I've been trying to remember the first South African wine I tasted, but it's a little fuzzy in my mind. At the time I wasn't keeping notes on wine, so I don't have a scribble in any notebook to look back on for my very first impression.
I do remember subsequent opportunities to drink South African wines, and in particular their Sauvignon Blancs. My general impression of these wines were that they were competent, but they didn't grab my attention much more than that.
Three years ago, however, I had the opportunity to visit South Africa and taste hundreds of wines, including scores of Sauvignon Blanc, and I came away with a very favorable impression -- in short, that South Africa was certainly on a par with New Zealand and the US for good quality wines that offered a range of styles depending on where and how the wines were made.
I recently had the occasion to receive a bunch of press samples of South African Sauvignon blanc for a magazine story I'm writing, and thought that I'd share my tasting notes with you.
But first, a little about South Africa for those of you who aren't familiar with it. Located at the confluence of the Indian and Atlantic oceans, South Africa with its rugged landscape is one of the world's most stunningly beautiful wine regions. It's history as a winegrowing region goes back many centuries, though its modern incarnation dates back to the fall of Apartheid in the late 80's and early 90's.
In the past 20 years, however, South Africa has made great strides, adopting the best of modern viticultural practices, and gradually attracting both talented winemakers and interested consumers.
South Africa is home to one of the most ecologically diverse regions on the planet. The Cape Floral Kingdom, in which most of the wine is grown, has more species of plants than just about anywhere else on earth, almost 70% of which are not found anywhere else on the planet. As one of six recognized floral kingdoms on the planet, this region is a target for strict conservation and protection. Consequently, given their presence in the midst of this fragile biodiversity, South African winemakers are generally much more mobilized towards conservation and sustainable farming practices than most of their counterparts around the world.
Whether this biodiversity has a specific effect on viticulture, I can't say for sure, but it certainly can't hurt, nor can the tendencies to avoid herbicides and other chemicals that can damage the fragile surrounding ecosystem.
South Africa is climactically quite diverse, with a varied topography and many different soil types, many of them ancient. As a result, you would expect a cross section of wines taken from many regions within the country to show differences, and you most certainly do in this group of Sauvignon Blancs I tasted -- whether that be tinges of sea air from the wines of Cape Point to the lush tropical fruits of Stellenbosch.
The wines don't have the profundity of Sauvignon Blanc in its "native" aspect in the Loire, but then again, nowhere else on the planet does either. South African Sauvignon Blanc, when good, however, is very, very good. And only in rare bottlings is it anything more than moderately expensive.
Take a look and try something out if anything catches your fancy.
Full disclosure: I received the wines below as press samples.
WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9
2010 Vergelegen Sauvignon Blanc, Western Cape, South Africa $18
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of cut grass and gooseberries. In the mouth flavors of gooseberry, cut grass and green apple skins dance on a delicate acidity. Nicely balanced and beautifully textured, this is a lovely wine. 13.5% alcohol. Click to buy.
2010 Cape Point Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, Cape Point, South Africa $40
Pale gold with a hint of green in the glass, this wine smells of kiwi and gooseberries. In the mouth it is beautifully silky, and quite delicate, with flavors of gooseberry, lime zest, and a hint of saline quality that is quite disarming. Margarita salt lingers on the finish making the mouth water. Excellent. 13.5% alcohol. Click to buy.
WINES SCORING BETWEEN 8.5 AND 9
2009 Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc, Western Cape, South Africa $19
Palest greenish gold in color, this wine smells of freshly crushed gooseberries. In the mouth it offers delicate gooseberry and wet stone flavors with perfectly balanced acidity and a wonderful kiwi fruit finish. Delicious. 12% alcohol. Click to buy.
2010 Springfield "Life From Stone" Sauvignon Blanc, Robertson, South Africa $18
Light gold in color, this wine has an intense gooseberry smell to it. In the mouth it is incredibly juicy with tart gooseberry and lime zest and wet rocks. Racy, even searing acidity accompanies these neon green flavors through a long finish. Mouthwatering and explosive. 13% alcohol. Click to buy.
2008 South Hill Sauvignon Blanc, Elgin, South Africa $15
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of apples and vanilla and white flowers. In the mouth, beautifully textured and well balanced flavors of white flowers, apples, and rainwater mix on the palate. Delicate, with slightly soft acidity, this wine is quite elegant. 13.5% alcohol. Click to buy.
2009 Iona Sauvignon Blanc, Elgin, South Africa $19
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones and gooseberries. In the mouth flavors of gooseberry and green apple skin mix with a deep stony minerality that is quite compelling. Crisp and bright with excellent acidity. Delicious. 13.5% alcohol. Click to buy.
2009 Cape Point Vineyards "Isledh" Sauvignon Blanc, Cape Point, South Africa $45
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of sweet oak, apples, and pears. In the mouth it is quite silky, with beautifully balanced acidity that lifts flavors of lemon juice, fuji apples, and a hint of sweet oak across the palate. Delicate and silky, the wine doesn't possess a strong signature of its grape variety however. 14.5% alcohol. Click to buy.
WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8.5
2009 DeGrendel Sauvignon Blanc, Coastal Region, South Africa $16
Light gold in color, this wine smells of the classic mix of cat pee and gooseberries that have made this variety famous. In the mouth, flavors of gooseberry, green apple, and wet stones mingle with a hint of briny green olive that lingers in the finish. 13.5% alcohol. Click to buy.
