Tim James: Foreign languages (dead or alive) on local labels
By Tim James, 2 August 2021
The arrival this week of a sample bottle of Perdeberg Cellar’s Rex Equus 2019 prompted me to realise that the use of Latin on South Africa’s wine labels is not uncommon, even if none goes as far as Sadie Family Wines Columella in being the only language at all on the display label, as I mentioned more fully last week. I thought it might be interesting to have a look at the foreign languages that are used on local labels, and perhaps a bit calming after the controversy of my previous posting.
Rex Equus – “King of Horses” – is released to celebrate the winery’s 80 years, representing the “pinnacle” of its achievement, and in fact the use of Latin generally seems to go with a suggestion of grandeur and prestige, and tends to be used for wines at the top end of a winery’s range. Although sometimes, frankly, it’s difficult to easily understand the sudden eruption of a dead language. Like Constantia Uitsig’s white blend, Natura Vista, or Crystallum’s Bona Fide (though the Litigo in the range comes rationally from the law profession of the founder of that particular label, which was independent before a joining of forces), or Oldenberg’s Per Se.
Actually, I’m sure the namers of those and other wines would passionately defend the rationality of the choice, and many of the users of label-Latin (and there are a remarkable number of them) do make their reasons clear. Oak Valley, for instance explains that their range called Tabula Rasa (‘Clean Slate’, as they gloss it) expresses their mission “to create wines from a blank canvas that represent the ultimate expression of our terroir”. Tabula rasa is a comparatively common bit of Latin to find in (educated) English, but why not the “blank canvas” that they use to explain it? Well, again, the Latin comes across as more lofty, which seems more often than not the reason it’s invoked: Edgbaston’s Camino Africana is another meaningfully named wine range.
I wondered about Leopard’s Leap Culinaria Collection, vaguely supposing that it was some Latinate reference to food, but the odd word seems to be more immediately Italian, rather, and meaning something like “cooking / cuisine”. I’m still not entirely sure why they’d want to give a range of wines that name, however. To suggest its food compatability, perhaps – at least to Italians or to people who know the word “culinary”. But it’s good to add Italian to the list of foreign languages on Cape wines. I can’t think of all that many – Anthonij Rupert’s Terra del Capo for wines from Italian varieties is probably the best known. Arcangeli Vineyards in the Overberg is named for the owning family, so that perhaps doesn’t count (their nebbiolo wine is named Romulus, which is, I suppose, Latin again). Idiom, owned by Italians, doesn’t go further than a Rosso and a Bianco di Stellenbosch. And bits of Italian crop up occasionally and oddly – like Môreson’s Vino Baruzzo Novella; and Wederom name a wine after an Italian prisoner of war who laboured on the farm during WWII. And there’s Cavalli (“horses”) – which is a horse stud farm as well as a wine one, though I don’t know why they’re referred to in Italian.
Interestingly, a pair of charming Italians, Attilio and Michela Dalpiaz, chose to call their wines not anything Italianate, but Ayama – apparently an isiXhosa word meaning something like “aslant”, describing the location of their farm, Slent, on the slopes of the Paardeberg. Xhosa must count as a home language rather than a foreign one; but it says something that a good few European languages (including a dead one) are more represented on Cape labels than any indigenous language.
French is, of course, very well represented, and not just in many Franschhoek winery and wine names for eminently historical reasons – and for others, unless Allée Bleue’s L’Amour Toujours is historical. But France is the greatest wine country and its invocation is not suprising. “Cuvée” is a more-or-less technical term that occurs repeatedly, especially but far from only on Méthode Cap Classiques (a generic term deliberately chosen to emphasise the connection to French winemaking). Blackwater’s Cuvée Terra Lux happily mixes it with Latin. So French crops up often – rather nicely, for example, in Anwilka’s second label, Petit Frère (“little brother”) – though I find Hermanuspietersfontein’s Kleinboet much more charming and appropriate. Bartinney’s Elevage is another name that speaks of French winemaking traditions.
Other bits of foreign stuff on our local labels? The few Eastern European owners of wine farms don’t seem to have infiltrated any of their languages yet – the only bit of Russian I can think of is Chamonix’s Troika, thus named for the three varieties that it once contained and left unchanged when a fourth was added…. But Greek, yes, often with a Classic note that relates it to the use of Latin, I’d say. Longridge tell us that their Ekliptika is named after the phenomenon in which the earth, stars and moon align in their orbit with the sun (do they mean “eclipse”?). Vriesenhof’s Kallista means “most beautiful”. Elpidios, David & Nadia’s fine blend, means “hopeful”, and their Aristargos means, I believe, “to lead by serving people”. Oh. How many lovers of their wines would know all that? Fortunately, D&N generally turn to Afrikaans when the variety name isn’t used.
One might have expected more Dutch on Cape wine labels, apart from the great old farm names that foreigners have trouble pronouncing (Buitenverwachting et al). Belgian Tom Heeremans of Tempel shades into Afrikaans for his charming wine-names (Skemerdans, Oogwink, etc), but Dutch is certainly hovering there. Netherlander Thierry Schaap does similarly for Skaap Wines. There must be more, I think.
As to more exotic languages, I can’t think of any, though there’s the shadow of Sanskrit in the Afrikaans-French Leeu Passant, with the “leeu” bit being a translation of the surname of owner Analjit Singh, which means lion.
To return to Latin and the Horse King – what of Rex Equus Pioneers Blend 2019? It’s majestically packaged, of course (though I find it hard to forgive the ultra-heavy bottle). The blend is malbec and cab, with lesser contributions from merlot and petit verdot. These aren’t the varieties which generally do best in the Perdeberg catchment area, but the wine is very good indeed, and I prefer it (especially in youth, perhaps) to some much grander Bordeaux blends from Stellenbosch, though their fruit might be more intense, the wines more dense. In the bad old days when a co-op wanted to impress, they piled on the ripeness, the oak and the extraction, but here we have something pretty restrained and elegant, as well as self-confident, from the cedar-cherry-cassis aromas to the long-lingering finish. There’s 14.1% alcohol, oaking that is just supportive of the fruit, tannins that are firmly present but refined. I doubt if it will last as long as some of those Stellenbosch blockbusters, but for a good few years it will provide happier drinking. Unfortunately, this deliciousness in Latin doesn’t come cheap: R600 for each of the 1941 numbered bottles (that number reflecting the year of Perdeberg’s founding), double that for a magnum – 80 of them, one for each year of the winery’s existence. Available only via the Perdeberg website.
- Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing 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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