Tim James: Specialisation by appellation

By , 29 September 2014

It’s one of the signs of the maturing Cape wine revolution that winegrowing areas are tending to associations with particular varieties. It’s pretty safe to say, though, that (in common with other New World countries) South Africa will never make such associations part of law as it is in much of Europe – where the idea of cabernet sauvignon being grown in Chateauneuf-du-Pape or chenin blanc in Chianti is unthinkable (to the occasional regret of some winemakers).

Keeping it real.

Keeping it real.

Here we’re unlikely to go further in that direction than voluntary agreements between groups of similar-minded winemakers, as with the Swartland Independent Producers Association which has a list of “permitted varieties” for bottles bearing its logo. Nonetheless, there is a degree of non-exclusive specialisation happening in various parts of the Cape, in response to the realities of how different grapes are performing. That’s quite apart from the increasing linking of the Swartland with shiraz and chenin blanc.

The Hemel-en-Aarde has, in terms of plantings, moved far from its early concentration on chardonnay and pinot noir, but pinot especially is being pushed as retaining a special place there, notably through the area’s annual Pinot Noir Celebration.

Durbanville has its Season of Sauvignon drawing attention to that area’s specialisation – one that it shares in the public imagination, I’d guess, with Constantia. Now Franschhoek is stepping up with a group of younger winemakers selecting semillon, chardonnay and cabernet as the candidates for their rather pretentiously named “Appellation Grand Prestige” awards.

What about one of the other really exciting wine-growing areas, Elgin? When I was visiting a few estates out there this last week, Werner Muller of Iona (where for a few years now he’s been taking the wines to an even higher level) remarked to me that it was surely time for Elgin producers to really “embrace” chardonnay. He is, of course, dead right.

There are fine chardonnays made elsewhere too, of course, but the variety is having striking success in Elgin. Think of Richard Kershaw, Iona, Paul Cluver and Oak Valley just for starters.  Chardonnay surely wouldn’t be at all a bad choice for a group of local producers to build some “brand awareness” around – before some other area steps in. This isn’t entirely just a question of me wanting another party to go to – though the contribution of various regional events is helping marvellously to deepen the wine culture of the Western Cape. There are already a number of people making chardonnay in Elgin, and if even more could be encouraged to realise just how brilliant many parts of the area are for the variety, that couldn’t be bad.

Now it suddenly occurs to me that if Elgin bags chardonnay, what would be left of the big names for Stellenbosch? Trouble with Stellenbosch, of course, is that it does just about every variety pretty well (I’m not quite sure about pinot), also that’s it’s so enormous, relatively…. But I did hear vague talk recently that powerful forces amongst the oaktrees and vines were working on the idea that if someone says “Stellenbosch!” the immediate association should be “cabernet!” (and vice versa, of course). That’s not a bad thought either; nobody does it better.

  • Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


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