Tim James: The importance of wards for fine South African wine

By , 15 August 2023



I don’t like disagreeing with Eben Sadie about wine matters. If ever I’ve ventured to do so (about the iniquity of heavy bottles, for example), he’s usually managed to deploy the results of a great deal of research and understanding on his part (into the glass-manufacturing process, the nature of recycling, shipping costs, and whatever) in such a way that I have had, at least, to radically modify my own position.

But I persist in strongly disagreeing with Eben about the role of wards in the South African Wine of Origin system. In one of his ever-interesting impromptu digressions while presenting the latest Sadie Family Wines releases to a a small group of wine-business people, he waxed very scathing about wards (unlike, say, classic European appellations). He pointed out that many are not even used by the producers that had motivated for them and are essentially irrelevant; many of them are drawn up for political rather than terroir considerations (I would quibble there); some are home to just one or two producers so can’t ever gain meaningful traction; above all, most wine-buyers, especially foreign ones, have no recognition of ward names – finding only the larger WO areas of significance (especially districts), etc.

I’ll come back to some Sadie bottlings, but note first that Eben specifically disparaged even the three Hemel-en-Aarde wards, which many people (including me) would consider the most triumphant justification yet of the ward system. I think that virtually all the Hemel-en-Aarde producers make use of the wards in giving origins – rather than the district, Walker Bay. Storm Wines uses all three for their pinots, and there are consistent differences emerging between them, which can only tend to confirm the usefulness of the divisions. And in fact, from the continuing reference to the wards, wine lovers, along with wine growers, are encouraged to gain an understanding of the complex influences of soil, slope and meso-climate in the area.

What a major loss it would be to abandon the use of ward names in Walker Bay and have all the wines from Hemel-en-Aarde, Bot River, Stanford and Sondagskloof offering themselves as an undistinguished mass – at least on their labels. Not to mention the monopole winery on the patch of coastal limestone soil making up Springfontein Rim ward, Springfontein – it may be alone, but the wines are distinctively teroir-reflective and deserving of the official recognition of their unique origin.

Wards are drawn up largely by scientists, according to proper terroir principles of a distinctive unity of relevant features, largely soil and climate. Producers or groups of producers initiate the study, and I daresay not all requests for new wards are granted. The Hemel-en-Aarde people in fact originally asked for a single ward, but were persuaded of the justification for three by the investigators.

A few wards are essentially standalone, like Bamboes Bay – like Constantia used to be before the district of Cape Town was constructed around it to also include very different Durbanville, Hout Bay and Philadelphia. But most wards fit into districts (like Robertson, Elgin and Stellenbosch), which have a much vaguer unity, and these fit into regions (Breede River Valley, Cape South Coast, Coastal), which are drawn up to very broad geographical considerations. Recently some new large elaborations have been allowed for – “overarching regions” (only Cape Coast so far) and “subregions” (only Cape West Coast, overlapping with Swartland) –, but nothing much has yet been done about these. Basically, it’s like a nest of Russian dolls, though some of the dolls don’t fit nicely, and some rattle around plaintively. (See the Sawis website, or Platter’s Guide, for maps and lists of the different appellations.)

There are certainly a number of wards, especially recent creations, which do seem to me rather ridiculously unnecessary. There are now five wards in the Central Orange River district in the Northern Cape, and one must wonder why. In Robertson, believe it or not, there are 14 wards, the largest number for any district – I couldn’t tell you how many of their names appear on labels, but I am certain it’s not many. At best. But that doesn’t matter, and if it fires some winemaker with the ambition to try to reflect the terroir rather than sending the wines to a co-op’s vast blending vats, so much the better for South African wine.

Most of the crucial moves at the top level of South African wine this century have been made by wine-growers seeking to express origin as precisely as possible – often in single vineyards, or as estate wines. But placing these small units within a meaningful terroir-defined category like the ward has been important, and I believe the existence of wards has encouraged the search for expression of terroir. Examples are too numerous to allow mention of more than a few.

In the last decade or so, the emergence from relative obscurity of Stellenbosch’s Polkadraai Hills area has been hugely exciting. It depended partly on the splendid viticulture of a few farmers (the best known Johan Reyneke  of Reyneke Wines, Jozua Joubert of Karibib farm, and Danie Carinus of  Bluegum Grove) and the new-wave wines of a handful of winemakers, many of them taking grapes from those farms. Not to mention Raats Family Wines: Bruwer Raats not only established the amazing little Eden vineyard of chenin and cab franc there, but has been committed to the grapes of the Polkadraai Hills ward he was instrumental in establishing. His pride in the fact that all of his chenins, and most of his other wines, now mention Polkadraai Hills Stellenbosch as their origin is testament to the inspiring role that a ward can have. The existence of the ward and those who believe in its singularity has been something like a rallying point for a number of producers. Stellenbosch, and South African wine would be the poorer without it, and I am pretty confident that even internationally the Polkadraai Hills name is gaining recognition as the locus of a distinctive terroir. Time and fine winemaking will complete the process.

An example of a small district perfoming the same function, and closer to Sadie Family Wines, is Citrusdal Mountain, in the Olifants River – there is no ward there. Eben (working with Rosa Kruger) was hugely influential in getting this area, which became early associated with the name of one of his wines, Skurfberg, well known. Ginny Poval of Botanica was, I think the first to make wine from here, and she uses the origin for her famous Mary Delaney Chenin Blanc. So does Alheit for its Magnetic North and Huilkrans; and Anthonij Rupert for Van Lill & Visser Chenin and Laing Groendruif; so does Fram for its Pinotage. That’s the way to build a reputation for, and understanding of, a distinctive wine area. Sadie’s Skurfberg and Kokerboom being WO Olifantsrivier doesn’t help.

