Wine and regional identity

By , 1 August 2023



“Can we see what makes the site unique or does winemaking dominate?” was the question posed by Vergelegen winemaker Luke O’Cuinneagain before a recent blind tasting that included Verglegen GVB 2005 as well as the five Bordeaux First Growths of that vintage among others.

Presuming that it is possible to taste regional identity in wine even if you’ve never experienced those wines before is a classic case of privileging definitions and first principles. The conventional wisdom is that with enough education, wine drinkers can become at first basically and then gradually more qualified in wine appreciation.

Research climate, soil types and winemaking methodology and you will have a foundation to appreciate the wines better. Attend wine tasting events. Seek expert guidance. Follow all these steps and the absolute truth of wine will eventually reveal itself.

In the case of Helderberg versus Bordeaux mentioned above, it turned out that the wines disclosed their identities paradoxically because site facilitated a particular approach to winemaking – the producers of the First Growths were so confident in the depth of fruit available to them that their approach to oaking was entirely uninhibited.

More generally, however, I think we must allow that taste is not just a sensory experience but a portal to the metaphysical identity of a region. The essence of wine goes beyond soil and climate and includes the history and culture of the place it originates from.

Most winemakers will insist that vineyard is far more important than any intervention in the cellar but very often the various regions, districts and wards embue their respective wine with an intangible and distinctive aura.

Stellenbosch exudes a sense of luxury and high-end reliability. It’s where Cabernet Sauvignon reigns supreme and facilities are grand – think Kanonkop, Delaire Graff and Tokara. The Swartland is the obvious counterpoint to this, possessing far less a sense of tradition, it’s rise to prominence much shorter, but it’s credentials as a source of excellence now well established, Chenin Blanc and Syrah the champion varieties. It has up until now been all about trucker caps, flannel shirts and working out of converted barns. Sadie, Mullineux and AA Badenhorst have shown the way… Then, of course, there’s Little Burgundy or the three wards of Hemel-en-Aarde where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producers benefit from the seemingly insatiable demand for these varieties from the well-heeled. Hamilton Russell and Newton Johnson are prominent practitioners plus more recent market entrants such as Creation, Crystallum and Storm.

Doug Mylrea and Paul Hoogwerf of Maanschijn.

I was again reminded by the sociological underpinnings of wine on a recent visit to The South Coasters. Paul Hoogwerf and Doug Mylrea of Maanschijn are fervent advocates of the greater Walker Bay area, sourcing grapes variously from Bot River, Hemel-en-Aarde, Stanford and Sondagskloof. Their Herbarium White and Red have intrigued for a few vintages and the time had come to view their cellar situated on the banks of Klein River between Hermanus and Stanford. Their 2022s are again worth seeking out – see review here.

Also in attendance were: Stu Botma of Kindred Coast Wines; PJ Geyer of Thamnus Wines, the Overberg property previously known as Broad Valley; Chris Keet Jnr, viticulturist at Gabriëlskloof in Bot River and who makes wine under his Weather Report label; Wade Sander of Sondagskloof family-owned property Brunia; Jessica Saurwein who make a Riesling from Elgin plus two examples of Pinot Noir, one from Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge and the other from Elandskloof; Mark Stephens, regenerative farming consultant and owner of the Deep Rooted Wines label; and Natasha Williams who was recently appointed as winemaker at Hasher Family Vineyards in Upper Hemel-en-Aarde but also has her own label called Lelie van Saron.

A rather loose affiliation in terms of geography or any signature grape variety but more closely united in terms of aesthetic, the wines on show generally possessing a particular elegance – fruit concentration but not at the expense of freshness. Philosophically, also, there was a sense of a group of youngsters not wanting to be swayed by peer pressure or too inclined to slipstream their more established colleagues. Are we anywhere near being able to recognise a definitive regional identity in these wines? Probably not but is the wine world better off for this bunch of free-thinking new winemakers? Most definitely.


1 comment(s)

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    Alistair Daynes | 2 August 2023

    Lovely article. I found theWalker Bay wine region to be incredibly authentic and a hidden treasure where you can meet real wine makers who will sit with you and share their knowledge and stories

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