Tim James: The arguable advantages of specialisation

By , 1 July 2024

2024 marks the 100th consecutive harvest at Alto.

The 100th consecutive vintage of that great South African icon Alto Rouge is due to be released later this year. Being reminded of that also reminded me that Alto was the first Cape producer to specialise in red wines and prompted some wondering about specialisation here. Although grape-growing at Alto goes back probably to, at least, the early 18th century, the crucial period is the years around 1920 when Hennie Malan, with his son Manie, set about turning the higher part of the Helderberg farm to wine production  (having sold off the lower, flatter land). In 1920 the cellar was built, and they planted cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, cinsaut, gamay and (pioneering in this) pinot noir. The latter two were soon abandoned for various reasons, and only the grapes for what was to become the classic blend remained.

As far as I know, Alto remained the only red-wine-only wine producer in the Cape for nearly a half-century. The second, 1982, edition of Graham Knox’s invaluable Estate Wines of South Africa described 64 estates, and there seem to have been just two others with only black grapes planted: Welgemeend, whose first bottling of its pioneering Bordeaux-style blend was in 1979; and Rust en Vrede, which made a chenin until the vines were pulled out in 1980.

Today,still, it’s not easy to think of many producers (at least, those making more than one or perhaps two wines) that have only reds. The lure of having a white to sell in addition brought, for example, a chardonnay to the Le Riche range in 2006. I reckon, though, that we should include Kanonkop (which pulled out its white varieties only in the 1980s, a crucial step in their growing greatness), allowing their Pinotage Rosé to be an honorary red. Beyerskloof on the same grounds very nearly makes it, but spoils their record by one wine that curiously and idiosyncratically blends some chenin with their beloved pinotage.

There’s not even a devoted pinot noir monomaniac – there the not-uncommon speciality is the traditional (ie Burgundian) one of pinot and chardonnay.

As to white wine specialists, they are even more rare. There’s Alheit, of course, but even Chris and Suzaan have found it hard to not briefly take an eye off chenin blanc and tinker with at least cinsault occasionally, and I wouldn’t bank on the specialisation remaining all that long. And there’s Capensis, with their small but resolute range of chardonnays. There’s even a rosé specialist, in Pink Valley – though, like a few red wine producers (Keet etc), there’s just the one wine so far.

I don’t think anyone is still foolhardily sanguine enough to make only port, but a significant specialisation, usually involving both red and white grapes of course, is sparkling wine. The pioneer here was Clos Cabrière, who brought out the first local version made according to the traditional method as well as from the traditional varieties with their 1984 Brut. Now renamed Haute Cabrière, this producer later abandoned specialisation to offer a much broader range of wines. But there are a good half-dozen at least of bubbly-only producers, including Graham Beck, which moved in the opposite direction from Haute Cabrière.

Probably sparkling wine is the category where it makes most sense to specialise – in terms of investment in equipment and technical expertise, as well as focus. It’s surely not by accident that the specialists are disproportionately amongst the best of the producers. A visit to a large bubbly winery like Krone makes it clear just how much in terms of quality and scale can be gained in this way. And of course, compared with a category like port, sparkling wine is lucrative and popular enough to encourage specialisation.

In slightly broader terms, much of the upper end of South African wine has moved quite far from the days when it was thought – or hoped, or assumed – that everybody could make anything. A degree of specialisation in terms of terroir, and especially climate, has happened: Elgin and the Swartland do have a bit of overlap, but much less than before. And even the large estate producers (like Delheim and Simonsig for example) no longer have a range that covers the whole gamut of grapes and styles. It’s arguable that some of them should do a bit more trimming – or perhaps, like Thelema, outsource to different regions for some of their range.

The lack of specialisation here compared with classic Europe is shared with other New World countries, that have also revelled in the freedom from restrictive control. It has undoubted advantages, as well as the arguably minor disadvantage of reduced winemaking and viticultural focus (which goes along with reduced producer boredom, I dare say). It’s unlikely to change greatly in the foreseeable future, especially given that improvements in winemaking understanding and, especially, viticulture make a wider range of wines more plausible than they used to be in old Europe. But it’s also likely that a drift to greater degrees of specialisation, in personal as well as regional terms, will continue – perhaps especially as climate change helps to focus attention on such things. That’s undoubtedly to the good.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


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