Terroir distinctiveness is not the only route to fine wine, however, though it is the commonest, based on the classic appellation practices of Europe. I wonder if perhaps Eben Sadie’s doubts about the value of wards in South Africa is not related to the fact that the two Sadie Signature wines, designed to be expressive only of the huge, diverse Swartland as a whole, increasingly evade any sort of classification by small area – Palladius 2022 comes from 17 diverse vineyards and Columella from ten. They also evade any varietal identity, with 11 grapes for Palladius and six for Columella. There is a kind of marvellous purity in this approach: they are “just” wines.

There’s a different sort of purity in the terroir approach, of course, a more traditional one for fine wine, and a rigorously regulated ward system can only encourage this (and it’s easy to forget about the irrelevancies throw up alongside). Earlier this week I attended the release of Trizanne Barnards’s top Wine of Origin range. Lovely wines they are (see Christian’s review of them here), and all of them prominently include in their names the ward in which they originate. Trizanne remarked of the seascapes (mostly) on the labels that “When you taste the wines you’ll understand the labels”;  and the labels, including the ward names, help you understand the wines.

Read a follow-up article on the subject here.

  • 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.


8 comment(s)

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    COLYN TRUTER | 17 August 2023

    Thank you Tim, wonderful article and focus on what has been a cornerstone of our Cape Site Specific collaboration! Internationally we do have to sell SA Wine first before venturing into appellations and smaller denominations…but I can assure you that those wine people who might be in the minority but willing to spend the extra dollar, euro or pound on SA wines wants to know. They are not the ones who keep knocking our prices down or seeing it as value for money…they get it. The more we talk about the beautiful distinctiveness amongst our regions the more wine consumers will be educated and informed.

    Yes 90% of the wine drinking market might not care, but for SA wine to raise our global pricing and perception should worry about the 10%! If we as producers do not care about this WO scheme then why should anyone else!!! In Sept there is a Sommelier Event hosted by WOSA…this is a great starting point giving those Somms so much more insight and passion for SA wine to take home to their establishments and hopefully start changing their SA Wine offerings on their wine lists!!!

      PK | 23 August 2023

      Tim thank you for another relevant and well timed piece of writing. It is an interesting one the, should we call it appellation/denomination system that we have in South Africa. But as so many things in our beautiful country, it seems as though the original idea was a great one, but then when it was put into practice and someone was tasked to map it out and put it together, it was delegated to the office intern or old mate that doesn’t work in the wine department… ‘you had one job’! Hah

      Looking at the bare bones there is potential, but it seems to fit more easily and work more easily for some districts than others, as geographically some districts can lend it self to being broken up into distinctively different wards more so than others. Stellenbosch for example and even to use the example of the Hemel-en-Aarde, which was at first very controversial and till today still divides that little valley massively with the 3 wards known as ‘the gate keepers, the people on the hill and the other lot at the back of the valley’… but that’s down to wine industry politics and it has actually done a huge job for the valley, even if it will only be realised fully after the pioneers are long gone.

      I think commerciality also comes into play with the districts and wards, as Colyn mentioned more than 90%+ of consumers are not familiar with anything beyond a districts name on the bottle and even then it is a push, but it’s the more top end dare we say 5% to whom it makes a big difference and knowing that South Africa is a far more intricate place, with a beautiful mosaic of regions, sub-regions, estates and single sites that should be identifiable by a single name. As South Africans, as people and as a country, we are a rainbow nation with a complex and colourful history and beautifully bright future, BUT I do find we always want to dumb things down to be understood but other people that don’t quite understand out story and where we are from and this also goes for wine. We are almost apologetic about having to explain a story and having to explain to people that we also make wines outside of Stellenbosch, but I feel we should celebrate that and educate and tell people who want to know. Yes it may not be everyones cup of tea, well then South African wine and/or district names will do the job for them, but for those 5% or less, let’s celebrate our complexity and explain to them that Stellenbosch and Hemel-en-Aarde is far more complex than they think, Sondagskloof is a place, there’s some crazy people making wine in Agulhas and Breedekloof has 14 wards… or maybe bad example 🙂

      It is the system we have and yes we may have to explain it a little, but it is what it is and let’s work with it, rather than break it down, because it doesn’t quite work for me as a producer or for what I am trying to do within my brand.

    Neil Fourie | 16 August 2023

    How come the map doesnt have a ward for the excellent Grabouw wines, firstly Paul Cluver and Oak Valley, and also slightly further South for Iona? If the region or district doesnt need to be sub-divided into multiple wards, then surely it should still be listed with the other wards, and with the same name for the ward as for the district or region?

      Tim James | 16 August 2023

      Hi Neil. At present Elgin is a district without any wards within it. Clüver, Oak Valley, and Iona are all in that district. There is a map of districts available on the Sawis website as well as the one for wards, the same link as indicated in the article.

    Rita Cooke | 16 August 2023

    Please would it be possible to get the map printed from someone. We would love to put on our wall in office. Wine Regions

    Patrick Kelly | 16 August 2023

    Is there any way I can get a copy of this map to print?

    GillesP | 15 August 2023

    Once again a very instructive reading Tim. I think wards are necessary to distinguish high end wines so that the connoisseurs can identify and make a choice at the price point. If you think Burgundy Climats for a minute you have multiples in on single appelation of 1er Cru or Grand Cru. Sometimes the location itself is crucial within the climats. Take the Pommard Epenots vineyard or the Volnay vineyard as an exemple and you have the wines from the top or from the middle or the bottom of that very same vineyard name giving a very different proposition for people researching a certain taste they like. So yes the warding is surely very important at the level of high level , premium and super premium wines.

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