Is SA fine wine finally getting beyond variety?

By , 10 August 2021

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It was on a trip to France that started in Chablis and finished in Sancerre in the early 2010s that I came to a particularly acute realisation that place is more important than grape variety when it comes to great terroir – tasting extensively, it was extraordinary how similar the white wines of the two regions presented in terms of their inherent sappiness even though they are constituted from different varieties, Chardonnay in Chablis and Sauvignon Blanc in Sancerre.

The quality of South African fine wine has tracked seemingly endlessly upward in the modern era, a phenomenon that has been delightful to follow but also difficult to explain. Perhaps, however, a consideration of varieties was less important than any of us imagined, and it all comes down to terroir.

On a basic level, we all buy into the idea that the best wines reflect the interplay of soil, climate and topography. There is also a human element that is crucial to the concept in that it is only by experimentation, decades if not centuries of trial and error, that wine starts to take on regional character rather than variety.

Get terroir right and place becomes paramount. The classical European model of wine is that it has an address. When it comes to Barolo or Montrachet or Paulliac, the grape varieties involved are almost immaterial.

Matt Day of Klein Constantia.

It may well be time to re-introduce the concept of terroir into the local wine debate and it was an experience I had last week that helped crystallize this thought. I was tasting with Matt Day, winemaker at Klein Constantia, an array of wines made up of various examples of Sauvignon Blanc in front of us, and while the overall quality was undeniable, their success was not premised on being true to variety but rather to site. Less about pyrazines and thiols and more about a local flavour, a certain “South African-ness” if you will.

Klein Constantia, of course, has come a long way with Sauvignon Blanc, this being a key focus since the Joostes took over the property in the 1980s, the maiden vintage 1986 as made by the late Ross Gower very much steeped in legend. The property changed ownership in 2011 and the variety has only received more attention since then. Philosophically, however, everything that Day does is aimed at removing any winemaking imprint and letting the property’s identity come to the fore.

My moment of epiphany came when tasting the 2019 vintage of Block 382, this vinified in a second-fill 500-litre barrel but a wine that initially left Day so nonplussed that he transferred to a much older barrel and left if to mature for 20 months altogether, much longer than he would usually. Now, however, it stops you in your tracks.

On the nose, it has a note of fynbos to go with pear and lime plus a little flinty reduction and that fynbos, as opposed to an under-ripe green-ness, is starting to become a defining feature of SA’s very best wines, whether they be white or red. Does it have anything to do with growing vines in the Cape Floral Region, the smallest and relatively most diverse of the world’s six floral kingdoms? Apparently, something special is going on with these skies, slopes and soils…

The palate, meanwhile, has the same mouthwatering vinosity, the same weightless intensity that the very best examples of old-vine Chenin tend to show. Drink this Sauvignon Blanc next to Plat’bos 2019 from David & Nadia, say, or Huilkrans 2019 from Alheit and their respective varieties that the wines are made from becomes pretty much irrelevant relative to their country of origin. The sense of visceral excitement that these wines generate is the same. South Africa has long struggled to use place to sell its wine perhaps because there was no real overarching flavour or character. Until now, that is.

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  • Tim Parsons13 August 2021

    We have new neighbours here in Cape Town who have arrived from NYC. We’ve taken to challenging one another’s wines. My Cab Sav vs theirs, Round 1 Vergelegen Special Reserve 2008 vs Cade 2017, Round 2 La Riche 2012 vs O’Shaunessy 2017. The difference is the terroir, the American wines are too flavoured by the oak, very rich, consistent and full of vanilla notes while the SA wines are all about where they are from, there is complexity, a difference from top to bottom of the bottle, all sorts of subtlety. Add price to the mix and our wines were between 25% to 33% cheaper than their US rivals. Am I being unfair? I think our wines rock, we are on a roll and we should enjoy them while we can, within 5 -10 years most of it will head north, attracted by the higher returns.

  • David van Breda Smith12 August 2021

    Excellent article Christian and agree with the fact that in 10 years time or so, I am sure that we will be buying wine because of its location and terroir and not because of its cultivar.
    Having spent the last 25 years in Canada and drinking American wine, we have not however found this to be the case as far as NAPA and Sonoma are concerned – they are all very much of a muchness. However some stand out areas have developed such as Oregon and its wonderful Pinots, and our favourite being the Cabs from a small valley between San Francisco and LA called the Paso Robles. Simply outstanding.

  • Rolff11 August 2021

    I love SA wines right now. The terroir is coming through sooo well and as you point out the Swartland Chenins are becoming easy to find on the blind tasting palate.
    Well done to our wine makers!!!!

  • Rioja11 August 2021

    Christian , for me a sauvignon blanc from south africa tastes ,more or less, similar to a sb from new zealand and very different to a chenin blanc from south africa. are you saying for you it is different?

    • Christian Eedes11 August 2021

      Hi Rioja, What I’m saying, and it’s a delicate argument, is that when wine is made with minimal intervention then country, region and site start to become more important than variety. On one level, referring to “French wine” or “Italian wine” is so vague as to be meaningless and yet we all do – what connotations does “South African wine” have? I think this is an interesting conversation to re-iginite. I totally agree, by the way, that Sauvignon Blanc made super-reductively with innoculated yeast is going to taste generic.

  • Kwispedoor11 August 2021

    There is something else here that I think many modern-day winemakers are missing. All that time in old oak.

    Look at our long-lived red wines of the 60’s and 70’s – they often spent 2-3 years in old oak barrels. Look at the stunning Radicales Libres whites from Mullineux, that can get even up to five years in old oak. The stability of a wine over such an extended period in a barrel changes its dynamics. Of course the constraints of especially space and capital/cash flow is an issue here (and it wouldn’t work with all kinds of wines and cultivars either) , but I would love to see more winemakers experiment with this.

  • Roman Kerze10 August 2021

    Very interesting. Must say I think I sit somewhere on the fence. Completely agree that Terroir is what is most fascinating about wine… but the wines who give my favourite expressions of site are those that express site through the lens of a single variety, be it Pinot noir in the Cote de Nuits; Syrah in Cote Rotie, or Nebbiolo in Piedmont…

  • Marinda10 August 2021

    I love every word in this article. Providence or place of origin has and will always have a profound influence on character. In this case character of the wine. We as winemakers must honour that and step aside and let the terroir speak up.

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