It takes little more than a glance at the ratings summary in the back of Platter to see sauvignon blanc is still by far the most popular white variety.
Thanks to better viticultural practices, quality of the wines has notably improved in recent years. Improvements too derive from the inclusion in many of a dab of semillon, sometimes oaked, the purpose being to add more dimension without dimming the grape’s natural vibrancy and bright flavours.
Conversely, some semillons include a dab of sauvignon for the purpose of giving this often low-acid grape a bit of zing and longevity. The last attribute is the variety’s trump card.
If only a handful of producers make a varietal semillon, the wines are generally of high quality; medals and Platter five star ratings are quite common, but it remains a niche wine for enthusiasts (like myself).
I was interested then, in a post on winemag.co.za by my colleague, Christian Eedes, where the Downes’ brothers of Shannon Vineyards gave him a blind tasting of semillons with the idea of learning whether more should be made in the Cape. Afterwards, Eedes queried; ‘Why bother to make it on its own? In order to make a better Sauv-Sem blend further down the line was James Downes’ frank reply.’
As the Shannon Vineyards Sanctuary Peak Sauvignon Blanc has for a few years already included a small portion of oaked semillon, I’m not sure whether Downes’ refers to this wine or a completely new blend.
Apart from the branding, is it such a big jump from a varietal sauvignon blanc blended with some semillon, to those marketed as blends, many as flagships.
What better excuse to do a little practical research; a bit of a rummage through the cellar produced a trio of blends from these varieties, all 2013s and all highly regarded:
Cape Point Vineyards Isliedh, Tokara Director’s Reserve and Vergelegen GVB.
Does their make up incline each towards one variety or the other, does this change over time and do they become distinctive from their majority grape produced as a varietal wine were the questions I hoped to answer.
My strategy was to taste each wine over three days, starting with a blind assessment both to try and identify each and make objective notes. Alright, so I know the wines well anyway, but I was happy to discover I know each tasted blind as well! (There was no cheating; my husband poured them, I saw only the glasses!)
Day one, sauvignon is clearly evident on both the Isliedh and Tokara; red apples and citrus, herbal, spicy with a little granadilla respectively. The high acid and low pH lead to intensity and, in Isliedh’s case a still edgy assertiveness. Tokara is the more integrated and elegant of the pair, with oak, very subtle on Isliedh, a positive enhancement. Their vibrancy currently hides evidence of semillon, but despite their taut frames, these are dense, concentrated wines. After a sip or two and as they warmed, the alcohol left a little heat in the mouth. Tokara should immediately please sauvignon lovers.
Initially, Vergelegen had most evident oak, though by no means out of balance with semillon’s ripe, rich tones. It’s richer, more rounded and vinous than the others but still has a sound acid backbone. Strangely, given alcohols are pretty similar, the GVB doesn’t have the others’ slight finishing heat.
Day two and tasting in the same order as Day one. Isliedh’s green and red apples are more overt with cool climate fragrance and vibrancy. There’s better integration, semillon showing some ripe orange citrus and providing more breadth on the finish, but overall still unevolved. For sauvignon lovers’ this would be a good day to enjoy Isliedh.
‘Class!’ is my emphatic reaction to Tokara. In the past 24 hours, herbs, spice and granadilla plus that lovely oak, has increased its personality. It’s still quite austere, but semillon adds weight and savoury persistence. Still one for sauvignon drinkers.
Vergelegen’s broader, more languid aromas now reveal a subtle note of blackcurrant, honey and beeswax. Overall, it remains vinous with good savoury length.
Things are happening to Isliedh by Day 3. Semillon is announced via engaging lemon, honey and a twist of naartje; there’s also a richer texture, the acid retreating, though still doing its required job. The day for semillon fanciers to enjoy.
Tokara hasn’t changed much, but we drank it with a dish of naartje-peel infused lentils, soy, stir fried cabbage, carrots tossed in orange zest & juice, all topped with pork strips. One of my strange made up dishes, but wine and food just clicked!
Vergelegen too is pretty stationery, but, as explained above, semillon is slow to evolve. The wine’s positive is its harmony, so it too could be enjoyed now, especially by semillon fanciers.
This is by no means a definitive argument for how and how long these wines will develop (a day equals no particular number of years but each should improve at least for 10 years), all anyway have a good track record as blends; Vergelegen since 2001, Isliedh (2005) and Tokara (2006). The latter two started life as barrel-fermented sauvignons.
Over those three days, I think my questions have been answered, ‘yes’, ‘yes’ and in most cases (covering myself here, but they are flagships so should become more complex) ‘yes’.
As a matter of interest Duncan Savage has made a varietal semillon, but no longer does. Andre van Rensburg still does when the vintage obliges and, to the best of my knowledge, Miles Mossop never has.
If I’ve answered whether it’s a jump from a varietal sauvignon blanc including some semillon to the pairing marketed as blends, only time will tell whether Shannon Vineyards’ future pairing is better for Downes’ experiments with varietal semillons.
Cape Point Vineyards Isliedh 2013
82% sauvignon blanc 18% semillon
95% barrel (50% new), 5% amphora, mix inoculated/spontaneous
10 months on gross lees with regular mixing
14% alc, 2 RS, 6.8 TA, 3.3 pH
Tokara Director’s Reserve 2013
71% sauvignon blanc 29% semillon
Barrel fermented 400 lt sauvignon 225 lt semillon 27% new, inoculated
9 months on lees with regular stirring
13.63% alc, 2.5 RS, 6.1 TA, 3.25 pH
Vergelegen GVB 2013
62% semillon 38% Schaapenberg sauvignon blanc
Barrel fermented 500 lt sauvignon, 25% new 225 lt semillon 50% new
10 months on lees
13.98% alc, 3.2 RS, 6.5 TA, 3.15 pH