Wines from the earth

Biodiversity’s links with wine are put to the test during an international Sauvignon taste off by US Sauvignon winemaker and lecturer John Buechsenstein for a group of local winemakers and marketers. Kim Maxwell reports.
In South Africa’s quest for distinctive, authentic wines, our wine terrain is getting a second look by soil and vine experts. The Biodiversity & Wine Initiative (BWI) examines over 9600 plant species endemic to South Africa, and finds mutually beneficial elements between fynbos conservation and sustainable wine production on our 100,000 ha total vineyard area. Using this framework of indigenous floral kingdoms growing in biodiversity hotspots on limited site-specific terroir, wine producers are using unique soils and microclimates to reflect regional flavour profiles in their wines. Varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc seem to show the most expressive potential in this regard. The thinking is that within a range of flavour profiles from various wards, an Elim Sauvignon Blanc should taste markedly different to an Elgin, Robertson, Darling or Stellenbosch one. American Sauvignon Blanc winemaker and University of Davis Extension lecturer John Buechsenstein is rather interested in SA Sauvignon Blanc too. With three partners including a James Beard award-winning chef, a restaurateur and a fourth-generation wine producer, Buechsenstein has set up a borderless nation called Sauvignon Republic, and he wants to add an SA component to the international mix. The California-based company’s premise is that Sauvignon Blanc expresses ‘terroir’ more profoundly than any other variety. They also believe that in food terms, Sauvignon Blanc, more than other white varieties, has the ability to embrace flavours from Asian, Hispanic and European to Indian and Mediterranean flavours. In short, that Sauvignon Blanc is immensely food-friendly in the world of white wine. ‘In marketing international Sauvignon Blanc, we’re all selling that French concept of originalité – flavours that come from the area or place of origin, in the same way as olives or cheese – and typicité – each wine should be true to type, and expressive of that grape,’ says Buechsenstein, referring to Sancerre as a good example. ‘Secondly, in our case, Sauvignon Republic is crafting expensive, terroir-reflective Sauvignon Blancs. Our mission is to explore the unique viticultural areas of the world and assemble a portfolio of expressive Sauvignons. Our challenges as winemakers are discovering and deciphering the local flavours that define terroir. The last thing you’d want to do with grapes grown in a special place such as say, Marlborough, is to make that wine in an international style.’ His thinking is surely on a similar tack with SA’s wine and biodiversity proponents. Interestingly, for a New World winemaker used to working with vintners in France and Italy, Buechsenstein questions the effects of human intervention. ‘How much of wine is nature and how much is nurture? Terroiristes say winemakers are not important; it’s all in the grapes. But that’s surely the nurture part. And does stylistic intervention violate the terroir? My view is that wine is always a manufactured product. If wine were made in the wild, fine. But human intervention is necessary, and choices are made all along. So you can’t subtract the human element from any definition of terroir.’ Serving ten Sauvignon Blancs blind to isolate different Sauvignon Blanc styles, Buechsenstein switches to teacher mode. Surprises alongside his Marlborough and Sancerre examples include an oxidative marmalade-style 2003 Friuli from Italy, a 2004 honey/herbal wine from tiny Saint-Bris village in Burgundy, a jump-out-of-the-glass asparagus Austrian 2001 from Styria and a tropical-style 2004 from Casablanca Valley in Chile. He defines three schools of Sauvignon flavour: fruity (citrus, tropical fruit, green fig, apple/pear, minerality), vegetal-grassy-herbal (green grass, hay, pyrazines, cat, canned vegetables, lemongrass, gooseberry, herbs, minerality) and stylised oak fermentation or ageing or lees ageing (vanillin, butter, burnt popcorn, honey-hay, nectar, minerality). Clashes occur when very aggressive, high-character Sauvignon Blanc with lots of pyrazines and cat, is combined with too many stylised butter/oak elements. ‘People in South Africa seem to lean more towards reductive styles. I’ve seen fairly stylised – barrel fermented and sur lees – and not many oxidative styles here. Some producers are doing more wooded styles, which are not my favourite. As a winemaker I want to make less stylised wines so the consumer sees more transparent fruit,’ Buechsenstein suggests. ‘Local character profiles seem to include more canned versions of asparagus. Most quality is great and the wines very terroir-expressive. In general, my tastings of what seemed to be the cooler regions for Sauvignon Blanc – Constantia, Darling Hills, Stellenbosch, Elgin and Elim - revealed some dazzling wines. Really good acidity and flavour profiles. Although of course, I’ve also seen simpler white styles, where it’s not easy to tell where they’re from. ‘The great thing about Sauvignon Blanc,’ concludes Buechsenstein, ’is you can stroke it, manipulate it, to give a whole range of options.’