Is there a better name for South African Bordeaux Red Blends?

By , 24 November 2020



How best to refer to the above wines collectively?

After Mike Ratcliffe of Vilafonté posted images from a tasting held last week featuring 13 leading examples of what he termed “South African Bordeaux Blends” on Twitter, the following question was posed by UK-based wine enthusiast @markfharrison: “When will the SA wine industry drop the “Bordeaux” from “South African Bordeaux Blends”?”, the point being that there is some implicit cultural cringe in giving one of the country’s strongest wine categories a collective name that references another wine region. used to refer to combinations of Sauvignon Blanc with Semillon as “Bordeaux-style white blends” but it was the Australian-born head of local wine agency Ex Animo David Clarke in particular who convinced me as editor to dispense with this terminology as it was both unduly deferential to the Old World and not particularly helpful as growing conditions here and there are so dissimilar. In this instance, the solution was easy with the category simply renamed Sauv-Sem Blends, the moniker being both unequivocal and having quite a nice colloquial ring to it.

Unfortunately, it’s trickier when it comes to reds. The first-ever Bordeaux-style red blend to be made in South Africa was Paarl property Welgemeend’s 1979 vintage, to be followed by Rubicon from Meerlust in Stellenbosch the following year and if the tradition was begun out of respect for the authority of that great AOC in Southwest France, such wines have taken on much more of a local identity over the subsequent four decades. Within Bordeaux itself, there is a major contrast between Left Bank and Right Bank, for instance, and then subtle distinctions between the different appellations of the Left Bank (St-Estèphe, Pauillac, St-Julien and Margaux) and so on and so on, making the concept of “Bordeaux” fairly nebulous after a certain point.  Ideally, it would be useful if some terminology which was less derivative could be developed for SA reds that happen to feature the major Bordeaux varieties.

But what? The Cape Blend is taken, this referring to wines with a portion of Pinotage blended with other varieties, and in any event, it has never really caught on (perhaps because most of the resulting wines were never that intrinsically compelling). A proprietary name might work but it ain’t easy – just ask The Meritage Alliance (formerly the Meritage Association ), a group of American vintners who have been attempting to promote their wines blended from the traditional “noble” Bordeaux varieties since 1988 and have yet to take the world by storm.

Some kind of catch-all term or phrase is important in order to differentiate the category from Cape Blends as well as Rhône Blends and so-called Other Blends – a taxonomy needn’t be too specific but it can’t not exist at all. How to think of Kanonkop Paul Sauer relative to Beyerskloof Faith relative to Columella relative to Rust en Vrede Estate? You thus suspect that reference to “Bordeaux” when it comes to the local wine scene is going to persist if only for pragmatic reasons.

That said, the Old World/New World dichotomy that underpins the notion of “Cape Bordeaux Red Blends” or “South African Bordeaux Blends” is flawed because it does not acknowledge what is happening on the ground. What is more accurate is to think of the world’s wine industry in terms of globalization – changes in world-wide production and consumption are continuous and far-reaching. Flows of financial and intellectual capital from established wine regions to new sites of production happen all the time (in SA’s case, ever since the Dutch East India Company rocked up here in the 17th Century) but equally, there are examples of individuals and companies from supposedly lesser-known, unproven areas who are prepared, for whatever reason, to explore possibilities in the more recognized areas of the world – Hamilton Russell in Oregon jumps immediately to mind but Eben Sadie’s foray into Priorat in the mid-2000s is another example, at least on one level, while Distell’s former dalliance with Bisquit Cognac is another…

The upshot is that there is no simple take on international wine culture – there never was and will never be. Unfortunately, I suspect that South Africa’s very best wineries are going to want to uncouple themselves from any direct association to the country on account of its very poor geopolitical reputation and will increasingly market themselves as artisanal producers closely tied to site and vintage – the fact that Paul Sauer or Rubicon or Series C from Vilafonté are made from so-called Bordeaux varieties increasingly incidental but because of careful brand management, still relatively desirable among the world’s elite.


26 comment(s)

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    Johan Malan | 3 December 2020

    I believe we need to create our own names and traditions. It may take decades to establish itself in the market, but look at what Cap Classique achieved in less than 30 years. It is internationally recognised as Methode Champenoise from the Cape.
    South Africa is known as the Rainbow Nation and since these blends consist of up to 5 grape varieties the description of a rainbow with its 7 colours does connect the wine with the concept.
    Rainbow Blend
    Rainbow Red
    or what about
    Rainbeaux Blend?

    Hennie Taljaard | 1 December 2020

    must be Cape dikvoet 😒😁

    Peter | 30 November 2020

    Cape Claret? Please don’t tell me that “Claret” is protected in the way that “Port” is?

    Derek Sumption | 26 November 2020

    Hi Christian
    Why not run a competition to come up with a name, maybe offer a case of wine as the prize?

    Personally, I’d go with “Stellen blend” or “Kaapse blend”, something that gets away from always referring to the European names.

    Michael Holzinger | 25 November 2020

    A very good day!

    Without a fixed official nomenclature nothing will work.

    Let’s just assume that you would define a term with qualitative and thus also quantitative specifications. Then there must also be a precise wine law. A purely idealistic acceptance of a concept, a self-commitment for yields, type and duration of vinification and physiological grape values etc. will remain without effect.

    Various SA wineries already use the word creations such as “Cape Blend” Cape Cuvee”, some also with the name extensions “Rouge” or “Red”.

    If the wine industry in SA commits itself to a phrase for quality marketing, it must also be regulated that a precisely defined quality system is adhered to – otherwise it is useless if there are wines for e.g. $8 which can also be called that.

