Tim James: Wine estate status – what to make of it?

By , 5 June 2023



David and Braam van Velden of Overgaauw, one of the first farms to receive official registration as an “estate”.

At the beginning of the year I welcomed the 50th anniversary of the coming into force of South Africa’s Wine of Origin certification scheme – subsequently greatly ramified. Among other things, I mentioned that “it brought into being the legal category of the estate as the smallest area of origin”, for which wines had to be grown, vinified and bottled on one property. The concept is a useful one (it’s more or less the established Bordeaux model, and pretty universally significant in the New World), but the problem to the wine industry inherent in the way that legislation privileged the concept proved greater than the advantages to the estates. The latter, frankly, rather squandered their status and I think it’s fair to say that few local wine-drinkers, let alone foreign ones, were left with any idea of what being an “estate” entailed.

The central problem with thus enshrining the estate in law was that it effectively precluded (certainly in the way it was enforced) any reference to single vineyards – necessarily more significant units of terroir than most estates are. This at a time when terroir and specificity of origin was becoming increasingly important in the South African wine revolution – reflecting international concerns. Eventually … eventually … the Wine and Spirit Board saw some light and, 20 years ago, new legislation allowed for (carefully demarcated and registered) single vineyards within the WO Scheme.

This meant the dropping of the estate as a legal category. Its memory lingered on in the provision for “estate wine” – that is, wine produced in accordance with the old estate principles (grown, made and bottled on one farm). No more estates as such, then, just a scarcely attractive description of “units for the production of estate wine”. That’s what’s behind the reference to “estate wine” which can be seen (and are possibly mostly ignored) on quite a few labels – including most of Kanonkop’s, for one grand example.

But the memory of the privileged “estate” lingers on in some quarters, and too many people speak of the “estate” as though it still exists in legal terms. The “estate” was heavily invoked in the early formulations of that persistently unimpressive association of producers called the Cape Vintner Classification. (It’ll be interesting to see if the CVC celebrates a decade of its scarcely noticeable existence this year; if indeed it does still exist – who knows? The last, and only, item of “News” on its website is more than a year old.)

And now the idea is invoked again in a new producer association, the First 14 Wine Estates, evoking the WO system and its inclusion of estates 50 years ago. These were the first wine farms to receive official registration as estates under the new legislation. In case you’re wondering, they are: Alto, Backsberg, Groot Constantia, Middelvlei, Meerendal, Montpellier, Muratie, Neethlingshof, Overgaauw, Simonsig, Theuniskraal, Twee Jonge Gezellen, Uiterwyk, and Verdun (Asara). Incidentally, after a few years there were many more.

It was all celebrated at an event at Groot Constantia last week, organised by that wonderfully indefatigable enthusiast for South African wine traditions, Bennie Howard, who is the inspiration behind the new association. Bennie made it clear, however, that the intention is to go beyond the marketing of the members, and to build (re-build?) the public reputation of the estate wine concept – and, I suppose, the rather vague public understanding of it. There’s a smart logo to go on the members’ Estate Wine bottles, but I fear that unless there’s somehow real awareness built about what estate wine is and isn’t, it’s all not going to be much more meaningful than the CVC has proved to be. As a pedant, though, I do hope there’s not going to be confusing chat about “estates” – they no longer exist in the way they did 50 years ago.

The estate wine concept is undoubtedly a valid and potentially useful and informative one, up to a point. But I suspect it’s not going to be easy to arouse enthusiasm beyond the producers themselves. Any geeky buzz around terroir inevitably focuses on vineyards rather than on whole farms, some of them very large. Undoubtedly, much of the excitement about Cape wine nowadays focuses on producers who are essentially negociants, taking in grapes from selected, scattered vineyards owned by others, rather than from those they happen to have on their farm. Ten years ago, in my book on South African wines, I remarked that “even at the top level, comparatively few producers have registered their qualifying wines”. And I noted that, of the 63 five-star wines in Platter’s 2013, only seven were “estate wines”. It’s unlikely that the situation has changed. The estates were generally associated with quality in the 1970s and 1980s, but that’s not really significant or, sadly, even remotely true in the 2020s.

One must, however, wish these First 14 and their colleagues on “units for the production of estate wines” well. It’s a nice idea, if not as useful a one as it was in 1973, when the co-ops were even more all-consuming than they are now, and there was a need to jack up the quality of wines coming off the better farms and to promote concepts of wine origin.

I must mention what was for me the highlight of the celebration last week: the chance to taste a handful of older wines that some of the First 14 had generously brought along. There were three from the momentous year of 1973, all cabernets. The Groot Constantia was a touch unfresh, but not without echoes of life and fruit. Backsberg was fresher and more vital, with lovely aromas and the finest resolved tannins like thin silk. Light-feeling. Overgaauw had much the same characteristics, but was a touch more tannic and substantial, also replete with delight. Fine estate 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.


1 comment(s)

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    Kwispedoor | 5 June 2023

    I think that the estates themselves seriously diluted the concept when they started buying in fruit and started marketing it under the estate brands. Nowadays, an average wine drinker will often talk of producers as “estates”, ones that have never ever been estates or even “units for the production of estate wine”. It has become synonymous to “wine farm” or “wine producer” amongst many wine drinkers.

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