The exact date when the first Sauvignon blanc was planted in South Africa is inconclusive. So too, those who should be singled out as pioneers of this cultivar. What is known for sure is that it was planted on Groot Constantia in the late 1880s. No question either is that Sauvignon blanc is South Africa’s most popular grape variety that is celebrated again this May, writes Maryke Roberts.
Last year, the beautiful Constantia wine valley at the foot of Table Mountain launched South Africa’s first cultivar-specific wine meander: the Constantia Sauvignon Blanc Route. It currently includes six Constantia wine estates: Steenberg,
Errieda du Toit and Herman Lensing (Photo: Nickey Bothma)
Buitenverwachting, Klein Constantia, Groot Constantia, Constantia Glen and Beau Constantia. Internationally acclaimed Sauvignon blancs, however, come from across the winelands.
Sauvignon Blanc South Africa is the ambassador for the country’s most popular wine cultivar. Since 2020, the association celebrates International Sauvignon Blanc Day in May together with the rest of the world.
Ed Beukes of Du Toitskloof Wines (Photo: Nickey Bothma)
RJ Botha, Chairperson of Sauvignon Blanc SA
Its popularity arguably hails from the wine’s bright and refreshing acidity, as well as natural aromatic intensity.
Currently Sauvignon blanc has a 10.9% (9 878,45 ha) share of the total wine grape plantations in South Africa and is the fourth most planted grape in the country, after Chenin blanc, Colombard and Cabernet sauvignon. The area under Sauvignon blanc vineyards increased from 9.4% in 2013 to 10.9% in 2021. It is widely distributed across all the wine-growing regions of South Africa.
The first commercial South African Sauvignon blanc wine was produced by Verdun (now Asara) in 1977, with Backsberg and De Wetshof shortly thereafter.
Its early champions are however many. Several winemakers had significant influences on the grape’s solid heritage. Most development and innovation in the wine industry by a few winemakers has also only happened in the past 50 years, because wine regulations were very strict, and co-operatives were the norm. Wine farms delivered their grapes to cellars and few farms bottled wines under their own labels.
Danie de Wet of De Wetshof in the Robertson Wine Valley is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of noble white wines in South Africa. Until 1984, De Wetshof was the largest single supplier of Sauvignon blanc plant material to the South African wine industry.
“My experiment with Sauvignon blanc was very successful,” Danie says. “During the winter of 1973, I laid my hands on Desiderius Pongrácz’s Sauvignon blanc plant material from Nietvoorbij’s Sauvignon Blanc plant – unofficially, of course. This can be seen as the beginning of the Sauvignon blanc industry in South Africa.
“I grafted the specific material – known as the ‘Weerstasie’ clone – on a few wild vines and in November 1974 we grafted it again in a Steen (Chenin blanc) vineyard, to increase the material as soon as possible.
“De Wetshof made its first 3 000 litres of Sauvignon blanc in 1979, and it was a beautiful wine. My father and I were really happy with this first expression of a wine cultivar that was still unknown among South African wine drinkers at the time. In 1980 we made 9 000 litres and marketed it for the first time under the De Wetshof label that December. It received a Superior label and was wonderfully received.
“The local wine writers got stuck into writing about this new fresh breeze that was blowing through the Cape vineyards – thanks to the availability of a new grape variety. The ice was broken for a new era of white noble varieties, and the market was ready.
“The success of the Sauvignon blanc material that was propagated and the quality and popularity of this new wine, inspired me immensely. This confirmed my suspicions that the only way for progress in the industry lay in obtaining the best plant material, particularly from new cultivars – by whatever means,” says Danie.
In the Elgin, Dr Paul Cluver is a trailblazer in his own right. He planted vineyards in fields that had been producing orchards of export apples for decades. Sauvignon blanc took hold, thriving in the cooler valleys.
It is almost 40 years ago that Neil Ellis – a pioneer in site identification, inter-regional grape acquisition and location-specific wines – made the first vintage of his eponymous label. He’s flattered by the term pioneer but does not consider himself so. “We have all had a touch of luck in our careers – you know, the right time and the right place,” he says.
He told Wineland SA magazine in 2019 that wine naming regulations had changed by 1990. He introduced the first certified Elgin Sauvignon blanc of the same vintage, from a vineyard planted on the Whitehall property in 1981. Shortly afterwards, in 1991, the Groenekloof Sauvignon Blanc from Darling made its debut as another first for the industry.
The Neil Ellis Groenekloof Sauvignon Blanc has since been made from that same vineyard and enjoys cult status these days. Reflecting his philosophy, British website González Byass quotes Neil as saying: “Winemaking is both art and science, intellect and passion – an encounter of the heart and mind.”
It describes him as “nothing less than a major pioneer for the ever-developing South African wine industry”.
