Think South African wine and Sauvignon Blanc is perhaps not the first grape that springs to mind. But it forms an increasingly important part of the Cape's portfolio. Chenin Blanc is the cheap-and-cheerful white produced in South Africa, while Chardonnay is often treated as a showcase wine. Sauvignon, then, represents the important middle ground - good-value, quality white in a fashionably dry, crisp style.
Sauvignon Blanc currently occupies just 4.5% of all Cape vineyards. This is tiny compared with Chenin Blanc's astonishing 28.5%. But while Chenin is planted anywhere, Sauvignon is now thought about more carefully, as wine-makers increasingly examine site selection for their premium varieties. This is a grape that Cape wine-makers really want to get right.
We were keen to discover how much progress has been made and what place South African Sauvignons would have on a restaurant wine list. Are they similar to the flinty, crisp, Loire Valley wines? Or the grassy, citrus, Bordeaux style? Or are South Africans heading down the New Zealand path, and aiming for rich, pungent Sauvignons?
We tasted 34 South African Sauvignon Blancs, mostly from the 1997 vintage, with a handful from 1996. The wines came from several Cape wine regions, with Stellenbosch represented most heavily. Our tasting was held at Conran restaurant Le Pont de la Tour.
Caterer's panel comprised: Rémy Lysé, general manager of the Gastrodome; Ian Waddington, wine manager of Le Pont de la Tour wine shop; Joâlle Marti, head sommelier at Le Pont de la Tour; Douglas Wregg, wine consultant; Philippe Messy, company sommelier for Gruppo Ltd; wine writer Susy Atkins and Caterer's wine editor Fiona Sims. The wines were tasted blind.
We uncovered a large number of very average wines, but a clutch of real stars. In particular, the top wine from Simonsig, the Malan family's winery in Stellenbosch, scored exceptionally high marks. It's worth noting that Simonsig's Chenin Blanc topped Caterer's Cape Chenin tasting in May 1997, so this is clearly a winery to watch. Wregg found the Simonsig Sauvignon Blanc was "very much in the Loire style".
Interestingly, there was New Zealand/Australian influence on some of the best wines. Rod Easthope, the wine-maker behind Brampton's Sauvignon, is a New Zealander. Aussie wine-maker and consultant Kym Milne - who worked for many years at New Zealand winery Villa Maria - has worked with Nicky Versfeld, who produced the wine at Steenberg. Milne also acts as consultant at Vinfruco, which makes the good-value Oak Village wine.
In general, the style of the Sauvignons lay somewhere between Old and New World, with crisp, fresh fruit plus a hint of ripe gooseberry. The South Africans are not aiming for the sheer intensity and tropical richness that is the hallmark of New Zealand Sauvignon, but in the case of the best Cape wines, this only makes the wines more elegant and certainly easier to match with food.
But if the best wines were well-balanced, crisp and refreshing, the worst were acidic, thin and bitter - no fun at all. And Wregg decided that a few tasted of artificial tinned fruits. "I would think I was drinking processed fruit juice if the alcohol wasn't there," he commented.
Lysé was more positive: "I arrived with low expectations, and the wines are better than I thought they would be." True, there were few really poor wines. Avoid the average wines, we discovered at this tasting, and instead go for the stars of the day. They will provide an interesting match with vegetable dishes (asparagus, aubergine and fennel, in particular) and rich seafood, such as crab or scallops. n