flavour profiles.

As part of this study, researchers have been taking soil samples from Reyneke, as well as neighbouring farms and plots to compare the microbial life present in each and chart it out. By making use of biodynamic farming practices, Reyneke has succeeded in nurturing soil with a rich diversity of microbial life.

“If you look at it in a pie chart, there’d be 100 different ‘slices’ in ours, while in the neighbours, there are maybe four different ones,” said De Vos.

The study has also identified differing microbial life per block on the Reyneke farm and, what is more, the implication is that this affects the juice produced in each case.

“Microbial life is so vital in plants. It’s interesting to start thinking about it in terms of the development of grapes and flavours,” said De Vos. “The study has only just started, so there are no concrete facts yet, but it’s definitely an area to keep an eye on.”

Working with what you’ve got

Although the webinar highlighted a variety of different approaches to producing a memorable Sauvignon Blanc, the golden thread that seemed to connect them all was the importance of taking an authentic approach and working with what you have at your disposal.

In Hopkins’ words: “Winemakers who are motivated enough to produce a unique style of Sauvignon Blanc understand the limitations of their climatic conditions and their soils.”

“They don’t say they can’t produce a good Sauvignon Blanc because of their specific conditions - they go out and try different things and it’s amazing, absolutely amazing. South African winemakers deserve a huge pat on the back for their resilience.”

Let’s raise our glasses to that!


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