Michael Fridjhon: An argument against regional specialisation

By , 15 December 2020

The wine lounge at Stellenbosch property Delaire Graff, where you can taste the Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve and many other wines besides…

No one is likely to dispute the theory and practice of regional specialisation. You’d be surprised to find even the most eccentric grape grower in Champagne planting cabernet and merlot with a view to challenging the supremacy of the Medoc. Th venerable houses in Tuscany which have opted to include some cabernet in their cuvées have (generally at least) not abandoned sangiovese. Sancerre is less than 200 kms from Meursault but the white grape it relies upon for its reputation is sauvignon blanc, just as producers in Meursault depend on chardonnay. We are told that the experience of many years has helped to make this determination. Even if it turned out that the old-timers had made a poor choice, producers would have to think carefully about abandoning a long-established ‘fit.’

It’s therefore no surprise to find that some regions in the Cape have boarded the bandwagon with almost indecent enthusiasm. The first to do was Hemel-en-Aarde/Walker Bay. Hamilton Russel père made the claim for pinot noir almost as a default position. His primary message was the region’s cooler climate (compared with Stellenbosch and Paarl). That didn’t stop him from planting cabernet. However, the failure to ripen the fruit from the youthful but virused vines did little more than vindicate his position that the valley was better suited to pinot and chardonnay. He was the region’s only producer for the first ten years, which made it difficult to prove (or to disprove) the marketing hypothesis. But after Peter Finlayson left the HRV cellar to start Bouchard Finlayson, and many other followed suit, the logic began to look unassailable.

When the next cooler climate appellation – Elgin – began to gain traction some time later, the pinot box had already been ticked and taken. Since Elgin’s message was also cool climate it had to move swiftly to claim the next most suitable candidate, so it bagged chardonnay. Suddenly the third seemingly cool climate region was left flailing, so Constantia went off and took on sauvignon blanc. This may have some marketing value for the Constantia folk; it’s meaningless wherever people try to unpack the message: Constantia gets plenty of morning sun, and plenty of afternoon shadow. Its sauvignon blancs reflect the sunlight hours of the ripening season rather than the cool climate. However, at least the maritime location suggests that this makes sense, and there are the wines to back up the claim

So far so good: no one remembers that Robertson laid claim to shiraz before Paarl did, because it didn’t stick, for the same reason that Paarl’s attempt to own the variety is doomed to failure: there’s no uniqueness to the fit. The Swartland has some lovely chenins, but there’s no attempt to argue it’s the heartland for chenin in the Cape. Its marketing mavens have also steered clear of making similar claims about shiraz. Diversity, it would appear, is in its nature.

This makes Stellenbosch’s Cabernet Collective seem a less-than-perfect idea. There’s no doubt that Stellenbosch offers the quintessential Cape cabernet. It also produces (partly for this reason) our best Bordeaux blends. But it has fabulous shiraz, some extraordinary chenins, chardonnays to rival those of Elgin and Hemel-en-Aarde, some great wooded sauvignons and possibly our best cabernet francs. Packing itself into the cabernet box may have short term benefits but the strategy comes with long term costs.

In world wine power terms Stellenbosch is like the United States in the 1960s: the most complete military machine, the best and biggest navy, the most advanced planes and missiles. In an all-out battlefield confrontation it has the breadth and depth to wipe out everyone else. The Elgins, Hemel-en-Aardes and Constantias are like the Viet Cong running a guerilla war against a great power. The decision to sell Stellenbosch on the basis of cabernet alone is to engage with them on their terms, to turn from using military might, hoping instead to scavenge a victory in the thickets. You wouldn’t fight a bush war if the strength of your military machine was your navy and your airforce. It makes no sense for Stellenbosch to ignore the strength of its diversity and risk everything on its cabernet claims.

  • Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is the founder of Winewizard.co.za and holds various positions including Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town; founder and director of WineX – the largest consumer wine show in the Southern Hemisphere and chairman of The Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show.

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