Sauvignon past, present and future

For some, Iona is an island off the West Coast of Scotland. For winelovers, though – true believers in sauvignon blanc especially – it’s 35-odd hectares of vineyards in the coolest part of the Elgin plateau. The coolest part of the wine-growing Cape, in fact, says proprietor Andrew Gunn, basing his claim on his sauvignon’s very late harvesting date – it usually comes into the cellar in early April, by which time there are usually a few warm-country sauvignons of the same vintage already selling on the supermarket shelves. Iona’s high altitude and nearness to the sea is responsible for this long ripening season which is so great for developing flavour.

As was obvious at a vertical tasting of all the vintages of Iona Sauvignon Blanc, from 2001 through 2009. We tasted them blind, in random order, which was instructive. None of the tasters present got anywhere near getting them all right – including Niels Verburg, who’d made quite a number of the wines (the first few were made by Gyles Webb in the Tokara cellar). We all correctly identified the youngest vintage (a brilliant 2009: as everyone keeps on saying, this is a splendid vintage, and sauvignon is one of the main beneficiaries, or at least the earliest, of it).

But otherwise our guesses at vintages were not so hot. Certainly some of the older wines were showing hints of the pungency that characterises mature sauvignon, but the best of them were beautifully harmonious and in balance, and confusingly showing not much sign of age. Young and old, there was scarcely a pyrazine in sight. If you’re lucky enough to have a few bottles of Iona 2001 still lurking in a forgotten cool corner, you have some great enjoyment to come, and no hurry about it either. For many, including me, this was a favourite (we had greater unity identifying favourites than vintages!) – though I had guessed in as 2004. Fairly quiet but confident aromas it had, with characteristic hints of grenadilla still; rich, full, harmonious and lingering. Not at all a blockbuster wine, but very satisfying indeed.

The last vertical tasting of sauvignon that I did (a year or so back) was of Steenberg’s very different wine: that is much greener-flavoured stuff, developing more asparagus notes, while at most the Iona has some green bean; but ripe, understated grenadilla tropicality is the keynote for me. The Iona is also subtler and less urgently powerful, with a characteristic fresh natural acidity in good balance.

None of the wines dating back to 2001 was past its best. A testimony to the capacity of good, well-balanced Cape sauvignon to develop with years in bottle, and a testimony to Iona being one of the best.

Actually, saying that none of the wines was past its best needs a little qualifying. The first bottle of 2005 poured was oxidised, dark-coloured and not very satisfactory. Niels Verburg asked for a second to be opened and it was much better. This was the first vintage where some wine was bottled under cork, some under screwcap. Guess which closure caused the problem here? Though Niels insists that when there’s not the oxidation problem, the cork-closed wine is better (perhaps because it did not undergo the copper fining that the wine destined for screwcap did). So we opened a third bottle, the second one with a cork. Not as badly affected as the first, but also oxidised. Bad luck? Perhaps. But also perhaps we should go out of our way to avoid bad luck. Iona Sauvignon is now all bottled under screwcap, except for about 10% for particular customers who think it worthwhile to face the risks of spoilage.

Bad luck of a less serious and much more clumsy kind closed the evening for me. After sampling an excellent, delicate and harmonious Iona Chardonnay 2007, which I think I would choose above the Sauvignon, and an extremely good Sauvignon Blanc Noble Late Harvest, I managed to spill my glass of red (The Gunnar 2005) in spectacular fashion so that not only the tablecloth in all direction was spattered, but I also somehow managed to cover poor Vaughn Johnson’s shirt with purple stains. It wasn’t entirely a reflection of how I feel about red wines from Elgin (or how I feel about Vaughn!), but I do think the whites are better. And in the case of Iona, they’re extremely good.

And that 2009 is going to be even more splendid in five, and maybe ten, years’ time. It’s delicious now, and not a sin to drink – but, as with other good 2009 examples, if you’re not already a believer in the virtues of adding a few years to sauvignon, buy a bottle or two extra and put them aside somewhere approximately dark and cool and forget about them for a few years at least. I promise you that you won’t regret it.

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