Sauvignon Blanc’s popularity among consumers is unprecedented. But among serious wine experts, the variety seems to be a victim of its own success.
Sauvignon Blanc is South Africa’s largest white wine category. Although it’s the third most widely planted white grape variety in the Cape Winelands – accounting for about 10% of the total area under vineyards – it is by far the most popular single variety among South African consumers.
Approximately 40% of all white wine sales in South Africa are Sauvignon Blanc – the most of all white grape varieties. According to SAWIS, 13.8 million litres of Sauvignon Blanc were sold in South Africa in 2018. The bulk numbers for Sauvignon Blanc are equally impressive. SAWIS figures show that 23.6 million litres of Sauvignon Blanc were exported and sold in bulk during 2018.
While Sauvignon Blanc’s commercial success is undisputed, the prospect of drinking a 2019 Sauvignon Blanc is not exactly something that excites wine critics and so-called wine geeks. They all seem to agree that Sauvignon Blanc as a category is too boring and obvious.
This contributes to the growing stigma that Sauvignon Blanc is considered a wine that struggles to innovate. According to several critics, Sauvignon Blanc is a victim of its own success. “I often experience the propensity of self-imposed, know-it-all individuals and so-called wine experts who look down on those who dare to be popular among everyday consumers,” observes wine writer Emile Joubert.
At last year’s FNB Sauvignon Blanc Top 10 competition, Emile tweeted that Sauvignon Blanc owns 44% of the ultra-premium wine category in South Africa. Although Sauvignon Blanc’s popularity is undoubtedly in the R80-and-under-per-bottle market, there are several producers who have found success with Sauvignon Blanc in the premium space.
Is this just a case of wine geeks who simply have their knives in for Sauvignon Blanc? Or is it a category capable of coming up with new and world-class innovations? Take David Nieuwoudt’s Ghost Corner Wild Ferment 2017 for instance. It was awarded the trophy for Best in Class at the Six Nations Wine Challenge in 2018, besting contenders from New Zealand – a country renowned for its success with Sauvignon Blanc.
Other outstanding Sauvignon Blanc wines in South Africa include De Grendel’s Koetshuis, Diemersdal’s Eight Rows, Neil Ellis’s Amica, Reyneke’s Biodynamic Sauvignon Blanc, Hermit on the Hill’s The Infidel, Klein Constantia’s Perdeblokke, Fryer’s Cove’s Bamboes Bay Hollebaks Strandfontein Reserve and Black Oystercatcher’s Secret of Sauvignon range – to name but a few.
Christian Eedes, editor-in-chief of Winemag.co.za, wrote in October last year that South African Sauvignon Blanc is “too primary, too precocious and too fragile.”
In an interview with WineLand, he does however mention examples of South African Sauvignon Blanc that does not fall into the “highly aromatic category.” He refers to Trizanne’s Sondagskloof Sauvignon Blanc. “It’s a super wine. It has depth and attention is given to the finer details. If more Sauvignon Blanc is made this way, then it’s game on! Then yes, Sauvignon Blanc can be interesting.”
Carl van der Merwe, CEO and cellar master at De Morgenzon, says his frustration with Sauvignon Blanc is that it’s too obvious. “The nuance that makes a wine interesting, like being more structured, more balanced, richer and fuller, is less important with Sauvignon Blanc. With Sauvignon Blanc, it’s more about aromatic intensity.” Winemakers who try to make Sauvignon Blanc less aromatically intense, more structured and with more texture, moves away from the cultivar’s natural strength, says Carl. “I’m a big advocate of cultivars that play to their strengths and what the terroir can offer. Sauvignon Blanc is good for aromatic intensity if winemakers find themselves in a region that can support it and bring it to the fore.”
But from a wine perspective, Carl believes that Sauvignon Blanc has its limitations.
Does it make sense financially?
As for the price points associated with Sauvignon Blanc, Christian refers to the cultivar’s glass ceiling. “While the glass ceiling for Sauvignon Blanc has risen slightly over the last decade, it is still highly unlikely that we will see a Sauvignon Blanc for R500 or even R1 000 per bottle on the shelf.”
Carl has been thinking about expanding his farm with Sauvignon Blanc vineyards, but with the average price point of Sauvignon Blanc varying between R80 and R120 per bottle, he finds it difficult to add value to the market.
“DeMorgenzon is an expensive farm to operate. We have high slopes and the wear and tear on our tractors is exorbitant. I can expand with Sauvignon Blanc vineyards if I wanted to, but is there a demand for Sauvignon Blanc above R350 per bottle? The answer is no.”
Watch this video for a comprehensive behind-the-scenes take, including all the glitz and glamour of the 2019 FNB Sauvignon Blanc Top 10 competition.
