Is there a better name for South African Bordeaux Red Blends?
By Christian Eedes, 24 November 2020
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.
Winemag.co.za 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.
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