“Without his tireless determination to persuade the South African Wine Council to recognize the importance of regional reference in wine classification, we might not have been able to appreciate the sheer variety and calibre of wines produced in the country today,” the article says.
“The whole philosophy behind the Neil Ellis brand is careful site choices to find places where individual grape varieties will excel. He knows that no single vineyard can satisfy the needs of multiple grape varieties and takes the practice of ‘site-specific’ wine production to a whole new level.”
Neil says he made his first acquaintance with Sauvignon blanc in 1982, in the Constantia Valley. He remembers that vintage as special because it was in fact the first Sauvignon vintage in the valley. “We know that the first harvest of a vine is always its best. And on top of that, the consumers were so surprised with the new cultivar, that it was popular from the beginning.”
He adds that the versatility of Sauvignon blanc is quite possibly the reason for its popularity, because “wine drinkers only get a nice glass of wine every time”.
“There may be other cultivars with more depth and character, but Sauvignon blanc’s diversity makes it ideal for a wide range.”
He says the advent of Sauvignon blanc not only brought a new wine cultivar, but also made many winemakers and viticulturists realize they need to get out of the cellar and spend more time in the vineyards, because fine viticulture methods yield many different end results.
To his credit, Neil also played a major role as a former convener of the Sauvignon Blanc SA Top 10 judging panel, helping to push the envelope on the quality of wine.
He says the future of Sauvignon blanc, which is doing particularly well in cool regions, depends on two major factors: climate change and consumer preference. New cultivars and wine styles give consumers more options while supply-and-demand remaining the predominant factor in new plantings and determining when vineyards will be pulled out.
“We know that the eastern part of our country is getting wetter, and the western side is getting drier. Most of our winelands are in the southwestern area of the country,” Neil says.
“The type of farming will be adjusted according to how these two factors play out. Wine grape farmers may start farming with other crops and find that they make much more money from it than from wine grapes,” he declares.
He adds that trends also play a big role in consumers’ purchase behaviour. “We predict that in the future people will drink less, but drink better. Sauvignon blanc made with spontaneous fermentations, barrel aging and alternative styles, are therefore in a prime position.”
Bartho Eksteen, the Diners Club Winemaker of the Year 2010, won the title with a Sauvignon blanc. No wonder, because the authoritative Platter’s South African wine guide is among those who’ve given him the moniker “Monsieur Sauvignon Blanc”. Wine writer Neil Pendock spoke of him as “the sage of Sauvignon”.
Bartho has held a Sauvignon Blanc festival at Hermanuspieterfontein in Hemel-en-Aarde every year for several years, so that everyone who loves this cultivar could hang out together.
Not all the pioneering work for this variety has, however, been done – as many young wine professionals are showing. They may stand on the shoulders of giants, but in times when things change overnight, dissenters are often the ones who find new pathways. More often than not, these people are the young guns – from winemakers to chefs, sommeliers to marketers – who combine their love of heritage with progress.
South Africa’s oldest Sauvignon blanc vineyard is located on the farm Kleinamos in the Swartland. A total of 5.3 hectares of Sauvignon blanc was planted in 1965. The farm’s total area under vineyard totals 80 hectares. (The second oldest block is Bloemendal’s block, planted in the early 1970s.)
Only 3 000 bottles of Spice Route The Amos Block Perpetual Reserve are made annually from the country’s oldest block.
It is one of only 10 old vineyards of Sauvignon blanc part of the Old Vine Project, a certification system according to which member vineyards older than 35 years receive a special seal. The others are Du Toitskloof Old Vine Sauvignon Blanc, Deux Frères Sauvignon Blanc, Jordan Timepiece Sauvignon Blanc, Le Bonheur Reserve Blanc Fume, Neethlingshof Sauvignon Blanc, Slaley Cellar Broken Stone White, Amos Block Sauvignon Blanc, Villiera Bush Vine Sauvignon Blanc and Villion Sauvignon Blanc. Most of these old vineyards are barely a few hectares in size.
It is truly a privilege to attend a tasting of Old Vine wine, especially considering their limited number due to the low production yield of an old vine.
Barely a month ago, I attended a food and wine experience presented by Du Toitskloof Wines, hosted by its marketing and sales manager, Ed Beukes, and food celebrity Errieda du Toit.
We were at the table of award-winning chef and television presenter Herman Lensing. This is where I tasted the first ever Du Toitskloof Old Vine Sauvignon Blanc 2020.
Innovation by a young team
Tasting an old vineyard wine in a modern Sauvignon blanc style with innovative dishes such as Herman’s bokkom-and-aniseed mosbolletjies (buns) with granulated jam and vanilla butter is a truly memorable experience.
Ed is lyrical in his description of Block no. 20 (also known as “Grandpa”), planted in 1985. He says it yields “spectacular grapes with fresh aromas of citrus, herbs and Cape gooseberries”.
