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The chemistry of Sauvignon
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Winemakers go green over savvy

By Graham Howe

Methoxypyrazine is quite a mouthful over dinner. I'm delighted to report that it goes well in the glass with wild mushroom in a cappuccino cup. In fact, it's becoming quite common parlance in the new chemistry of winespeak. Unveiling his new Sauvignon Blanc 2003 at Catharina's at Steenberg, cellar master John Loubser explained that the chemical compound found in the skin of Sauvignon Blanc (and Cabernet Sauvignon) creates the instantly recognizable green, herbaceous characteristics of the variety.

Methoxy-wotzit is difficult enough to spell let alone pronounce after a few glasses of wine. By the fourth course of kingklip, scallop and prawn satay - paired with Steenberg's new Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2003, a fine food and wine evening was focused on the magical elixir of Methoxypyrazine. The learned winemaker explained that our palate picks up trace amounts of the flavour compound at a threshold of four parts in one trillion - comparable to a microscopic pebble next to Mount Everest. What's more, it tends to be more concentrated in Sauvignon grapes grown in cooler areas of France and New Zealand - producing those zesty green capsicum, gooseberry, asparagus and pea flavours.

‘Steenberg is Sauvignon Blanc’ Loubser declared at a second food and wine tasting at Lake Pleasant hotel on the garden route 48 hours later. Bottled on Tuesday, the white wine had had four days to settle. The evidence suggests it travels well - but then so do I. Believe it or not, it's not often that I do dinner presented by the same winery twice in one week. Our lesson in Sauvignon continued over a new menu and a new chef. The tropical flavours of the standard Sauvignon Blanc (with granadilla, lychee and melon highlights) contrasted with the lean, flinty, mineral flavours of the Sauvignon Blanc Reserve.

Before presenting Steenberg's new barrel-fermented Semillon 2003, the flagship Catharina red blend and Nebbiolo 2001, Loubser rode his Savvy hobby-horse again. The secret behind Steenberg Sauvignon Blanc Reserve, he believes, is the distinct terroir of the single vineyard that is the closest to False Bay in the Constantia Valley. He emphasized that the lean soils, the cool climate and the higher levels of Methoxypyrazine in one of the best Savvy sites, defines the racy, mineral quality of Steenberg Sauvignon - underpinned by those highly desirable green pepper, gooseberry and kiwi fruit flavours.

Other winemakers are also hot in pursuit of the magical alchemy of Methoxypyrazine. Martin Moore, winemaker at Durbanville Hills, makes three styles of Sauvignon Blanc - under the single vineyard Biesjes Kraal, Rhinofields reserve and premium labels. Anticipating an outstanding Sauvignon Blanc year in 2003, he says, ‘Our premium Sauvignon Blanc 2003 is fruitier with a stronger grass and asparagus character due to the greater concentration of methoxypyrazine in the skins, so typical of cooler years.’ He adds that Biesjes Craal Sauvignon 2003, made from a block of young vines high in the hills, also shows a dusty grassy character, with strong tropical and cantaloupe flavours.

Ernst Gouws, the winemaker owner at Hoopenburg has the last word on the chemistry of Sauvignon. At a recent tasting of Hoopenburg Sauvignon Blanc 2003, Gouws affirmed that 2003 is one of the best ever vintages. Signaling a shift in style, the new release is made from a blend of grapes sourced 25% from Durbanville and 75% from Wellington (formerly 100% from this area). Balancing the tropical fruit and citrus flavours of warmer climes with the zesty green fig, grass, green apple and gooseberry qualities of cooler climate vines, Gouws has taken a subtle change of direction - inspired no doubt by the magical properties of methoxypyrazine. Winemakers are going green in savvy style.

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