Simply sauvignon

It’s easy to see why sauvignon blanc became the darling of the wine drinking masses. Its vivid flavours, green pea or tropical fig, and refreshing acidity make it easy to drink and understand.

Sad to say it’s become a victim of its own success; to temper the sometimes too vigorous acid and widen the wine’s appeal, producers started leaving residual sugar. In many cases, all this has done is to make one ‘savvy’, as the Kiwis call the grape, taste like any other, so ending up as a caricature of the real thing. It’s not surprising this has led to some critics belittling sauvignon.

Sauvignon blanc grapes when ripe taste very similar to the wine
Sauvignon blanc grapes when ripe taste very similar to the wine

It only takes an event like the Steenberg Sauvignon Blanc Odyssey to jolt one’s taste buds into the realisation that sauvignon is much more than a one-trick pony, even if its classic credentials were queried by Jancis Robinson in her original Vines, Grapes and Wines. ‘.. of the nine grape varieties included in this ‘Classic Varieties’ section, Sauvignon Blanc’s claim to classic status is perhaps the weakest,’ she wrote, continuing; ‘The varietal (sic) has not proved however, that unassisted it can produce wines for the future, and longevity is surely a component of greatness in wine.’

Steenberg’s Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 1999 has certainly not heard about that; as the oldest wine tasted – and more sensibly, consumed – by Odyssey guests, it provided great pleasure. There’s no shortage of eye-appeal in its brilliant yellow gold hue; vivacious freshness but also developed toasty notes add to overall interest. Lending some noteworthy context to its age, current winemaker, JD Pretorius admitted he was in Standard 6 when the grapes were harvested!

To make sure we fully understood the excellence of the farm’s sauvignon terroir and positive message about the ageability of these wines, the Reserves from 2009 and 2006, as well as the standard from 2008 (‘not a great year’ according to GM John Loubser) were also poured. Each was different from the others; all retained a high quotient of enjoyment.
The ‘99 wasn’t quite the first sauvignon from Steenberg; that had been made five years earlier in 1994, by Nicky Versfeld at Welmoed Co-op in Stellenbosch, a set up that continued until Steenberg’s cellar was completed for the 1996 harvest.

Delving a little further into the past, the onset of this 205 hectare farm’s current, enviable reputation came with JCI (Johannesburg Consolidated Investments), who purchased it in 1990 for R22 million (I shudder to think what its 2014 value is!). Ex-Boschendal viticulturist, Herman Hanekom was put in charge of developing the property and vineyards. He retired to Wilderness some years ago, but was at Saturday’s lunch to celebrate the launch of the new Black Swan Sauvignon Blanc 2012 and reminisce about the early days.

Steenberg BlackSwan 2012The handing over of the baton from Reserve to the Black Swan is very much a case of ‘The King is dead; long live the King’.

The Reserve, first singled out in 1997 though not labelled as such then, came from a vineyard which, by 2011, was well into its third decade. Something I didn’t know before was that Peter Pentz (of Groote Post) planted it in 1989. The site couldn’t have been better chosen: east-facing, on decomposed granite and spanning an altitude between 80 and 120 metres are all propitious features for vigorous, cool climate sauvignon. Of late, yields had dropped to uneconomical levels, something the Constantia wine farmers are more aware of than most, given the high rates they pay. The threat of disease in this cool, wet area delivered an added incentive to uproot part of the block and replant.

We paid respects to the last Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2011 and its re-incarnation in the Black Swan 2012, both being served with Garth Almanzan’s carefully match dishes; Duck breast with an orange, chilli & ginger reduction with the former and Pan-fried Salmon Trout with grilled crayfish and sautéed asparagus with the latter (thereby illustrating sauvignon’s versatility as well as ageability).

The younger wine differs not only in name; a name which reflects that given by its first ownerm Catherina Ras – Swaaneweide, the feeding place of the swans. No swans there of course; she probably mistook the local spur-wing geese for the European birds, one a different colour from the rest. Grapes came from the remaining portion of the old Reserve vineyard, plus 20% each of two younger blocks, seven and four years old. Both youngsters inject a new note of brilliance via intensity and breadth of flavour; notes of juicy, crunchy blackcurrant leaf are particularly attractive. A tiny portion fermented in larger old oak barrels brings extra shoulder and richness. Needless to say this exhilarating juvenile (R160 ex cellar) will benefit from at least two to four years’ quiet slumber.

I’m glad the lid is still firmly on the box of my 2011 reserve. Unoaked and with much less of the younger vineyards, it is a different proposition with more of the resonant green pea character associated with the old reserve label but also ripe flesh, cutting edge poise and length. I’ll try to forget it for a few more years.

If you think this is a short Odyssey , stand by for sauvignon shared, following shortly.

A wedge of swans heralding the arrival of their black cousin (no black sheep this!)
A wedge of swans heralding the arrival of their black cousin (no black sheep this!)

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