Sauvignon from the deep (and windy) south

Sauvignon blanc – along with those who enjoy drinking it – has been a major beneficiary of the adventurous opening up of new wine areas in the last decade-and-a-half. Especially the cooler coastal parts. Doesn’t it now seem bizarre that before 1994, in the years of KWV rule and the quota system, it was extremely difficult to discover some splendid new terroir and act on it? Elgin was one of the first “new” areas to show signs of being a great place for sauvignon, and Iona was established in 1997, with its first bottling in 2001. Cape Point Vineyards was a year earlier.

And there are also those fine little oases of sauvignon vineyards up the west coast: Fryer’s Cove at Bamboes Bay, and Sir Lambert at Lambert’s Bay. The Hemel-en-Aarde area (where Tim Hamilton-Russell long before fought an important battle against the quota-dispensing overlords) has expanded wildly, and sauvignon is now the most planted grape there. Further along the southern coast – still catching those cool, salt-laden Atlantic winds that sauvignon blanc seems to masochistically relish – there’s the area inland from Cape Agulhas. Here a new district, with Africa’s most southerly vineyards, takes its name from the continent’s southern tip.

Late last year, on an overcast and occasionally rainy day (which cleared up in the evening, as the photo below shows), I went as a well-treated guest to Lomond, perhaps the grandest and most ambitious of the Agulhas projects. It’s a little to the north and west of the main cluster of Agulhas wineries and vineyards in the Elim, but only about eight kilometres from the Atlantic at its nearest point. Standing amongst the vines at Lomond it’s hard to believe that when engineer Wayne Gabb first came across this valley in 1999 it was virgin land, though not in perfect condition by any means. There are now about 120 hectares of vines – this is very serious farming.

Lomond7In the valley there’s a lovely and huge stretch of water that deserves to be called a lake rather than a mere dam. The area it covers is actually only a little less than that of the vineyards. The Uilenkraals River used to trickle through choked vegetation here. Now the dam, which catches the winter rain runoff from the hills, also supplies a nearby village with water. Everything here has been done very carefully, after thorough studies, and with great attention to the environment, both natural and social. There’s a programme to remove alien vegetation, for example, and tall poles dot the vineyards, providing perches for Peregrine Falcons and Steppe Buzzards. I saw one or the other of those, and it looked wonderfully handsome – but I suppose if I were a small bird looking for a grape or two it would seem wonderfully scary.

Care-taking applies to the grape-farming too, of course, which started with soil profiles being taken across the area, so that suitable choices could be made. “It’s not easy to farm here,” Wayne points out (thinking of those winds off the sea, of more summer rainfall and humidity than is really desirable), so it’s important to get it right. But the difficulties also mean, he adds, “that there are great opportunities for differentiation and for complexity”, even if the organic approach he favours has limits imposed on it by the conditions.

LOmond1

The original partners in the establishment of this large property (about 1000 hectares altogether, mostly given over to fynbos) later formed a joint venture with Distell, though Gabb remains general manager. Distell takes about 65% of the grapes for other labels, and the Lomond wines are made at Distell’s Bergkelder cellar in Stellenbosch.

The Lomond label concentrates on Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Shiraz, with Semillon, Nouvelle and Viognier available for a blend, but there’s Pinot Noir to come, and that should be interesting. I prefer the white wines, though perhaps the reds still have some cellar problems to overcome. The Conebush Syrah is decent enough, but I suspect they’re a little over-ambitious in the winery with the youngish vine fruit. We tasted the three vintages made up till 2007, and the latest one seems to me the best – a touch lighter and more elegant, with the oak less obvious. Lomond Merlot is very adequate, and better than many Cape examples, and might be joined by Cabernet Sauvignon when those vineyards start producing.

 

But there is no doubt as to the quality of the fine white blend, Snowbush, and the three sauvignon blancs that are the Lomond speciality. (You’ll notice that most of the wines are named for local indigenous plants.) As well as the straight, good-value Lomond, there are two fine single-vineyard versions that are among the best around. Sugarbush always tends to display the variety’s greener characters, and Pincushion shows more ripe, perhaps tropical notes. They can both age well for at least three or four years in bottle – they’ve only been producing the stuff since 2006 so we can’t say more than that! The current 2009s, from a stupendous vintage for this grape especially, are both excellent, with beautifully integrated acidity. Sugarbush of course more biting and edgy, with dusty grapefruit and greenpepper, Pincushion (the one I prefer) lightly luscious and rich, and poised gracefully on a knifedge of mineral freshness.

As often happens, though, the wine I really admired the most was the Snowbush: the 2009, tasted as a tank sample, is half sauvignon, with semillon, less nouvelle, and a dash of viognier for richness and perfume – which it tends to flaunt in youth. To me it was just more interesting in its flavours, to which some subtle oaking contributes – though I could understand the point of view that finds greater purity in the straight sauvignons. Fortunately Lomond is harvesting enough for us all to have our way. I have no doubt that this is a terroir which will go from strength to strength.

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