Tim James: The importance of wards for fine South African wine
By Tim James, 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.
- 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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