    And even then, the words “Red Blend” or “Red Cuvee” would never be protected.

    So there has to be a phrasing that clearly defines itself as a category for author’s wines and at least associates European models. No matter whether with Cabernet or maybe a little Pinotage.
    That is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

    Grand Cape Rouge ?!

    With best regards from Berlin – Germany

    Michael Holzinger

      Chris Campbell | 27 November 2020

      Great idea Michael. The use of CAPE and GRAND CAPE or SUPERIOR CAPE associated with blends gets rid of the grand [or grande] French titles and actually promotes the South African wines.
      It also can create a South African Denomination for the blends.

    Jason Mellet | 24 November 2020

    Dropping Bordeaux blend would be a huge mistake. People know what that means and it helps to market the wines… Robert Mondavi uses the BDX abbreviation on one of his wines…In fact its called Robert Mondavi BDX… Everyone knows that means Bordeaux… Dont mess with it unless you want to sell less wine.

      Kwispedoor | 25 November 2020

      Not so sure about that Jason, because nobody actually has the word ‘Bordeaux’ on the label in South Africa. It’s only in descriptions of the wines that one sees it and it can stay there for as long as it needs to after a new category name is chosen, if any.

    Christian Eedes | 24 November 2020

    From Jeremy Sampson, Managing Director Africa of Brand Finance via email:

    Your question about Bordeaux bland prompts this. Why don’t we create, register and market more intellectual property in relation to SA wines that we then will own? Trademarks and the use of GI (Geographic Indication) and PGI (Protected Geographical Inducation) should be taken more seriously.

    The other week Brand Dialogue, part of the London-based global brand consultancy Brand Finance, held a webinar from London that I think will be of interest – there are various speakers and before the Q&A at the end, it runs for 60 minutes.

    You can watch the full recording of the webinar here:

    After all, if the Welsh can register Welsh Lamb, surely we can register a few things!

    Lisa Harlow | 24 November 2020

    I’m not sure I agree with you all, or Mark Harrison. If somebody asks me where they can get good quality and good value (not cheap!) Bordeaux from, my stock answer is South Africa and probably Stellenbosch to be more specific. It is hard enough selling SA wine on a global market, without confusing people even more by changing a description that they have become used to.

    izak | 24 November 2020

    Claret to me has a cheap conotation and cuvee is champagne related.

    izak | 24 November 2020

    Ervin, then its a merlot or shiraz red blend. There is hardly any other name but Cape Cabernet Blend as if no Bordeax varieties in it hardly needs a mention.

    Travis Katzen | 24 November 2020

    Claret referring to a wine from Bordeaux. Therefore, a ‘Cape Claret’ would still be associated with Bordeaux. However, the word Cuvée is a much better description of a blended wine which implies prestige, premium, or quality. I, therefore, submit that South African wines blended from Bordeaux cultivars could be labeled as a ‘Cape Curvée’. The term sounds appealing and authentic. Authenticity is one of the objectives for cape Bordeaux blends. These Bordeaux blends from South Africa are great wines that do not need to stand in the shadow of Bordeaux as they have enough quality to stand on their own, in their own category as a ‘Cape Curvée’.

    Kwispedoor | 24 November 2020

    It’s easy for a term like this to get too pretentious. It needs to be catchy though. Claret still points to Bordeaux (as it should, considering what’s in these blends), but in conjunction with ‘Cape’ it’s short, clear, punchy and catchy. That makes Cape Claret the best suggestion for me so far.

    Alain Proust | 24 November 2020

    I think that Claret comes immediately to mind.
    Dictionary definition: a red wine from Bordeaux, or wine of a similar character made elsewhere.
    Stellenbosch Claret, Paarl Claret, Constantia Claret have a good ring and say unequivocally what it is.
    Just my 2 cents worth.

    Rolff | 24 November 2020

    Cape Noble Blend

    Erwin Lingenfelder | 24 November 2020

    Even better: Cape Claret!
    Take that British establishment.

    Gerhard Perold | 24 November 2020

    I totally agree that our South African blends should be unique. For me personally a Pinotage lead Blend should still be called the Cape Blend as that refers to our unique grape variety.

    The winemakers of individual wineries or estates can then create their own blend with it’s unique name identify it to them. For example, KWV has got their blend in the Mentors range, Orchestra.

    What I would love to see is regional blends that will show the Terroir, for example The Walker Bay Blend or The Stellenbosch Blend

    Gerhard Perold

    Brandon | 24 November 2020

    Identity politics for grapes – interesting angle for a Tuesday morning sir! But doesn’t it all hang on the assumption that “a taxonomy needn’t be too specific but it can’t not exist at all. How to think of Kanonkop Paul Sauer relative to Beyerskloof Faith relative to Columella relative to Rust en Vrede Estate?” Why can’t it not exist? Surely Paul Sauer and Faith are sufficiently differentiated by name alone? And isn’t that exactly why the new generation of winemaker rockstars tend to put things like ‘Made from Grapes’ or nothing more than a brand identifier on their labels? And all on the premise that legacy-based nomenclature is merely blind adherence to a set of colonial rules that have limited relevance in the modern wine world, as you rightly point out. Then again, I guess it could also be argued that NOT calling something a Bordeaux blend when it clearly has French DNA is a form of cultural appropriation. Truly a tangled web. Hic.

    Nico | 24 November 2020

    Cape Beaux Blends

    izak | 24 November 2020

    Point well made. Cape Cabernet Blend is what it is. Even if it is Merlot led. That is what the SA Wine index is going to refer to in future.

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