wine features What and Where on the Winelist: South African Sauvignon Blanc
What and Where on the Winelist: South African Sauvignon Blanc
August 2009

Sauvignon Blanc Remember when this grape was so unpopular that Mondavi renamed it “Fumé blanc” in the hopes of moving it a bit more aggressively? Well, that’s no problem now, thanks to New Zealand the crisp, grassy, tart fruit character of Sauvignon Blanc is universally recognized. More broadly, Sauvignon Blanc can range from minerally and powerful—a la Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé—to lighter, racy and floral. New Zealand’s success with the grape has caused many to reconsider its potential, both from marketing and winemaking points of view.

South Africa Stellenbosch, the center of South Africa’s winegrowing activity may seem a bit warm for Sauvignon Blanc with its powerful Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. But there are plenty of microclimates that make good, tart Sauvignon Blanc possible. Some producers still opt for a white Bordeaux style blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon to make a balanced wine from warmer sites. The best Sauvignon Blanc vineyards generally rely on maritime breezes to cool things off; even as far in as Stellenbosch, sea air from the Atlantic and Indian Oceans can work its way inland as part of a daily cycle of warming and cooling off.

Coastal areas are more consistent in enjoying this influence. Near Cape Town, this includes the classic winegrowing region of Constantia as well as Durbanville, just north of the city. While less well-known, Durbanville, too, has a long history of grape-growing; the region’s producers are working together to improve quality and are focusing on Sauvignon Blanc as a signature grape. Further southwest from Stellenbosch, Walker Bay and Elgin have also shown a knack for the grape.

While diverse, the core and most appealing aspect of South Africa’s Sauvignon Blancs as a whole is their balance between the exuberant fruit of New Zealand and the stony minerality of Sancerre. Fruit notes tend toward fig and tropical touches rather then grapefruit; grassiness makes an appearance occasionally, but rarely dominates, with a wild herb character being more common. The wines are fresh, but not too in-your-face, preferring elegance and poise. They have a lot to offer to Sauvignon Blanc fans, but can also appeal to Pinot Grigio drinkers, for example, who might normally find Sauvignon Blanc to be a bit much.

From a food point of view, South African Sauvignon Blancs suit many sorts of contemporary cuisine, especially salads, seafood, and similarly light dishes. Their acidity stands up to vinaigrette dressings, which can also be difficult to pair; and they work as well with those wine pairing troublemakers asparagus and artichokes as anything from New Zealand. Goat cheese is another classic pairing for these sorts of wines.

In the US, one of the best distributed South African Sauvignon Blancs is Mulderbosch, whose distinctive label, which looks like a stripe down the side of the bottle, is easy to pick out in many retail shops. Larry Jacobs bought the Mulderbosch farm, which lies in prime vineyard land in Stellenbosch, in 1989, and he and winemaker Mike Dobrovic turned around its reputation and were one of the first to make waves internationally. Warwick Estate, another Stellenbosch winery, makes a more fruit-forward Sauvignon from the “Professor Black” vineyard, named for a prominent horticulturist who worked nearby. Thelema is another Stellenbosch-based producer that makes classy Sauvignon Blancs from both their estate vineyards and from the Sutherland farm, a cool-climate site in Elgin they purchased in 2000.

Iona and Paul Cluver are two producers based in Elgin, and both make excellent Sauvignon Blancs, the Iona tending to show more fruit than many of their compatriots. In neighboring Walker Bay, even farther from Stellenbosch, Bouchard Finlayson and Southern Right make excellent examples of the fig-and-nettle, wild herb style that characterizes the country’s Sauvignons as a whole.

Among Constantia’s historic properties, Constantia Uitsig and Buitenverwachting both make excellent Sauvignon Blancs that are less expressive than some and well-textured. Further south is a newer project, Cape Point Vineyards, which has done well with the grape; their vineyards are battered by chilling winds from both sides of the Cape peninsula. They make three different Sauvignons; the Stonehaven favors fruit aromas, in contrast to the more grassy and minerally “regular” bottling. The Isliedh is the most structured and Bordeaux-like, and in fact typically includes a significant dose of Semillon each year.

Four of the nine wineries in Durbanville, on the far side of Cape Town from Constantia, have made inroads into the American market, Durbanville Hills most prominently. De Grendel, Nitida, and family-owned and operated Diemersdal are also available; all make crisp Sauvignon Blancs with typical fig and wild herb aromas, with Nitida leaning a bit toward more tropical fruit notes.