Tim James: It’s time for Paarl to pull (itself) together

By , 19 October 2020



I know I’m not alone in thinking that Paarl has a rather lacklustre image as a Wine of Origin region: Paarl thinks so itself. It’s a well-internalised understanding. For a start, look at the alacrity with which its wards have abandoned it in order to become districts in their own right: Franschhoek and Wellington have done it within the last decade, and my guess is that Simonsberg-Paarl would also abscond if it could summon up the energy – though it would probably rather limply secede to Franschhoek. The estates of Voor-Paardeberg would probably, on the whole, love to belong to Swartland to the North (complication: commitment of many farmers to Boland Winery).

For a second indication of a bad self-image, look at the lack of effort its wineries put into building Paarl’s reputation as the source – which it emphatically is – of some excellent wines? To the extent that many of those that are close to the edge of Franschhoek (Babylonstoren, Noble Hill, Plaisir de Merle, Rupert & Rothschild) link themselves to that sexier address by belonging (very misleadingly in my opinion), to the Vignerons de Franschhoek. I asked Kristopher Tiller of Noble Hill, and he points out that there are “proudly W.O. Simonsberg-Paarl”, but that it’s very practical to belong to the Vignerons, given the number of tourists in Franschhoek. “Paarl as a town in the years that I’ve lived here has not appeared to me to have come to a consensus agreement that tourism is desirable, to say less about actually attracting visitors.”

More generally, is there an inferiority complex of Paarl wineries, or just a defeated recognition that for some reason being WO Paarl is not much to boast about? I wonder how many people know that Vilafonté wines come from Paarl (though the winery address is Stellenbosch)? In fact, I’d guess that these are the most expensive Paarl wines. Yet I couldn’t find anywhere on the Vilafonté website a mention of the district where their vineyards are located. I asked part-owner Mike Ratcliffe (chairperson of the Stellenbosch Wine Route, somewhat ironically) about this, and why he thinks Paarl doesn’t seem to have the reputation it deserves. I pushed, but he wouldn’t be drawn on the website’s silence about Paarl.*

Although Mike says he doesn’t know much about Paarl terroir, apart from Vilafonté having “gleaned a fair amount of insight into our particular patch of dirt” (dirt being, disconcertingly, the American word for soil), he agreed that “Paarl as a wine region does not appear to have organised itself or given sufficient consideration to its raison d’être.” He added that he’d “just googled ‘Paarl Wine’ for the first time in my career and was surprised that an organisation somehow exists. (My invitation must have been lost in the mail?)”

There is indeed a Paarl Wine Route. It has a nice little slot on the general Paarl tourism website, though it’s not going to inform Mike or me much about terroir. The following is the extent of the general information it gives about wine-growing in this historic region:

“The Paarl Wine Route, renowned for its rich, full-bodied, spicy red and crisp white wines, is the second oldest in the country. The area is best known for the quality of its Shiraz, the climate in particular favouring this variety. Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinotage, Viognier and Mourvedre are increasingly well regarded.”

Wow, that’ll bring the aficionados and wine-tourists flocking, huh? Spicy reds and crisp whites…. And not all that surprising, sadly in line with my impression about Paarl wine’s self-image, is that it would appear to have only 21 members (one of those named being Spice Route Wines, the Swartland producer that has a home in the Fairview complex of attractions, another being the Strooidak Kerk which apparently has a 0.9 ha vineyard of cab). I don’t know exactly how small a percentage that is of Paarl’s producers, but it’s not impressive. Missing from the list are some of the best – those allying themselves to Franschhoek, as well as, amongst others, Avondale, Doran, Eenzaamheid, Glen Carlou, Joostenberg, Nelson, Tempel, Vondeling and Vrede en Lust.

There are also new-wave wines these days, made elsewhere but off Paarl vineyards – and they don’t trumpet their origins, I think, as much as they would if they came from Swartland or even Stellenbosch: Thistle & Weed’s Duwweltjie, for example, and Van Loggerenberg’s Kameraderie.

Should Paarl as a wine producing district amount to more?

