Some things stay the same, but some things are always changing. When it comes to farming, few things remain constant. Soil type, altitude, aspect (which direction the vineyard faces) and row direction are such examples.  These don’t change over a period of 10 years.  But when it comes to climate, the elements are changing all the time, and they seem to be getting more extreme by the year!

Sauvignon Blanc is very sensitive to climate change (I’m not talking here about global climate change that you hear about on the news, I’m talking about the natural ebbs and flows that we experience in the Western Cape, and specifically the meso-climate of Constantia),  starting from the date of budding (around September) all the way till harvest around February.

I often talk about the two styles of Sauvignon Blanc: Green or Fruity.  Green styles have flavours of green-pepper, asparagus, tinned peas and freshly mown lawn.  The chemicals responsible for these flavours are called pyrazines.  While pyrazines add a crisp/fresh element to the wine, it is usually (not always) a sign that the grapes weren’t 100% ripe and perhaps should have been left a few days longer on the vine before harvesting.

The other style, Fruity, has flavours of passion fruit, gooseberry (tropical) and grapefruit.  These chemicals are called thiols and are indicative of a ripe, or over-ripe, grape.  The thiols aren’t actually present in the grape, only their precursors are, but you can easily taste the increase in fruit-flavour in the vineyard as the grape ripens further and further.

One may mistakenly think that this leaves an easy choice for the winemaker:  If you pick early you get pyrazine wines (think New Zealand style) and if you pick late you get fruity style wines (prevalent in South Africa.) But you must remember that if you pick early, you have a very tart acid, and if you pick late you have a very high alcohol.  Both of these elements ruin the balance and elegance of the wine, so the role of the winemaker is to make sure that the grapes are picked at optimum ripeness.  And for Sauvignon Blanc this window period is about 4 to 7 days in which you need to make the right call.

When it comes to vintages, we normally distinguish between warmer and colder vintages.  From the above notes, it should be plain to see now that we can expect a higher level of pyrazines in cooler vintages, and a higher level of thiols in warmer vintages.  If you are able to come and taste wine at our tunnel, you will taste the 2021 next to the 2022 Constantia Royale.  This is a great example of a cool (’21) vs warm (’22) vintage.

From my experience, temperature and sunlight have the biggest influence on Sauvignon Blanc.  There are many tricks we have up our sleeves to counteract the negative influence of an extreme year.  For example, in a cooler, cloudier year we will aim to remove leaves around the fruit, allowing more warmth and sunlight than usual.  We can also let the upward shoots grow longer, since tipping them (breaking off the tip of the upright shoot) promotes the growth of side shoots, which can increase the leaf density around the fruit, making extra shade and work for ourselves.

In a warmer year, we can make sure the fruit is not too exposed to the elements, as the fruit can get sunburnt and give the wine a raisin flavour, or the acid can drop out and the wine can become flabby.

Lastly, wine naturally mellows and develops complexity through bottle maturation.  So even if you had two very consistent vintages, the older wine should always taste less fresh, but more complex.  The fruitiness of Sauvignon Blanc is what we call a primary flavour since this is the first flavour that develops during fermentation.  But with ageing, the fruitiness is transformed into more savoury/umami notes, and we call these flavours tertiary.  Most people are attracted to the younger, primary flavours of Sauvignon, but as you get to taste more and more wine, the “developed” style becomes more interesting, and often more food-friendly.

At the end of the day, as I always say, whichever wine you like best in the moment, that’s the best wine.  So play around with different vintages, but always be honest to yourself, and drink what you like best!