Tim James: Owning vineyards and cellars
By Tim James, 11 December 2023
When I recently discussed the results of the Top 20 South African Wineries poll, I commented about change over the years, but didn’t highlight how the results evidence a pattern of particularly significant change at the top end of Cape wine in the past few decades.
There’s nothing very recondite about it, in fact. A clue was there when I mentioned the wineries that had left the Top 20 list between 2016 (to 2018, the last time the poll was conducted) and now. Here they are: Chamonix, Cape Point, Vergelegen, Jordan, Delaire Graff, DeMorgenzon, Paul Clüver, Tokara. You probably immediately see what they all have in common. If not, compare them with the producers that have come onto the list in the last two polls: Raats, Richard Kershaw, Rall, Thorne & Daughters, Porseleinberg, Restless River, Storm, Van Loggerenberg, Damascene, Boschkloof.
All those that have left were based on what we might call estates: at least most of their wines came from their own vineyards and were made in cellars on their substantial, even grand properties. The large majority of those arriving are buying in most or all of their grapes. Now, in the latest Top 20 (which irritatingly, as I pointed out, has 22 wineries), the majority – 12 by my count – depend on other farmers’ produce, even if many of those vineyards are managed to some degree by the winemaker. In radical contrast, the list for 2006 (it was easily to hand) has 17 of the 20 producers domaine-based.
In this year’s top five, in fact, only one (Kanonkop) is an estate. Although, importantly, three of the other top five producers have become vineyard owners to some extent (Sadie, Alheit, Mullineux); while Sadie, Mullineux and Savage fully own their own cellars.
It’s easy to understand the quality advantage involved in being able to range the winelands in search of good vineyards. But there are some downsides. The predominance of negociants among the country’s very top producers is pretty significant, given that, unlike many negociants in, say, Burgundy, most of them can hardly be called well established, and many of them are hugely dependent for the value of their brand on the reputation and public persona of the current viticulturist-winemaker. Have a horrible thought and imagine a little asteroid falling on a braai – on the Paardeberg, perhaps – at which all those cultish eminences were present. Many of their vineyard contracts are based on handshakes, I suspect. Many of them are cultish figures in a world in which winemakers are regarded as supreme, however much terroir is invoked.
How much would their brands be worth after the shocking news got out? I dare say it might vary quite a bit, and would depend on various factors connected with stability. (What would it count, for example, that Eben Sadie has a fine winemaker ruling his cellar, and an excellent viticulturist he works with closely? And two Sadie-name-bearing sons are already winemakers.) But on the whole….
Whereas, an asteroid wiping out the gathered winemakers of Kanonkop, Boekenhoutskloof, Klein Constantia, Reyneke – and even Newton Johnson, Porseleinberg, Boschkloof – would probably have less effect on their wines and undoubtedly less effect on the market for those wines and on the wineries’ relationships with important critics and commentators.
As I suggested above, however, there’s already a real element of entrenchment coming in as the more established and successful of the new negociants acquire property – and in some cases descendants who’ll be able to seamlessly step in over the coming decades and keep it in the family, which will be seen as important. Even though those asteroids are ridiculously unlikely, I’m glad to say, the entrenchment, the gradual getting over the individual founder-winemaker cult, is an important part of the growing maturity of the renewed South African wine industry.
There’s another observation to be made of the Top 20 wineries, which is partly but importantly connected with the above point. (Let me stress again at this point that I in no way regard this list as definitive, but it’s a pretty good illustration of perception amongst an important layer of commentators.) Of the eight producers leaving the list from 2018 onwards, five are from Stellenbosch. Only two of the incomers are from that region (Raats, Boschkloof).
Two are from the Hemel-en-Aarde (Storm, Restless River), two from the Swartland (Porseleinberg, Rall). The overall achievement of the Hemel-en-Aarde is remarkable, beating Stellenbosch as it does, with the wines of four Top 20 wineries entirely or largely from there: Newton Johnson, Restless River, Storm, Crystallum. The area is a nice combination of new-wave energy and settled property, in fact.
Stellenbosch, however, further shows its persistent class through a handful of the top negociant wineries having at least one wine from there. The Swartland keeps an edge, however, partly through the historic availability of, especially, fine old vineyards of chenin blanc to the hungry and ambitious new wave of negociants comparatively cheaply; also partly through the comparative cheapness of land for establishing vineyards and building wineries.
The next few decades are going to see more of the settling down of a new landed wine gentry. But it’s hard to imagine that the estate/domaine, while providing a literal and emotional home for successful producers, will ever regain the predominance it once had. Again, the Burgundy model trumps the Bordeaux one.
- 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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