Innovative, intriguing and in vogue. South Africa has grown an enviable reputation for white blends. On one side are the innovative, Chenin-based with a kaleidoscope of other varieties; on the other, the classic Bordeaux style of sauvignon blanc and semillon.
A bit of history before coming to last week’s tasting of a small selection of highly-regarded 2011s from South Africa and Bordeaux.
Charles Back was ahead of his time when he produced the first of these classic blends in 1987 under the Charles Gerard label. It was short-lived, partly because the semillon vineyard was uprooted, making way for new semillon material.
All fell quiet on the category until 2001. That year, Steenberg made a prototype blend, before hibernating the idea until 2007 and the maiden Magna Carta. There was no hibernating after André van Rensburg’s maiden Vergelegen White 2001, a 78/22 sauvignon blanc/semillon blend; he subsequently raised semillon to lead partner. The blend in our 2011 was 50/50 with the sauvignon specified as from Schaapenberg.
The first Cape Point Vineyards wine labelled Isliedh was a 2004 barrel-fermented, straight sauvignon blanc; the blend followed in 2005 (85 sauvignon/15 semillon) and received immediate recognition with a 5* Platter rating and White Blend Trophy on Trophy Wine Show.
Tokara White, as it was first known, also launched in 2004 with a straight barrelled sauvignon, adding 21% semillon in 2006.
Under Gottfried Mocke, Chamonix joined the party a little later, in 2011 with the maiden Reserve White, 60/40 sauvignon/semillon. Recognition was immediate with a Platter 5* rating.
There is good history and track record in these five blends, which, I’d argue, established the category’s reputation for both quality and ageability. Pitching them against top Bordeaux blancs, Domaine de Chevalier and Chateau de Fieuzal was a good test of how they shape up against quality international counterparts.
James Pietersen CEO of Wine Cellar and Winemag’s editor, Christian Eedes joined me for this blind assessment. Double blind in the case of Tokara and Isliedh, which I decanted into other bottles, due to the former’s screw cap and the latter’s distinctive bottle shape. We all agreed the South African wines showed very well, except for Magna Carta which was oxidised, though Christian found features he liked.
Is there any sense of place? De Fieuzal stood out as being French but the local wines were harder to pinpoint, apart from Tokara, which, like the rest of the range, has an intense purity. It was by far the fruitiest wine with clear blackcurrant leaf, naartjie definition and freshness.
In the early days, the blends were much fruitier; as the category and the serious wines have developed, texture has become a defining feature, something helped by the blend percentages becoming more settled. Generally, either 70/30 or 60/40 with sauvignon leading. This combination can give the wines great longevity; although all in the line up showed interesting evolution, with semillon’s waxy richness braced by sauvignon, most have good life ahead. They make versatile and great food partners, especially with age.
If white blends are generally strong, the sauvignon-semillon category at this level is excellent and the wines may be bought and aged with confidence. Sadly, they are under-appreciated and under-bought. Ideally, they are restaurant wines, where a sommelier can recommend complementary dishes.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable tasting of quality wines; a pity about the Steenberg, which may have been a single bottle rather than general fail.
I left James and Christian to score but we all ranked the wines. The results as follows:
- De Fieuzal
- Cape Point Isliedh
- Vergelegen GVB
- Domaine de Chevalier
- Cape Chamonix Reserve
- Tokara Director’s Reserve
- Steenberg Magna Carta