What wood’s good?

As the dust begins to rise on a new year in the Cape wine lands (for the summer season is once more back with its true South-Easter howl), the appraisal of the white wines of 2005 begins to mount. Nearly a year since that harvest, and the sauvignon blancs have had their chance to settle (if they haven’t mostly been drunk by now) and some chardonnays are arriving.

For sauvignons, 2005 was both triumphal and forgettable. A few producers have made superb examples, and more and more it is those producers with a track record that do this, like Steenberg, Mulderbosch, Neil Ellis, Spier, Durbanville Hills. Another aspect of the vintage that was expressed in many examples I tasted was a moderate level of alcohol, a very pleasant 12,5% being common. I often feel a sense of relaxation coming over me when I spot a figure like this on the label, as if another glass is a guaranteed proposition.

But what this vintage’s moderate alcohols also introduced were many sauvignons that were nothing more than light beverages, producers not finding the sweet spot of juicy fruit before the sugar came along to help. In this light, it’s no surprise that many of the good ones were from the areas that are known to be good sauvignon spots, cooler conditions and all that. At the same time, experience with the variety is vital, so that the vintage conditions are read appropriately.

Sauvignon has never been my favourite white, it can be a mean drink when loaded with hard acids and licks of sweetness, but a good one is still a great litmus of vineyard quality. This is because sauvignon is a relatively pure expression of place when made honestly. A wine-maker cannot hide behind lashings of fine (fine smelling and very tasty) wood and is less likely to have the time to blend the wine to preconceived specifications.

Honesty in wine is something we do need to fight for, and so long as the sauvignon is pure, it is a bare-faced variety. Now if only we can convince producers to begin to add more honesty back into other wines… a good place to start is by asking them to use less new wood. As new year’s wishes go, this is a hopelessly romantic one, but one day we can hope that wines will more and more be about the grape than the French or American oak.

If we want to express the uniqueness of our vineyards it seems counterproductive to continue to age wines in excessive amounts of oak which is both foreign and powerfully affects the natural aroma, flavour and structure of the actual wine. Winemakers always talk of not making their wines according to a formula. I fear that their standing order with foreign coopers often gives the lie to this claim.