“Huge ageing potential” for South African Sauvignon Blanc?

Elgin producer Andrew Gunn made a case for the ageing potential of South African Sauvignon Blanc, hosting a blind vertical tasting of a decade of Iona.

“Don’t be nervous of seeing an older Sauvignon Blanc on the shelf if it’s from a cooler region,” he remarked.

This argument was supported when the most popular wine in the room was revealed to be the 2004, with the oldest wine from 2001 still holding up well.

Gunn cited a cool climate, minimal intervention and allowing the grape to reach full physiological ripeness as the most important elements to creating Sauvignon Blanc with longevity.

Having bought the former apple farm in 1997, when there was just one other wine producer in Elgin, Gunn, an engineer by training, built up a database of soil and climate in order to understand the region and its potential for producing good quality wine.

Comparing Elgin to Bordeaux, he pointed to his “longer ripening season”, despite Elgin having a warmer spring and autumn.

As for South Africa’s other wine growing areas, Gunn suggested: “Wines from cooler regions can have huge ageing potential, but not in the warmer regions.”

Gunn also advocated a more hands-off approach from winemakers, remarking: “Sauvignon Blanc is such a manipulated variety. If you can make it with minimal intervention then you can make wines that will age.”

Turning his attention to the vineyard, Gunn distinguished his own approach from that of many South African Sauvignon Blanc producers, observing: “I’m not so keen on green pepper and asparagus; riper is the way to go – you get more complexity.”

Elaborating on this theme, he explained: “Picking when the grapes are physiologically ripe is critical but that window is only three to four days to really get it right.”

In order to stagger ripening, Gunn uses nine different clones, three different rootstocks and plants his vines at different orientations to the sun.

The 10 blocks are all harvested and vinified separately before being blended to create the 10,000 cases of Iona Sauvignon Blanc produced each year. Since 2008, the blend has contained up 4% of Semillon for added weight and complexity.

While agreeing that the majority of sommeliers are only interested in buying the most recent vintage, Gunn revealed: “There are certain restaurants that ask for older vintages,” citing Delaire restaurant in Stellenbosch as an example.

Drawing attention to the 25 brands now based in Elgin, following a “euphoric period” between 2001 and 2006, Gunn went so far as to claim “Elgin has the potential to be the greatest wine region in South Africa.”

The problem, he accepted, is the fact that “there’s still a big percentage of apples being grown, which is far more profitable.”

He also flags up the region’s unsung contribution to other wines, saying: “A lot of producers are buying fruit from our region but it’s not disclosed.”

An in-depth analysis of the health of the South African wine market will appear in October’s issue of the drinks business.

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