Sauvignon shared

Time to return to the Steenberg Sauvignon Odyssey, where we progressed from straight sauvignon blanc to that variety’s natural partner, semillon.

Semillon grapesI and many other wineloving journalists may punt semillon until the cows come home, but sadly as a varietal wine it’s never become an earworm with the wine drinking public at large. This is inexplicable as from cooler areas it can and does even resemble sauvignon with vivid aromatics and a sprightly freshness. From warmer areas it’s often far less aromatic, the emphasis being more on texture, a sort of swishy rich satin, lending all-encompassing mouthfeel.

Not all semillons are passed by, thank goodness; Steenberg’s has always been popular and of consistent quality. Until a few years ago, the wine was fermented in small oak barrels before immediately being transferred to tank; for the past few vintages, it has been left for several months in oak, a move which has provided better integration and evolution.

Steenberg’s 2011 was served at the Odyssey, along with the Sauvignon Reserve of the same vintage, both accompanied by that delicious duck breast with orange, chilli and ginger reduction chef Garth Almanzan rightly considered so good a match. Even better, I have to say with the semillon, where its honey, lemon and ginger aromas and flavours, wrapped in its satiny richness, made an even better partnership.

It’s only when one tries the partnership does it become apparent how one plus one really can and usually does equal three. Benchmarks for this dry sauvignon blanc-semillon blend (it’s the more common mix) come from Bordeaux, more particularly Graves with the best from its Pessac-Léognan enclave. Sadly, say ‘Bordeaux’ and winelovers immediately think red, though even some First Growths now have white wines (some straight sauvignon, others blends).

I guess because these white blends are overshadowed by their red counterparts, even in Graves, they haven’t really taken off around the world.

'Y' pronounced Ygrec in French, the great dry version of Yquem Sauternes. NB its AOC is merely Bordeaux Superieur!
‘Y’ pronounced Ygrec in French, the great dry version of Yquem Sauternes. NB its AOC is merely Bordeaux Superieur!

I was kindly invited by Miles Mossop to attend the Cape Winemakers Guild recent tasting of dry white Bordeaux wines. Unfortunately he was unable to source wines from other than Bordeaux and locally, but it was reassuring to discover the benchmarks were as varied in style as ours. (The wine of the evening for many was Yquem ‘Y’, the dry though still botrytised version of its famed Sauternes; a style I urged some of the CWG members to try for the auction.)

The local wines presented were Nitida Coronata 2011 (R125), a 60-40 sauvignon-semillon blend is in more fruit-forward, accessible style but also ages well; Tokara Directors Reserve 2010 (R215) 70-30 more New World in style with pungent blackcurrant character, firmly structured with intense long flavours, excellent balance and built to last. Both bottles of Cape Point Vineyards Isliedh 2010 (R235 sold out) were unusually off song, leaving for me the pick of the local blends Steenberg Magna Carta 2011 (R460) 65-35. This partnership seamlessly combines sauvignon’s freshness with semillon’s more textured feel, the whole giving a wine of subtle class, one that’s still keeping its full attractions under wrap. Such shyness didn’t prevent the judges on the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show from observing and rewarding the wine, where it deservedly won the Grande Roche Trophy for the best white blend.

Steenberg Magna Carta 2011Although the first vintage of Magna Carta was as recent as 2007, there was a prototype named Catharina which dates back to 2000 but was made for only a couple of vintages; ‘Before its time,’ suggests Steenberg’s GM, John Loubser. I still have a bottle of the 2001 in our cellar. The last bottle opened, two years ago, I think – had aged gracefully illustrating just why both Steenberg and this combination make a classic style. So, a pity Catharina was discontinued, especially as the flagship style did start to gain traction with André van Rensburg’s maiden 2001.

I was so pleased to see his flagship once again in the trophy line up on the OMTWS; this time the Vergelegen 2009 sauvignon-semillon blend, the recipient of the Museum Class white blend trophy. These wines take a few years to get into their stride, so often don’t perform as well as they deserve in competition. They are traditionally firmly built and very dry but age majestically.The current release is 2012, selling ex-cellar for R290.

Dare I say it but our local sauvignon-semillon blends offer greater diversity and singularity than the popular chenin-based blends. In fact, there seems to be much more a sense of place in many, the flagships especially, which derive from cooler, coastal areas or those with cooling influence. As flagships, the above wines are not cheap but will undoubtedly reward with time. Fortunately, quality isn’t limited to these rarefied prices and wines that require time to show their best; there are everyday drinking wines, ready off the shelf still express the ying and yang of this classic combination.

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