Lismore, Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Cape South Coast

Rebuilt Lismore winery with Sam O'Keefe and dogs

For International Sauvignon Blanc Day, a truly superior example – recommended even to those who say they don’t like Sauvignon.

From £20.68, $38.99

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Californian Samantha O’Keefe is a brilliant winemaker, working in virtual isolation in a particularly cool spot in South Africa. Her underpriced wines are also delightfully well distributed in both the UK and US.

Her wines therefore tick all the boxes to be chosen as wines of the week. Her 2014 Chardonnay was my wine of the week in 2017 and the 2015 vintage of this Sauvignon was one of Julia’s wines of the week in 2018. You can read all about her most unusual life story in this earlier pair of articles and I make no apology for featuring yet another of her wines today. It really is outstanding – and I chose it before being aware that today was International Sauvignon Blanc Day.

Quite apart from all this, her life was turned upside down at the end of 2019 when, just as the home and business she had so painstakingly built from scratch were coming into their own, a nearby wildfire, said to be started by teenagers, changed direction and destroyed the house and winery, one of her beloved Great Danes, trees she had carefully planted, and her entire 2019 vintage, including the wines she had made specially for the Cape Winemakers Guild, to which she had recently been elected. See more on this heart-rending story in this article from The Buyer and also news of how the CWG rallied round to help in The CWG 2020 auction – with a difference by Tim Jackson MW.

She is so respected and liked that there were many other offers of help, and not just from South Africa. Top wine producers offered grapes and barrels. Alex Dale of Radford Dale and others donated space in his Stellenbosch winery to make a 2020 vintage of sorts, and she has just completed the 2021 vintage in the shell of her new winery in Greyton (see above).

She emailed last weekend:

The current news is that the cellar is up and running. We made the entire 2021 harvest there (it was still being built around us while we worked). It looks eerily similar to the one that was destroyed. I slept on the couch there with the dogs all harvest.

‘On the farm we are clearing the burned forest and rubble. It will take a couple of years for it not to look like a nuclear bomb was dropped on it, but we are making progress. We had a lot of rain in 2020 so everything between is nice and green. I will plant six new hectares [15 acres] this winter and I hope the house will be completed by July or August.’

I had more questions, to which her answers were:

‘We have officially pulled out 2.5 hectares [6.2 acres] of our 14 ha of vineyards. About 2.5 ha of the remaining 11.5 ha [28.4 acres] is really up in the air whether it survives or not. The vines showed varying degrees of vigour this season. According to the Australian studies I have read, only time will tell. Most of the damage was to the Lismore Syrah.

‘Behind me in the picture, you will see poles. We have prepared the soil and planted poles for new vineyards. We will plant the actual vines in July/August.

‘The 2020 vintage was made at Radford Dale (Estate wines, Syrah, Chardonnay and Chenin), Gabrielskloof (Viognier), Almenkerk (Sauvignon Blanc) and Bottlerey Kelder (Chenin). I divided it by cultivar to make it easy on the cellars that offered to help but most of it was at Radford Dale. The rental house was six minutes away. The fruit from the 2020 vintage was from Cape South Coast vineyards that I had already planned to buy, but there was an enormous amount of donated fruit. Some of the wines will be Western Cape in 2020 for that reason. Of the fruit from the estate in 2020, the Syrah and the Viognier didn’t make it to bottle. There was too much smoke taint and damage. I did try, but it wasn’t good enough. The Chardonnay was vinified in separate blocks. There were some blocks that were thrown out, but luckily there were some that were gorgeous. The only 2020 Estate Reserve Wine is Chardonnay.

‘2020 was the most abundant and healthy harvest my vines had ever produced. Things were going so well, after 17 years. Having planted every vine and built this farm from nothing, it was all gone … I still can’t believe it.

‘The boys and I are still in the rented house in Somerset West, but they are boarding now so I have been sleeping on a sleeper couch in the cellar since January trying to push the builders to finish and then we slid into harvest. 2021 was made entirely in the new cellar from what remains of my fruit and bought-in fruit from the Cape South Coast. The standard Lismore range has been WO Cape South Coast in varying degrees since 2016 as I started selecting the Greyton fruit for the Estate Reserve Range.’

In my email to O’Keefe I had called her brave but she denies this. ‘I am not brave, just determined. I still have a staff, a farm and children. I have no choice but to put my head down and put it all back together. It is not only my life’s work, most of my staff have worked for me their entire adult lives. It is their life’s work as well.’

I should stress that this wine of the week was chosen on the basis of pure quality rather that out of sympathy, as will be clear from my tasting note on this wine earlier this year:

Dry-farmed vines, indigenous yeasts. 30% fermented in concrete egg, the rest in 500-litre oak.
Bright green-gold. Very minerally with satin texture and an attractive lime-juice undertow. Real depth even if without any obvious oakiness. Serious, substantial wine with a lot more life than many a Pessac-Léognan. Bone-dry finish. Probably best drunk with food. Impressive persistence. VGV 17/20 Drink 2020–2023

Julia’s from September 2019:

Dry farmed, indigenous yeasts. This is now 30% fermented in concrete egg, the rest in 500-litre oak.
My first Sauvignon Blanc of the day and what a treat. There’s a light herbal quality to tell you the variety but not to shout. Then there’s a touch of mealy creaminess. Outstanding balance on the palate between herby citrus fruit, lemon purity and the chalky yet rounded texture of the two fermentation styles. Mouth-watering finish with the fruit full charge at the end. VGV compared with, say, a top white bordeaux. 17.5/20 Drink 2019–2023

Do you get the picture? This is one of the most sophisticated Sauvignons you are likely to encounter, the sort of wine to serve instead of a white burgundy.

On International Women’s Day I participated in an online discussion organised by the Manchester wine store Salut. Discussing how women in wine are perceived, O’Keefe told the story of how she had come to London with a group of New Wave South African winemakers, for the tasting where Julia’s note above was taken in fact. On the first day she dressed up in her smartest, ex California career-woman clothes and found that everyone assumed she was the sales or marketing person and took no notice of her. On the second she dressed more like the other winemakers, in a T-shirt and jeans, and found the reaction of tasters was completely different, and much more interested.

In another, earlier online discussion about the role of women in wine she put me right about whether there was a difference between wines made by women and wines made by men – about which I had been sceptical previously. She maintains, on the basis of observation of how (South African?) men make wine, that her tasting regime during winemaking is more thorough, nuanced and sensitive, resulting in finer, more subtle wines.

This wine would seem to make her point. It’s available from a wide array of UK independent retailers (her UK importer Steve Daniel says ‘Yes they have good distribution. The wines are great so not too difficult’) and also from several US retailers including US importer is Kysela Pere et Fils.

You won’t see any Lismore 2019s but I would happily recommend any 2018s and 2020s made by O’Keefe on the basis of the 38 wines of hers tasted so far, from 2011 onwards.