Pretty in pink: The first Sauvignon Gris in South Africa

by | Feb 28, 2022 | Article

Sauvignon Gris has been mostly unknown in South Africa, with only 0,12 ha under vineyard registered with SAWIS by 2020. That’s changing as two different producers have brought in the first commercial harvests of this enigmatic white grape this year.

David Nieuwoudt of Cederberg Wines first encountered Sauvignon Gris on a visit to Chile thirteen years ago. There, a tasting at top Sauvignon Blanc producer Casa Marin made such an impression that he couldn’t get it out of his mind.

It was a confluence of interests that finally brought Sauvignon Gris to the Cederberg. David’s decade-long collaboration with Chilean producer Julio Bouchan on Longaví created the opportunity to bring vines into the country. “The history of Sauvignon Gris in Chile goes back to Julio’s great-grandfather, who introduced the varietal to his country in 1904,” says David. The original block was maintained by family of the Bouchons at Casa Silva.

Vititec cleaned the plant material and placed it under quarantine. In 2019, David planted the first vines at Sandpoort in the Cederberg – right next to their best blocks of Sauvignon Blanc – on sandstone and koffieklip.

Viticulture

Sauvignon Gris is a mutation of Sauvignon Blanc found mostly in France and Chile, which exhibits grey or pink berries. “It’s a little more hardened and tolerant of high temperatures than Sauvignon Blanc,” says David.

“The pink colouration almost makes it seem like the grapes are sunburnt if you’re used to Sauvignon Blanc, but they shouldn’t be harvested too green. You pick them closer to optimum ripeness, when the grapes acquire an almost muscat-like flavour. The skin is tougher and thicker, so I think it can become phenolic quickly. I prefer whole-bunch press for a cleaner juice.”

“Otherwise, it’s a lot like Sauvignon Blanc,” David says. “We just make it in a more oxidative style rather than reductive to get a natural textures wine with a beautiful palate weight.”

Winemaking

What makes Sauvignon Gris so special? “While Sauvignon Blanc is all about the aroma profile, especially in South Africa, what makes Sauvignon Gris so amazing is its texture or ‘palate weight’. The wines are easy-drinking, softer and much fatter than Sauvignon Blanc. Rather than the aromatics, it’s about mouthfeel and texture, which makes for very food-friendly wines.”

David’s partnership with Julio made Sauvignon Gris a natural candidate for the Longaví collection, marketed mainly in North and South America, and now also in South Africa, but he also sees the variety as an extension of his love for Sauvignon Blanc. “To remain a leader in the Sauvignon Blanc scene, you have to keep innovating.”

Cederberg winemaker Jean Nel managed a small barrel from the first bunches last year, but this year will see the first certified Sauvignon Gris being bottled in South Africa. “It will always be a niche product of interest mostly to private consumers and taken up mainly in the on-trade.”

Although David plans to add more vines, the wine will remain a rare pleasure. “We want to have about 2.5 to 3 ha,” he says.

Cape Point Vineyards

Quite independently from Cederberg, Cape Point Vineyards, also pursued a love for Sauvignon Gris. “I first came across Sauvignon Gris when I was working in Sancerre a few years ago,” says winemaker Riandri Visser. “I was absolutely fascinated by the beautiful pink berries. Although Sauvignon Gris is not officially permitted there, some mutations exist among the Sauvignon Blanc.”

Back in South Africa there was no Sauvignon Gris to be found, so Cape Point Vineyards put in a request and waited. “It took a few years to get viable material,” Riandri says. “In 2018 we received a call from the nursery to confirm that the vines were ready and so the mother block was planted quite late in the season in 2018. It’s the GX917 clone grafted on R110.”

They vines found a home in front of the owner’s house, right next to a block of Sauvignon Blanc, in decomposed granite and sandstone soil with some clay. “I don’t know much about the variety, but I am excited to learn,” Riandri says.

This year marks their first official harvest from the young vines – two weeks earlier than the Sauvignon Blanc. “It was quite a surprise to see how quickly the Sauvignon Gris ripened compared to the Blanc. When the Sauvignon Gris was at 22 balling, the Blancs were only at 14-15 balling. The Sauvignon Gris was perfectly ripe well in advance of the Blanc.”

They picked by hand on 17 February 2022, cooled the grapes overnight in a refrigerated container, and pressed whole bunch. The juice was settled overnight without any additions enzymes or SO2. “We’re fermenting in a very old 600 L barrel, as we needed a small vessel, and it will age on fermentation lees. We’re looking for the pure Sauvignon Gris expression and not really any oak influence on the nose – just some texture on the palate.”

So far, Riandri is very pleased with the results. “The flavours are amazing and quite different from Sauvignon Blanc,” she says. “It will be a dry white and we’ll only have a limited amount of bottles released next year, in 2023.”

According to SAWIS, the registered Sauvignon Gris area under vineyard in 2021 stood at 0.67 ha, or 2 696 vines, situated in the statistical regions of Stellenbosch and Olifantsrivier.

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