New World Sauvignon

New Zealand set the world alight when it started producing quality Sauvignon Blanc back in the 1980s. Now Chile and South Africa are catching up, says SARA BASRA

W hen new zealand Sauvignon Blanc burst onto the wine world back in the early 1980s, it marked something of a watershed. Bold, bright, racy, upfront, it screamed out its identity. Delivering full-on fruit expression, it was for many of us one of the first wines labelled by grape variety that hit the mark.

At its best, Marlborough Sauvignon still remains the New World’s front-runner. But no longer can the Kiwis lay exclusive southern hemisphere claim to greatness with this grape. New World Sauvignon is on something of a roll, with South Africa and Chile emerging as serious players.

So what makes for exciting, quality Sauvignon? Its very appeal lies not just in its intense, primary, sharp-green-gooseberry flavours, but also – in the best examples – in its complex, alluring aromatic spectrum. Yet much of inland Chile and South Africa, and parts of New Zealand, can be very hot indeed. And the snag is that the aromatics – in particular those distinctive green grassy methoxypyrazines – are quickly burnt off by direct sunlight and heat.

COOL LOCATIONS

How to combat this is the $64 million question. South African winemaker Gyles Webb’s solution is predictable: ‘Location, location, location.’ The single key factor in the meteoric rise of Chilean and South African Sauvignon has been the move to cooler sourcing areas. Longer maturation delivers better flavours and better balance. Another tactic is to harvest parts of the crop at different, staggered pick times, with a view to capturing the maximum of Sauvignon’s wide aromatic spectrum.

Cool region sourcing, staggered pickings – if only it was that simple. Quality Sauvignon demands some pretty fine attention to detail in vineyard management. As John Loubser, winemaker at Steenberg in South Africa, says: ‘Sauvignon Blanc is made in the vineyard.’ First, there’s the question of yield. In all three countries, the better producers are now cropping fairly low. Then there’s the challenge of striking the right balance with canopy management. Sauvignon sprouts vigorous foliage, and it’s been a learning process for all three countries to discover just how much canopy works best.

Too little, and the fruit gets burnt; too much, and the flavours remain unripe. Scott Jackson, winemaker at Valdivieso in Chile, explains how practices have improved: ‘Three years ago, people were cutting back leaves like crazy. Now the idea is to protect the fruit from the strong afternoon sun, and we only remove leaves from the side that gets the morning sun.’

Equally, all three countries irrigate, with the better producers now putting serious research into precision irrigation, in part to control vine vigour.

But yield control, canopy management and precision irrigation are only feasible if supported by firm grape prices and price points. These are now starting to come through for South Africa, and to a lesser extent for Chile. Simon Grier, viticulturist at Villiera in Stellenbosch explains: ‘The information [to improve production] was available but not used, because to do so was costly and people weren’t being paid for improvements.’

One key difference between the countries is labour, both in terms of skill and costs. Mike Insley, viticulturist at Montana in Marlborough, is emphatic: ‘New Zealand is high cost – we don’t have a peasant economy.’ In South Africa, Mike Dobrovic at Mulderbosch states: ‘If you pay peanuts, you don’t get skilled labour. The top estates are now paying enough, but training and pay improvements are needed lower down the scale.’

IN THE WINERY

Back in the winery, everyone is now trying to manage temperature and work reductively to preserve all those great Sauvignon flavours. In Chile and South Africa, especially with the simple, low-priced wines, there’s more reliance on aromatic yeasts, which add upfront but short-lived flavours. Skin contact before pressing is fairly common, while this practice has now been largely dropped in Marlborough. Detractors would say that skin contact and aromatic yeasts are attempts to add something which is naturally lacking. Abrie Bruwer, of Springfield in South Africa, makes the fair comment: ‘It is okay to use aromatic yeasts, but the effect is shortlived unless there’s more flavour there.’

It’s unlikely that we’ll see another Marlborough spring up overnight but the brio with which these challenges are being taken up indicates a highly encouraging future for Sauvignon Blanc.