Savouring sauvignon

I don’t think it’s that I’ve grown to like sauvignon blanc much more over the past five or so years, rather that sauvignon blanc has grown to like me more. Cape sauvignon, that is, which I think has improved tremendously at the top end – where there are some marvellous ones, mostly oaked to some extent, mostly with a bit of semillon included for breadth. At the lower end and middle a great improvement too, I suppose, where there’s a now more-or-less standard mix of tropical and green flavours, and less searing acidity. They’re mostly pretty uninteresting, in my opinion, but are now generally much better made.

periwinkleOne of the more interesting new-to-me sauvignon producers that I’ve tried this year is the Giant Periwinkle. Pierre Rabie moonlights from his day job in the law, and makes garagiste volumes of wine (the Sea Witch Pinot Noir too, and a Syrah I don’t know) from Elim fruit – he’s now converting a barn in Bredasdorp to do it in.

What I found most intriguing in his 21 Degrees Sauvignon Blanc 2013 and the altogether finer and impressive older-oaked Blanc Fumé 2013 was a distinct note of petrol/paraffin that I’d never been aware of before in sauvignon. To me it was an aroma and flavour somehow continuous with the note of blackcurrant that is my favourite sauvignon character, and that I first encountered in the excellent Quoin Rock Nicobar 2007 (also, incidentally, a subtly oaked version from the Agulhas area).

Pierre Rabie told me: “I have discussed this wine at length with Donovan Ackerman (assistant winemaker at Strandveld) he was also stumped when he had the wine the first time, we accordingly came to the conclusion that the wine has a kerosene or petrol taste mixed with some citrus.  This was the first time that we have tasted this so very prominently in an Elim wine (you mostly only get hints of it) and we came to the conclusion that it must be due to the fact that the grapes were picked a bit earlier and due to the fact that the wine in fact fermented in the barrel and was not just matured in the barrel.”

I couldn’t find out much more info about this, though I enquired as far afield as Jamie Goode, who knows a thing or two about sauvignon characters. Christian Eedes made this possibly useful comment: “Re being on a continuum with blackcurrant, however, I’m reliably informed that blackcurrant is actually pyrazine- and not thiol-derived (which came as something of a surprise) whereas I would guess petrol-kerosene on Sauvignon is more mercaptan related.”

Anyway, I was reminded of Giant Periwinkle’s sauvignons last night at a tasting of some of the import offerings of Reciprocal Wine Trading (“South Africa’s oldest specialist fine wine importer”, with the redoubtable Michael Fridjhon as its leading light). One sniff at the Château Marjosse Blanc 2010, made by the entirely eminent Pierre Lurton at his own Entre-Deux-Mers property in Bordeaux, brought it back to me, with its to me distinct petrolly whiffs. That wine is equal parts sauvignon and semillon, with a little muscadelle.

I must emphasise the “to me” part, as although a couple of other people I spoke to agreed with me (and one also knew Giant Periwinkle and had noted the character there), Michael Fridjhon disconcertingly declined to find it. For him the dominant note was “herbal” (which I could appreciate better than he could my “kerosene”!). A signal lesson to be careful when bandying around any descriptor and expecting others to also know what you’re talking about.

Incidentally, at the same tasting I was interested to try the famous Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2012, for the first time for quite a few years. I’ve never been much of a fan of the sweaty-armpit Marlborough style of sauvignon, and, frankly, didn’t even find this wine a particularly good example – rather thin, even, and I doubt if it has much future. At about R450, ludicrously overpriced; that’s R100 more per bottle than the much better sauvignons from Ladoucette on the Loire, also sampled last night – Pouilly Fumé 2011 and Sancerre Compte Lafond. Not a shred of petrol or sweaty armpit in either of those!

I arraived home from the tasting to find an emailed announcement that “Ten outstanding Sauvignon Blanc wines were lauded today as South Africa’s finest when the results of the 2014 FNB Sauvignon Blanc Top 10 were announced”. What can one say, looking at this list, except “Oh!”. Certainly not “Ah!”. As usual, there’s a mingling of some well-known names and some obscure ones. I’m sure these are all perfectly nice wines, some of them excellent. But will anyone in the world who knows from experience anything about Cape sauvignon begin to believe that as a group they constitute “South Africa’s finest”?  Surely not. Not unless you’re willing to exclude from that grand rubric wines like – oh well, you know the names that are missing: Diemersdal, Hermanuspietersfontein, Cederberg, Reyneke, etc, etc. As far as I can see, the “formidable team of wine judges” managed to avoid selecting anything from Elim, Elgin or Constantia. Really, what is the point of the enormous competitive tastings which teach nothing at all?


3 thoughts on “Savouring sauvignon

  1. Judging sauvignon is obviously not as clear cut as lining up a ‘formidable team of wine judges’. There are simply too many variables (‘petrolly’ versus ‘herbal whiffs’) out there, not to mention opinions. Like in serious local bubbly evaluation, bench-marking before judging would make sense.
    As to yesterday’s results, there were, in my opinion (sic!) at least four ‘better’ sauvignons outside of the top ten among the 20 finalists.

  2. Hi Tim
    Very interesting article. Firstly, Thiols and Mercaptans are different names for the same group of compounds in organic chemistry (another name for Mercaptan is Methanethiole).
    and while I am not sure if it is the same as in Sauvignon Blanc, the kerosene aroma in Riesling is actually a compound called 1,1,6-Trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene, (try saying that after a bottle of Barossa Shiraz!) abbreviated to TDN and is a member of the Norisoprenoid family of compounds, so neither a Pyrazine or a Thiole. TDN is formed in wine through the breakdown of Caratenoids, a compound found in many plants and plant products. So its true what they say, drinking a bottle aged Riesling really does improve your vision and make your eyes shine!

    • Which proves that journos shouldn’t make scientific pronouncements in order to sound knowledgeable, it has the opposite effect. No offence. 😉

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