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Tim James: On Varietal Labelling

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The large majority of South African wine is labelled varietally – that is, the identifying name of a wine is, or at least includes, the name of the variety or varieties from which it’s made. This is a model that we’re so accustomed to that it would be easy to not realise that there are other ways for a wine to be identified. Someone who didn’t know classic European wines could be bewildered when confronted for the first time with labels where the identifier is the region (large or small) from which it is made. You’re expected to know what a St-Julien or a Chassagne-Montrachet will be made from – actually, maybe you’re not. Fifty years ago a typical gentleman drinking in his London club probably wouldn’t have known that cabernet sauvignon was a grape variety, let alone the one dominant in his claret. The obsession with varieties is a modern one.

Varietal naming is most associated with the New World, and its origins are generally considered to be Californian. According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, the concept was nurtured there in the aftermath of prohibition to encourage the planting of good varieties. The practice became dominant during the Californian wine boom of the 1970s “to distinguish the more ambitious wines” from those named generically with labels stolen from classic Europe (“Hearty Burgundy” and the like). From then and there, so the story goes, it spread to the rest of the world.

I mention the Oxford Companion, because its senior editor, the redoubtable Jancis Robinson, contacted me recently, saying that she wanted to augment the “Varietal” entry for the next edition. Could I, she asked, “possibly work out when was the first instance of varietal labelling in South Africa?  And when did it become de rigueur?” So I, in turn, am asking for help in establishing the facts on this interesting topic – especially from people with old material that includes names of Cape wines.

Actually, I already know the answer is likely to surprise those who take the California story as being the last word on the history of varietal labelling. South Africa offers some interesting complications. For a start, the Cape is unique in the New World (I think) in having had for some 300 years a famous wine named, in European fashion, for its origin: Constantia. And government viticulturist Baron von Babo was not the first when in 1885 he complained of the “useless and misleading” habit of adopting foreign names for Cape wines (Madeira was then the most common – see here).

Furthermore, it seems that varietal labelling was used in the Cape at least by the late 19th century. Last year I wrote about five labels owned by Hennie Taljaard which seem to come from then. They included Sweet Constantia Pontac, Frontignac Constantia, Dry Pontac, and Green Grape (as semillon was then known). That is, four of the five used varietal identification, twice in conjunction with origin. The fifth, Tulbagh Hock, used origin plus a stolen German style/origin.

So I can tell Jancis that the first varietal label in South Africa undoubtedly occurred long before it became fashionable in California. But how widespread the practice was as the 20th century dawned, I don’t know – surely not very much so.

And when did it become common here? After the Californian 1970s? Well, C. de Bosdari in his Wines of the Cape of 1954 is already complaining of the common use of generic European names and of alternatives like “South African Ruby Red Wine” in the UK and “Dry Red” at home. A decade or so later, Kenneth Maxwell’s Fairest Vineyards catalogues just about all the registered local wine brands. Amongst the sherries and ports and a few European names (not French ones, as they’d been banned under a 1935 agreement with France), there’s a generous sprinkling of varietalism: Muratie Pinot Noir-Gamay, Vlottenheimer Sylvaner, Nederburg Cabernet, Bruderberg Riesling, etc. I don’t know when those names first appeared.

And how “de rigueur” is varietal labelling these days? It is heavily dominant, certainly. But South Africa also has a long, strong tradition of ambitious blends (including white blends now), most of which avoid varietalism and have more or less silly or grand names – Chateau Libertas, Paul Sauer, Palladius, Rubicon, Fusion V, and the like. And, particularly interesting I think, many of the avant garde producers of this century resolutely avoid mentioning variety on their labels – Sadie and Alheit for example – because what they want to stress is origin (terroir) rather than grape. I wonder if this modern tendency is paralleled elsewhere in the world; it would be interesting to know (how marvellously rich is the cultural story of wine!).

If any reader can supplement or correct or better illustrate the outline I’ve given here, please leave a comment, or contact me directly. I look forward – as will Jancis Robinson – to finding out more about this matter, and will report back.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

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