“Tropical fruit flavours such as kiwi and guava are well balanced with subtle notes of wood, which continue to blend with the wine’s intense complexity of 100 days spent on the lees. The ideal acid levels ensure that the wine produces a cacophony of flavours.”
There are only 2.8 hectares of plantings from which the wine is made.
In April 2021, the wine was crowned best South African wine at the London Wine Competition. More than 36 countries entered 135 different grape cultivars for assessment by the panel of judges.
I’ve never been to New Zealand, but thanks to Thys Louw of Diemersdal Estate in the Durbanville Wine Valley I was able to taste some of New Zealand’s South Island’s delicious Sauvignon blanc – which Thys made there.
At the end of 2019, Diemersdal released its first Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, a wine Thys went to make 11 000km from his home winery.
At the launch, Thys said he fell in love with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc during a visit in 2016. He decided on the spot to introduce a wine made in that wine region, under the Diemersdal label.
“Despite having made Sauvignon blanc for 20 years and being familiar with New Zealand’s exuberant, tropical wine style, my eyes really opened when I first visited New Zealand and saw Marlborough’s commitment to the variety.”
Thys teamed up with renowned Marlborough winemaker Ben Glover of Glover Family Vineyards to launch Project Diemersdal Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. The purpose, he explained, was to give local wine lovers a taste of the flavour spectrum for which the Kiwis have become world famous.
Thys Louw of Diemersdal Wines
Trizanne Barnard of Trizanne Signature Wines has been cutting her teeth on Sauvignon blanc and other varieties at Klein Constantia in the Constantia Valley. She does things differently with her work not only garnering attention, but also commanding a premium. The Sauvignon blancs she makes carry Platter’s stars, stickers, and similar awards. One of these accolades was Sauvignon Blanc of the Year, awarded by the guide’s 2020 edition.
“The cornerstone on which I build my winemaking philosophy is diversity,” she says. “This search for unique and new perspectives also extends to where I buy my grapes. I always look for freshness, uniqueness, and contrast, which I found in the cooler vineyards of Elim for Sauvignon blanc.
“By finding small vineyard blocks and selecting grapes from them, I produce wines that reflect the best of these unique and diverse regions.”
It’s the variety she’s been working on the longest – from her first year after university when she harvested in Australia’s Margaret River, notably also a cooler area. “I have only recently been brave enough to explore completely different styles and so I rediscovered what the variety is capable of. It’s a grape that gives you a lot of freedom to make many interesting styles of wine.”
Trizanne says many people are not crazy about Sauvignon blanc, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all. “Try other styles, lower alcohol, lower acid; with different dishes and find one that passes your tongue-tip test,” she advises.
In 2007, an annual Sauvignon Blanc SA Top 10 competition came into being to encourage winemakers to even greater heights. Current chairman, RJ Botha, is himself an award-winning Sauvignon blanc wine creator from Kleine Zalze Estate – an estate that itself has a long record of awards at the highest level.
According to RJ, Sauvignon blanc as the cultivar from which most wine is exported, is one of South Africa’s most revered worldwide.
He advises: “Don’t miss the opportunity to taste some of the best Sauvignon blancs in the world during our International Sauvignon Blanc celebrations in May every year.”
He says Sauvignon blanc is a perfect example of the complexity and variety that South African wines offer. He adds that the local cultivar certainly deserves the global attention that South African Sauvignon Blanc increasingly enjoy. “We are proud to build out the Sauvignon Blanc SA brand together with our platinum partners FNB and EVER Solutions.”
What flavours are typical of Sauvignon blanc?
Aromas of green asparagus, grapefruit, flint, lime, green melon, gooseberry, granadilla, freshly cut grass and peppers.
What is the difference between Old World and New World wines?
It’s basically geographical: “Old World” refers to the traditional wine-growing regions of Europe, while “New World” refers to the rest.
Old-world wine regions are where modern winemaking traditions first originated and are often associated with tradition and history. These wine-growing areas are found in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. They include the countries of France, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Portugal, Germany, Lebanon, Croatia, and Israel.
New World refers to those countries that borrowed traditions and winemaking practices from other countries and were often adapted to create their own industries. This often happened along with colonization. New World wines are usually associated with technology, science, corporations, and marketing. New World regions include South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, North America, and South America.
- More information on the Constantia Sauvignon Blanc Route is available at: https://constantiawineroute.com/sauvignon-blanc-route
- More about Sauvignon Blanc SA and their Top 10 competition may be found at: https://sauvignonblanc.com/
- For more about the innovative Old Vine Project, visit https://oldvineproject.co.za/
- Read the original story “Klink ‘n glasie sauvignon blanc” on Maroela Media at https://maroelamedia.co.za/kos/drinkgoed/klink-n-glasie-sauvignon-blanc/