Does terroir get enough respect in SA?

By , 28 March 2018




A special patch of dirt.

Blending masks terroir. Is that a fair comment? Terroir is the notion that wine should taste of the place where the grapes grow. Wine, of course, does not make itself so you have to factor in how one particular winemaker as opposed to another might choose to convey place, via the medium of grape, to drinker but the capacity of a wine to express its sense of place is generally seen as the decisive quality factor.

In South Africa, the term “single vineyard wine” may only be used in respect of wine produced from grapes derived from a production unit which is registered with the authorities – such a production unit must consist of a single variety and the area may not exceed six hectares. It is curious that more producers do not avail themselves of this designation and, moreover, that the official register is considered confidential.

Some of our best winemakers seem conflicted as to whether or not they should pursue a single vineyard model. New releases from Lukas van Loggerenberg of Van Loggerenberg Wines, for instance, include Kameraderie Chenin Blanc 2017 which is made entirely from a 2ha Paarl block  planted in 1960 (R400 a bottle) as well as Trust Your Gut Chenin Blanc 2017, 45% of grapes from Stellenbosch, 45% Swartland and 10% from the same Paarl block as Kameraderie (R370).

Samantha O’Keefe of Lismore in Greyton will shortly be releasing a Chardonnay 2016, 80% own grapes and 20% from Kaaimansgat whereas her Chardonnay Reserve 2017 is 100% true to her own property. Her Syrah 2017 is 40% own grapes and 60% Elgin whereas the Syrah Reserve 2017 is again 100% from her own grapes.

To some extent both Van Loggerenberg and O’Keefe are forced to buy in grapes from multiple sites in order to have sufficient volumes to be economically viable but what then of the new wines from Leeu Passant where you would think financial constraints are less of an issue?  In the case of the second-vintage 2016s, Andrea and Chris Mullineux have a Chardonnay from a single, late-ripening, Helderberg vineyard and the so-called Dry Red Wine which consists of 37.5% Cabernet Sauvignon from Stellenbosch, 37.5% Cinsaults sourced jointly from old vines sourced jointly from Franschhoek and Wellington and 25% Cabernet Franc again from Stellenbosch. Is the former a “terroir wine” and the latter not?

In the Old World, the vintners, especially those whose families have been growing vines in the same location for generations, know exactly which sites consistently yield exceptional as opposed to only good as opposed to mediocre wines. This allows them to add a qualitative element to their various classification systems, which helps orient consumers accordingly.

Site-specific wines which have shown themselves to be significant in terms of consistently producing wines of the greatest quality but also individuality are the next step in the development of the modern South African wine industry. It is not a process to be completed overnight but will require careful observation and analysis by all stakeholders probably over a decade or two. It might be argued that it has already begun, the Old Vine Project being a notable initiative in this regard, but the realization that greatness comes from the vineyard and not the cellar needs to become more widespread and entrenched.


2 comment(s)

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    Christian Eedes | 28 March 2018

    Hi Tim, As I understand, the Leeu Passant Chardonnay 2016 IS a single vineyard, the Mullineuxs so enamoured with it that they were happy to give up on the Kaaimansgat counterpart which featured among the maiden releases. I guess all I’m trying to do is get those of us with an interest in the top end of the industry to re-examine once again what constitutes “greatness” – our winemakers might very often be compelled to blend in order to achieve complexity when measured in technical terms (getting pyrazine AND thiol counts up on Sauvignon Blanc, for instance) but it increasingly seems to me that by identifying a truly remarkable (and probably necessarily finite) site, a producer is then on his or her way to a wine not just good in technical terms but something that is irreplicable and therefore that much more worthy of contemplation – Palladius might capture a certain “Swartlandness” (with Badenhorst White, David & Nadia Aristargos and Mullineux Old Vines White variations on a theme) but there will only ever be one ‘T Voetpad.

    Tim James | 28 March 2018

    While your general point has validity, Christian, it’s not always that winemakers are conflicted; sometimes they’re trying to do something different from what you think they should be after. For example, Sadie Columella and Palladius have always been blends – of varieties and origins, in order to achieve the kind of balance and profile that Eben was certain he couldn’t achieve from a single site (or variety) in the Swartland. The terroir he was wanting to express was that of the Swartland. A few Swartland single origin wines (including from Sadie) have shown that it is possible to achieve complexity and balance – but I think you’ll find that they are always in extremely small volumes. Volume is a vital consideration, including for some (and perhaps all) of the examples you give; perhaps if the makers of Leeu Passant could get even closer to the prices achieved by top-end white Burgundy, they might have been more interested in a single vineyard chardonnay (but that’s a guess; it would be great to get a response to you from them).

    Obviously, too, as soon as you want to blend varieties (which I’m sure you’ll agree is an eminently respectable thing to do) you generally move away from the Burgundy-German model that’s the basis for the single vineyard idea, which has always been a more forceful one in continental rather than maritime climates.

    It’s also worth remembering, when you bemoan the South African producer’s comparative lack of interest in single-vineyard wines, that many of the most ambitious producers make their wines from single estates and, very often what are undeclared single vineyards. I’d guess that it’s those who are obliged to buy-in grapes, on the whole, that opt for the single-vineyard declaration.

    Nonetheless I would agree that it’s a great pity that there are so many expensive wines that have a “Western Cape” or “Coastal Region” origin.

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