It’s true that Paarl doesn’t have a really big name producer – I suppose Vilafonté would be the grandest, and I’d vote especially for the rather reclusive Avondale and modest Joostenberg as heading the list of those deserving a larger reputation (and I recently mentioned Noble Hill as another) – and that’s probably a problem. Could it also be a complementary problem that Paarl is associated in the public mind not only with a lot of co-ops (Windmeul, Perdeberg, Boland) but also with Nederburg and KWV?

Could it be that you stand somewhere in the middle of Paarl and look about you and on the horizons you see mostly mountains that belong to other, better-imaged appellations – Swartland, Franschhoek, Stellenbosch – with own Paarl Mountain dominated by its interesting big rocks and the Afrikaans Taal Monument?

Oh dear, quite against my will, I am depressing myself, and maybe you, about Paarl, which was genuinely not my intention. Perhaps the difficulties in building Paarl’s reputation are not to be overcome, despite the inherent quality. Perhaps they could be, and it just needs some dynamic leadership and an infusion of imagination of something more than the humdrum present. Never easy.

If Paarl can’t be built, then the sooner the Simonsberg-Paarl escapes to independence the better, leaving the rump of the area to struggle along as now, with acknowledged centres of excellence doing their best to build individual reputations. Could Voor-Paardeberg do likewise? Less easily, given the predominance of grape farmers supplying the coops rather than producing estates.

But for now, there’s a lot of wasted potential, and a depressed image – which does at least mean that Paarl is the source of some very good bargains.

*Footnote: After I’d submitted my piece, Mike sent the following interesting comment: “I don’t think that we consciously downplay anything – rather we choose to place significant emphasis on the very specific vilafontes soil and terroir found on our property. Having said that, the locality descriptors on our labelling and packaging are SOUTH AFRICA and PAARL – in both cases these are the only words capitalised and emphasized on our labels. We have also included the precise GPS coordinates of our vineyard on our label, on our cartons, on our corks and in our communication for the best part of 15 years.

  • 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

Attention: Articles like this take time and effort to create. We need your support to make our work possible. To make a financial contribution, click here. Invoice available upon request – contact info@winemag.co.za


24 comment(s)

Please read our Comments Policy here.

    Jannie le Roux | 18 November 2020

    Dankie Tim.
    Jy slaan die spyker op die kop !
    Ons as Paarl behoort ernstig kennis te neem van jou artikel.
    Kom kuier dat ons gesels oor ‘n ” Paarl Indaba”
    Jannie le Roux

    Chantelle Gous | 1 November 2020

    Well at least there is suddenly talk about Paarl, whether agreed or disagreed. A well written article which provides some food for thought. Now to find a dynamic marketer to realize the great opportunity. Thanks Tim, enjoyed it.

    Edwin Doran | 27 October 2020

    As I commute between Cape Town and London, I have a foot in both markets. It has never ceases to fascinate me that when I say I own a wine farm in S A to people in the U K, their automatic unanimous question is – Where? Stellenbosch? My response is No, Paarl. And then I have to tell them where Paarl is!!

    Zelda | 22 October 2020

    Tim’s article aside – I would love to see more Paarl wines reviewed on Winemag. Not sure if you review only what you get sent, but perhaps reach out to some Paarl wineries? I am sure they will be more than willing to send you samples or host you for a tasting.

    Kevin R | 21 October 2020

    Only as I have time to kill…

    For those here with more passion than comprehension, Tim is primarily referring to brand Paarl.

    Looking at the estates/producers you’ve highlighted in the comments, here’s a list featuring (# of times “Paarl” mentioned on homepage [more the better for SEO & branding]; does “Paarl” in any way, shape or form appear on flagship front label)
    Rhebokskloof (3 ; No)
    Vondeling (0 ; No)
    Mellasat Vineyards (1 ; Yes)
    Painted Wolf Wines (2 ; No)
    Vrede en Lust (3 [with the tag “Franschoek wine estate”; No)
    Babylonstoren (0 ; No)
    Windmeul Kelder (3 ; No)
    KWV (0 ; Yes)
    Nederberg (3 ; Yes)
    Fairview (0 ; Yes)

    Well done Nederberg

    Roland Fischer | 21 October 2020

    I have not read such garbage for a long time.

