Between Two Worlds

Paul Blow

The standard-bearers for Sauvignon Blanc are the Loire Valley of France, which represents the tart, restrained, old-world style, and New Zealand, with its vibrant, flamboyant, amped-up new-world style. There’s an in-between place, though—South Africa—that has been consistently producing some of the world’s most exciting Sauvignon Blancs.

I poured my first taste of South African Sauvignon Blanc a few years ago, from the refreshing-looking green-glass bottle of Mulderbosch. I was instantly taken by the pungent blend of grass and grapefruit (as opposed to the Kiwi guava and gooseberry) and by the noticeable minerality, a hallmark of great Sancerre, but which wasn’t particularly prevalent in New Zealand wines. Mulderbosch, it turned out, was not an isolated phenomenon. Lots of South African Sauvignons had this character.

Besides the difficult names on some of the labels, like Buitenverwachting or Boekenhoutskloof, one reason many people aren’t too familiar with the South African wines is that, despite a venerable history, as a modern industry winemaking hasn’t been around too long. For much of the last century the country’s most widely planted grape was Chenin Blanc, which was treated as a workhorse grape, providing bulk wine and the basic ingredient for distilling brandy. There was no fine wine industry to speak of until the last 30 to 40 years, but the international sanctions because of apartheid meant that this industry developed slowly and outside the awareness of the rest of the world. When apartheid was lifted in 1990, the attention burst in and South African winemakers began developing vineyards and wineries at a record pace. Along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc was one of the first grapes to be planted. Its aptness for the terroir was instantly obvious.

Sauvignon does best in the cooler to mild regions of the country, like the Cape of Good Hope, which looks and feels much like California’s ocean-chilled coast. Stellenbosch, just inland, is famous for its Cabernet, but Sauvignon Blanc has done well there also. The key in many of these places is not just climate, but also the rocky, well-draining soils that Sauvignon loves. In addition to the warm, dry days during the growing season, these soils could be a source of the mineral texture displayed by many of the wines.

“In Stellenbosch and the Cape areas they’re gradually planting Sauvignon in better and better sites,” says John Buechsenstein, the winemaker (with a name worthy of South Africa) for the California-based label Sauvignon Republic, which makes Sauvignon Blancs in California, New Zealand, and South Africa. “The replanting has been ongoing for some time, but it’s really been in the last 10 years that the results have been showing.” Buechsenstein’s winemaker’s view toward the wines of all three countries confirms what you can taste on the palate. “South Africa has none of the extremes [of other Sauvignons].”

But there are lots more from which to choose. From Stellenbosch, whose wines tend to be more fruity and mineral, look out for wines from Neil Ellis, Clouds, Simonsig, Ken Forrester, and of course Mulderbosch. From the cooler coastal Cape regions, whose wines will be sharper and a bit more tart, I love the Vergelegen Western Cape, Klein Constantia, and a wine called Southern Right. In addition, there’s a rather warm region called Robertson that’s putting out some amazing Sauvignons from its rocky, lime-rich soils. Top brands include Graham Beck and De Wetshof and, a personal favorite, Springfield Estate’s Life from Stone.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.