He says he can get higher price points with Chenin Blanc. “The yields on my farm are relatively low. And with Sauvignon Blanc selling between R80 and R120 per bottle, it just doesn’t make sense financially.”
Internationally, Sauvignon Blanc is also regarded as a relatively affordable wine and faces similar challenges that Chenin Blanc in South Africa does. There are several examples of Chenin Blanc at cheaper price points than Sauvignon Blanc, but there is a greater appetite among consumers to pay more for a good Chenin Blanc than for a Sauvignon Blanc. “Sauvignon Blanc is established as an affordable cultivar playing in the R120-per-bottle-category from where its popularity among consumers,” says Carl.
“It delivers a huge amount of flavours and freshness for the price.” Chenin Blanc doesn’t have the aromatic intensity usually found in Sauvignon Blanc, but is driven by texture and richer, fuller wine styles that many consumers currently enjoy. “People are growing less interested in aromatic intensity and prefer something that tastes richer and fuller,” says Carl.
Christian agrees. “Although Chenin doesn’t enjoy the same popularity status as Sauvignon Blanc, it is considered a more serious grape variety and producers can charge more for their grapes.” In South Africa, Chenin Blanc still suffers from the historical stigma of high yield and low quality.
“I suspect many people still see Chenin Blanc as cheap and cheerful,” Christian says. “Ironically, I will argue the opposite is true at the moment. There are excellent Chenin Blancs being made right now. An entry-level Sauvignon Blanc is a bit boring for me, while an entry-level Chenin Blanc offers more value for money.”
Can Sauvignon Blanc innovate?
Christian believes we don’t see much innovation in the category because of Sauvignon Blanc’s commercial success. “Because it’s not moving forward, there’s the danger that people can grow bored with the variety in the future. Granted, the probability is currently highly unlikely as Sauvignon Blanc is enjoying its place in the sun. Sauvignon Blanc, especially the obvious tropical styles, is popular among consumers because the variety fits in well with our climatic conditions and the food we enjoy.”
According to Dr Winifred Bowman, Cape Wine Master and convenor of the FNB Sauvignon Blanc Top 10 competition, Sauvignon Blanc is the entry point for many new wine drinkers. Consumers are more comfortable ordering or buying Sauvignon Blanc than any other white wine.” She says last year’s FNB Sauvignon Blanc Top 10 winners were the best she’s ever tasted. “The quality and consistency was incredible. The final score was so close, we could have had three or four top 10s.”
She believes the number of different Sauvignon Blanc styles in South Africa is a good sign of the variety’s potential for innovation. “Look at someone like Neil Ellis. He’s regarded as the ‘King of Sauvignon Blanc’ in South Africa and his wine is unmistakable. He has a specific style and quality, and he doesn’t deviate from it.”
Thys Louw, winemaker and proprietor at Diemersdal, is another shining example of an innovator, says Winifred. “He makes 10 or 11 different styles of Sauvignon Blanc in the Durbanville wine region.” There’s something for everyone with Diemersdal’s variety of Sauvignon Blanc styles. Sometimes you feel like a frivolous wine to sip besides the pool, or a fresh, crisp, mineral Sauvignon Blanc to enjoy with your fish dish or risotto. Diemersdal is a one-stop shop for Sauvignon Blanc.”
Winifred admits the Sauvignon Blanc market in South Africa is like fire and water. But over the past few years, she’s noticed a whole host of new and interesting Sauvignon Blanc wines emerging. “The balance is much better. People think Sauvignon Blanc should just be cheap and cheerful, and if it’s made this year, it should be drunk by Christmas. But I recently came across a range of 2005 Sauvignon Blanc wines in my cellar that’s aged extremely well. For Sauvignon Blanc to age well, the quality must be good and the balance just right from the beginning.”
Only five of last year’s FNB Sauvignon Blanc Top 10 winners were wooded. “It’s a very good sign,” says Winifred. “Winemakers are more cautious and careful about using wood than in the past. Sauvignon Blanc is an aromatic wine and if you overpower it with wood you will lose the aromatic intensity.”
The way forward
Winifred believes it’s unfair of wine critics to claim Sauvignon Blanc struggles to innovate. “If you look at what Thys is doing at Diemersdal, how can you tell me there’s no innovation in the category?” Diemersdal used an innovative winemaking technique for its Winter Ferment, which won a place among the top 10 and gold medal at the 2019 Concours Mondial du Sauvignon. This remarkable wine is made by freezing the grapes immediately after harvest to -20 degrees Celsius. The frozen grapes were thawed during the South African winter season and allowed to ferment as usual. The result is above average thiol levels of 3MH and 3MHA compounds, both of which are responsible for a distinctive guava, granadilla and grapefruit flavour.
In an exclusive interview with WineLand Media, founder and driving force behind Loveblock Wines, Erica Crawford gives her take on the above article in a short Q&A. Click here to read