    MICHELA Sfiligoi | 20 October 2020

    Hi Tim, if your intention was a wake up call to producers to stick together and improve the way we promote our excellencies, than thank you for pointing out as much. But as Martin and others, I believe you are missing a few spots, a few wines, a few important players in the wine industry which might not be highlighted on the Paarl Tourism website (which I agree… poor thing) but surely are holding up the Paarl Origin name overseas. Come for a visit in the Paardeberg. We are off the beaten track, we are genuine farmers but with a vision of excellency for those who love discovering hidden gems and part of Paarl.

    Mike | 20 October 2020

    Perhaps we could hear the views of Fairview and Spice Route proprietor Charles Back?

    Local | 20 October 2020

    driving down from Wellington the first great wine farm is Kanonkop, but then you are already in Stellenbosch. the only exception I can think of is KWV; the Mentors range & fortifieds are of the highest quality. Nederburg could be great but they are not, the last great vintage was 1989.

      Tim James | 20 October 2020

      As for KWV and Nederburg, they are wineries in Paarl, but get their grapes from all over. I agree that some of the KWV Mentors wines are very good, but unfortunately KWV doesn’t seem much interested in terroir even for their top level stuff, and most of them are given as WO W Cape (whether or not they’re all regional blends or KWV just can’t be bothered to tell us more, I don’t know). That’s pretty much true of Nederburg too, unfortunately. I do know that the excellent Two Centuries Cab comes from Simonsberg-Paarl grapes. The excellent KWV brandies (I was much enjoying some 12 Year Old last night) are also nameless blends.

      Suretha | 20 October 2020

      Local, I don’t agree. I presume you mean down the R44, in which case you ignorantly missed a few great if not well-known wineries, to name my top 3 :
      Windmeul (co-op, yes, but their bottled product is fairly priced, well-awarded and downright delicious), Ridgeback (their wines are fantastic and their tasting room worth a visit) and Under Oaks (try their Secret blend and see if you leave them out again).

    Donald | 20 October 2020

    I think this article is unfair and unduly harsh on Paarl. Sure its maybe not as fashionable as some other regions but we all know what happens in fashion, things go in and out of it seemingly at a whim. Its also a proper blue collar working town unlike Franschhoek with its overpriced art galleries and coffee shops aimed purely at the tourist market – boy how I bet they had been a little more pragmatic in current times? I think we enter a dangerous place when we allow our perceptions of a region – coloured in no small way by how they promote themselves – to affect our perception of the quality of the wine coming out of that region. Paarl has some great producers and the town has a lot of history especially in a wine context. Its also real and not trying too hard to pretend its something its not. Cut it some slack winemag and maybe lend a helping hand by visiting some of its producers and reviewing some of their wines? Judging by the comments this hasn’t happened in a while….?

      Tim James | 20 October 2020

      Hey Donald – have you read the article? Which twice speaks of excellence? And is entirely directed at pointing to the poor image which is at odds with the quality of wine – quite the opposite of what you suggest about perceptions of a region influencing perceptions of the quality of wine. And you suggest some visits – this article arose precisely out of two very recent visits by me to Paarl and reported on here: one to Noble Hill and one to Ahrens (though only one Ahrens wine comes from Paarl). I generally go where I’m invited to go, and look forward to some more visits to Paarl, as suggested by a few comments here.

        Donald | 20 October 2020

        Hi Tim. Yes read the article. Twice. The lasting impression I got was one that didn’t put Paarl in a great place despite its obvious success stories. The collective far outweighing the individual shining lights if you will. I just think you’re a respected journalist and winemag a respected publication and – like it or not – columns like this exert influence that have consequences across multiple levels and the SA wine industry – including Paarl – needs all the help it can get at present. Am I being a hypocrite here and also being too critical? We may have to agree to disagree on this. I know it was written with the best of intentions, maybe I am taking it too personally on Paarl’s behalf?