2009 Ataraxia Sauvignon Blanc, Western Cape, South Africa $23
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of gooseberries and wet chalkboard. In the mouth the wine offers a soft, delicate body of gooseberries, kiwi fruit, and green apple flavors that linger in a long finish. Slightly softer acidity than I might like, but a very pretty wine. 13.5% alcohol. Click to buy.
2009 Villiera "Down to Earth White" Sauvignon Blanc, Stellenbosch, South Africa $13
Pale greenish gold in color, this wine smells of gooseberries and wet stones. In the mouth lush gooseberry and green apple flavors mix with a nice minerality and wonderfully balanced acidity. Tasty. 77% Sauvignon Blanc,, 23% Semillon. 12.5% alcohol. Click to buy.
2010 Villiera "Down to Earth White" Sauvignon Blanc, Stellenbosch, South Africa $13
Light greenish gold in color, this wine smells of green apples and kiwi fruit. In the mouth the wine has a satiny texture and bright kiwi fruit and gooseberry flavors that incorporate lemon zest on the finish. Bright acidity makes the wine quite mouthwatering. 76% Sauvignon Blanc,, 24% Semillon. 13% alcohol. Click to buy.
2010 Wildekrans "Lot 1982" Sauvignon Blanc, Bot River, South Africa $15
Near colorless in the glass with just the tiniest hint of gold, this wine smells of green apples and white flowers. In the mouth delicate flavors of white flowers and green apples preside, but don't turn into much more complexity. Decent acidity and good finish. 12.5% alcohol. Click to buy.
WINES SCORING BETWEEN 8 AND 8.5
2009 Neil Ellis "Sincerely" Sauvignon Blanc, Western Cape, South Africa $8
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of the classic mix of cat pee and gooseberries that made Sauvignon Blanc, infamous. In the mouth the wine has a classic profile as well, with gooseberries, green apple, and kiwi fruit flavors stretched over a wet stone mineral backbone. Nice acidity and juicy flavors, but a bit of alcoholic heat on the finish. 13.5% alcohol.
2009 Villiera Sauvignon Blanc,, South Africa $16
Pale greenish gold in color, this wine has a nose of wet stones, sea air, and gooseberries. In the mouth slightly saline flavors of kiwi fruit, gooseberries, and green apple swirl on a bed of very nice acidity. A bit of heat creeps into the finish, despite the low 13% alcohol.
WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8
2010 Warwick "Professor Black" Sauvignon Blanc, Stellenbosch, South Africa $21
Light gold in color, this wine smells of kiwi fruit and gooseberries. In the mouth the wine offers gooseberry and slightly yeasty green apple flavors that linger in a finish that has a bit of alcoholic heat, despite being just 13% alcohol.
WINES SCORING BETWEEN 7.5 AND 8
2009 Boschendal "Grand Cuvee" Sauvignon Blanc, Coastal Region, South Africa $13
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of brined green olives and gooseberries. In the mouth a tiny hint of the green olive quality mixes with gooseberry and kiwi fruit flavors. Good acidity and nice balance, only marred by a little alcoholic heat on the finish, despite being only 13.5% alcohol.
WINES SCORING BETWEEN 7 AND 7.5
2010 Buitenverwachting "Beyond" Sauvignon Blanc, Coastal Region, South Africa $10
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of bright gooseberry and cucumber aromas. In the mouth the wine offers basic flavors of gooseberry and green apple with a tiny hint of sweetness. Smooth and silky on the tongue, but somewhat one dimensional. 13% alcohol.
2010 Raka Sauvignon Blanc, Klein River, South Africa $17
Palest gold to almost colorless in the glass, this wine smells of warm wheat and lemon juice. In the mouth somewhat featureless flavors of lemon juice and apple, with a hint of yeastiness settle on the palate. Plain. 13.5% alcohol.
WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 7
2010 Fleur du Cap "Bergkelder Selection" Sauvignon Blanc, Western Cape, South Africa $8
Near colorless in the glass with a hint of blonde, this wine smells of white flowers and a hint of yeast. In the mouth a hint of green pepper and light white flowers don't offer much excitement. Decent acidity. Alcoholic heat creeps into the finish, despite a low 13.5% alcohol content.
WINES SCORING BETWEEN 6.5 AND 7
2009 The Partnership Sauvignon Blanc, Western Cape, South Africa $13
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of briny Sicilian green olives. In the mouth the wine offers green olive and gooseberry flavors with somewhat soft acidity. Not much to write home about. 13% alcohol.
2008 Villiera "Bush Vine" Sauvignon Blanc, Western Cape, South Africa $20
Pale greenish gold in color, this wine smells of that traditional blend of cat pee and gooseberries that have made this grape variety infamous. In the mouth, unfortunately a bitter yeasty edge pervades the wine along with its kiwi-fruit flavors that doesn't make for a pleasant overall package. 12.5% alcohol.
WINES SCORING AROUND 6
2010 Buitenverwachting Sauvignon Blanc, Constantia, South Africa $14
Palest gold in the glass with a hint of green, this wine smells of old gym socks and apples. In the mouth green apple and yeasty flavors predominate with soft acidity and a hint of wood on the finish. Lackluster.
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