Does typicity apply to South African wine?

By , 23 November 2021

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Stellenbosch.

“Typicity is a taste memory formed over a period of time,” says Jonathan Steyn of UCT’s Graduate School of Business. “It’s when people both inside and outside a particular area come to agreement as to how the resulting wines should taste. It’s important because it goes towards crafting the marketing narrative”.

He was talking before a recent “Regional Identity Tasting” convened by Stellenbosch Wine Routes, part of a larger project to “unpack the terroirs and sub-sites” of the district. On the day, the greater Stellenbosch had been divided into four sections – north, south, east and west – and panellists were asked to blind-taste different flights of either white or red wine with a view to discerning any overarching similarities and furthermore trying to identify the specific origin of the flight

Those involved included the likes of Kevin Arnold of Waterford, Warren Ellis of Neil Ellis Wines and Danie Steytler Jnr of Kaapzicht so there was no shortage of expertise on hand, but the assembled group still found it difficult to discern binding resemblances between the wines of any one flight, differences in winemaking approaches tending to obscure the impact of terroir.

The point was in fact made that the stylistics that resonates with the consumer are often at odds with production that is intent on respecting the vineyard or revealing site. That is to say, wines that succeed commercially are typically made to be as ripe and full-flavoured as possible and therefore can quickly become generic.

Does the above mean that trying to articulate what makes Simonsberg Simonsberg and Helderberg Heldeberg is a vain pursuit? The Hemel en Aarde provides an interesting case study in this regard. When the producers of the area were so adamant about designating three smaller wards (Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge) in the late 2000s, many thought the initiative was misguided as it would lead to unnecessary obfuscation.

It has subsequently turned out to be a masterstroke on the basis that this deliberate complexification (to coin a term) has equated to premiumisation. Those with a low level of involvement in the subject of wine don’t care anyway while those with a high level of involvement don’t necessarily need to understand all the intricacies, they simply need to know that what they are about to consume is elaborate and involved and therefore worthy of paying extra.

Less cynically, one of the most important determinants of typicity is surely time. As we all know, the French have been recording and classifying wines according to their cru (which is to say their geographical origin) and the prices they fetched for centuries, and thus the relative fame of appellations and even individual properties.

It may be difficult to find the language to adequately differentiate Simonsberg from Helderberg at this stage, but just as there is now a nexus of trade and well-heeled consumers who can relatively easily identify St.-Estèphe versus Pauillac verus St.-Julien versus Margaux due to institutional knowledge and simply drinking the wines often enough, there lies a point in the future where the same will apply to Stellenbosch. Moreover, respecting terroir and meeting market expectations are not mutually exclusive but rather two assignments that must be attended to simultaneously – again, Bordeaux has been doing it for decades.

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  • Ratcliffe Michael25 November 2021

    Well said Christian – a difficult subject to comment on, but you nailed it anyway. I believe that the pursuit of regional typicality is really about the journey, not necessarily about the destination.

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