          Kwispedoor | 20 October 2020

          Hi, Donald.

          I think much of the respect that Winemag and Tim enjoys is down to them generally calling a spade a spade. Too many other people write about wine and they tend to be either vicious or sugarcoating at times. You and Tim both speak of some valid virtues regarding Paarl and you probably are taking things a bit personally on Paarl’s behalf, by your own implied admission. At least it’s also proof that some passion exists for the place. Remember, the Swartland was not sexy for a long time… Perhaps this article can be a catalyst for stakeholders in Paarl to start moving and shaking things forwards and upwards?

          Peter Higgins | 20 February 2021

          You basically said exactly the same as Tim, but started with “I disagree”. I can’t imagine how you think your viewpoint significant differs.

        Nik Darlington | 20 October 2020

        For the record, Albert currently makes two core wines – a white (Old Vine Chenin) and red (Rooiwijn) – and a number of smaller batch wines out of Paarl vineyards.

        But I agree with the thrust of the article. Speaking from the perspective of a key export market in the UK, Paarl does not just have an image problem vis-à-vis the notable regions you mention, it barely has an image at all. Few British tourists in the winelands knowingly visit Paarl wine farms. Babylonstoren, yes for instance, but even for me it just sits in that nether region between Franschhoek and the N1.

        Donald makes a fine point about the sustainability of a domestic economy like Franschhoek without tourism. But marketing wines here and I suspect elsewhere in the world is far easier for Stellenbosch, Constantia and Franschhoek wines for general drinkers, increasingly so Swartland, and for more specialised audiences the likes of Hemel-en-Aarde, Walker Bay, Elgin to name a few.

        Paarl sadly does not yet spoken of in the same breath. (Yet.) For heritage and quality of vineyards it probably should, but as you explain it takes more than just good “dirt” to get people’s attention.

    Lisa Harlow | 20 October 2020

    I guess, I’m not your average tourist to the Western Cape, having been many times and not sticking to the usual tourist routes
    I have had great experiences at Paarl wineries and tasted some great wines, especially at Vonderling and Painted Wolf
    However, I usually call into a couple of wineries on my way to the Swartland or West Coast, usually from Franschhoek
    Paarl itself just doesn’t interest me to stay overnight, mainly due to a lack of good restaurants and less accommodation choice
    I always think of Simonsberg-Paarl as an extension of Franschhoek and the wineries there are generally much more set up for tourism. Vrede en Lust is one of my favourite lunch spots in the winelands.
    Maybe I should make more of an effort to visit, whenever that maybe!

    Gizelle Coetzee | 19 October 2020

    Hi Tim, I agree with Julian and Martin. You should come and visit us, there are some real innovation as well as great wines coming from Paarl .
    Gizelle Coetzee
    Marketing & Sales Manager

    Julian Johnsen | 19 October 2020

    You should come and see us Tim

    Julian Johnsen
    MD Vondeling

      Angela Lloyd | 23 October 2020

      Julian, Vondeling is WO Voor-Paardeberg, surely you should be promoting your Ward rather than Paarl. I’m not sure why Tim included you as missing from the Paarl list anyway.
      But to all the moaner farms in this thread; it’s clear there’s little to no cohesion among you to promote Paarl. A better image derives from perception as much as wine quality (not all Franschhoek, Constantia, Hemel en Aarde or even Stellenbosch wine is 5* stuff). First step, find someone dynamic to market the region, then all as a group get behind that person. Find the positives in your own situation, that makes Paarl interestingly different from other area.
      I’ve expressed the same views as Tim for years but little has changed in sleepy Paarl.

    Martin Gebers | 19 October 2020

    Hi Tim, your rather depressing article I am afraid does reflect a wine route and area that is unfortunately lacking in cohesion and focus, but this does not in anyway detract from the very good wines coming from this region and I challenge you to do an in depth report of the wines and estates of this region. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.
    Martin Gebers
    General Manager
    Rhebokskloof Wine Estate

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Like our content?

Show your support.