By Gregory W. Sherwood
Differentiation through terroir and site selection. The concept itself is a simple, age-old practice in Old World wine regions. But what about the New World, or more specifically South Africa? How is the single vineyard concept regarded and interpreted by wine makers and the wine trade in general? Well, with the Juliet Cullinan Red Wine & Port Festival in early June offering an exemplary array of premium South African wines, I had the perfect opportunity to investigate.
While attending this festival, one is repeatedly reminded of the ocean of wine styles and quality levels now available to most consumers. However, you can be sure that the select group of people responsible for actually selling the stuff to the public will look to either the winemaker or the estate itself, for a means to differentiate their product. The single vineyard marketing route beckons very invitingly.
European wine drinkers will be more familiar with single vineyard bottlings, which form the very fabric of regions like Burgundy. Indeed, where would the Cote dOr be without all the Grand Crus Clos? The large vineyard expanses of Australia and South Africa hardly lend themselves to the same concept, yet this is the direction in which many quality producers are moving.
After speaking to some of the Capes top winemakers and wine consultants like Jeremy Walker of Grangehurst and Philip Constandius of Delheim, a widespread appreciation of the quality benefits offered by strict vineyard and site selection became evident. Whether or not these high quality grapes from individual sites are vinified and marketed as a single vineyard wine is another matter.
While some may argue that single vineyard wines are no more widespread in South Africa now than 10 or 15+ years ago, there can be no escaping the publicity and marketing hype that has justly or unjustly been afforded to these wines more recently. A case of wine making and wine industry development, or merely more adept marketing teams identifying unique selling points to differentiate their products? Some of the wineries that I hoped would help answer these questions were Simonsig Estate, Flagstone Winery, Graham Beck Wines, Grangehurst Winery, Hidden Valley Wines, and Jordan Winery.
Bruce Jack, winemaker at Flagstone Winery, famously situated at the foot of Signal Hill in the Victoria and Albert Waterfront in Cape Town, begged to differ. "We purchase 100% of our grapes in, which originate in 38 different vineyards located through-out the Western Cape from Darling on the West Coast to Elim near the Southern tip of Africa (Overberg region). This diversity of meso-climates and soils allows us extraordinary control of quality and complexity it also means we do a bit more driving around than most wine makers!"
Yes, wonderfully entertaining prose for the back of wine labels I might hear you say? Well, the proof seems to be there as well. The Flagstone BK5 Pinot Noir 1999 (named after the Swiss BK5 clone used primarily for sparkling wines), won top honours at "The Sydney 100" last year (A Blue Gold Medal), by tasting better than 46 of the best Pinot Noirs from around the world, including from a small, vaguely known region called Burgundy, as well as New Zealand, Australia, and the USA.
Winemaker Bruce Jack continues, "we only produced 400 cases, and because this is a single vineyard wine, this amount will not increase. Also, Ive heard people say our climate is too hot for great Pinot Noir. This view is not based on any scientific knowledge of quality wine grape growing. It is simplistically because Burgundy is seen as a benchmark for great Pinot Noir, and the Burgundian climate is cold and wet." Quite amusingly, the Zevenwacht Estate, not known for its Pinot Noir, from where the prize-winning fruit was sourced, will soon bottle their own 2000 vintage Pinot Noir from this same vineyard. I didnt have the heart to ask whether or not Flagstone would still be receiving an allocation of grapes from this site in future? It certainly does help if you own the producing vineyards, especially where award-winning, single vineyard wines are concerned!!
Certainly, there can be no doubt that much thought, effort and passion went into the making of the 1999 BK5 Pinot Noir, even though Flagstones own Tasting Notes are a little less definite: "This wine changes all the time, and inspires such strongly held, divergent opinions that we dare not suggest anything. You tell us." Well, I was fortunate enough to taste this wine with top winemaker Ronel Wiid (the 1999 Diners Club Wine Maker of the Year winner with her Hazendal Cabernet Shiraz 1998). She was vocal in her support, and complemented the fine wine making. Certainly a dark, dense, ripe example, exhibiting concentrated fruit and big, new oak vanilla flavours that will need time to settle, integrate, and develop further complexity. An exciting wine.
Another winery that has been prominent of late with its new single vineyard releases is Simonsig Estate. Then again, with over 270 Ha of vineyards from which to select prime fruit, this should come as no surprise. However, the fact that such a large commercial winery should follow this route is significant. Economies of scale and marketing prowess could quite naturally lead smaller boutique wineries to bottle a single vineyard wine. Then again, chances are, many probably only have one or two vineyard blocks of a specific cultivar, when referring to the smaller 3 to 5 Ha properties.
The point of relevance here is that theoretically, almost all wineries, the world over, could bottle and market a single vineyard wine! So what are the considerations for such a step. Undoubtedly, it must be quality, quality, and more quality. Only the foolish (or fiendishly clever) would entertain bottling a so called single vineyard reserve wine, and then sell it at inflated markups, when the quality and complexity of the wine was substandard or even firmly commercial in taste and structure at the very best.
Simonsig Estates marketing representative was quick to point out to me that "the decision to isolate some of their best yielding vineyards was borne out of the shortage of premium red wines in the South African market, as well as further afield. It was felt that the standard wine range, into which these separately vinified blocks had always previously been blended, could hold their own in the quality stakes." The next order of the day was to put this theory to the test. Happily for the winemaker and the wine public, both the Redhill Pinotage and the Merindol Shiraz are faultless examples, and both have already become firm favourites among Simonsig faithfuls and fine wine enthusiasts alike. My search to uncover marketing driven, rather than quality driven single vineyard wines, would it seems, have to wait. No such commercial manipulation here.
A mere four hours from Cape Town, en route to Hermanus, the historic farm Compagnes Drift in Bot River, once an outpost for the Dutch East India Company in the 1700s, is now home to Beaumont Wines. Replying to my assertions, Vineyard Manager Sebastian Beaumont commented, "Sure, most winemakers are looking for that ideal piece of terroir on their farm, that will produce a high quality, concentrated, perfectly ripened varietal wine, or perhaps even a single vineyard wine. But unless the site and its resultant wine is truly individually brilliant, it would be short sited to vinify and sell it as a single vineyard marketing gimmick in order to create greater hype and awareness for your larger commercial quality range. At Beaumont Wines, we believe in vinifying and blending our finest fruit using traditional winemaking methods to produce a small range of quality wines."
With my final tastings and discussions directed around the Jordan Winerys outstanding, elegant Cobblers Hill Reserve Merlot 1997, the classy Hidden Valley Pinotage 1998 made by Jeremy Walker, and the beefy Graham Beck (Robertson Cellar) The Ridge Vineyard Shiraz 1998, the unworthy single vineyard wine I had searched for still remained elusive. Dont get me wrong, this is not disappointment you are hearing, but essentially my expression of surprise mixed with genuine satisfaction and optimism.
In fact, for all these wines, success began in the vineyard, with strict canopy control, and thoughtful site and varietal selection to suit appropriate soils and slopes. Yet despite the numerous, individually different terrain units that many of the sites encompass, relatively few discernable terroir characteristics were evident on any of the wines tasted. This surprising factor, considering the principle concept of single vineyard differentiation, must surely be attributed to the dense, rich, optimally ripe state of grapes harvested, and the subsequent use of 100% new French or American oak for lengthy maturation in most cases. Perhaps with time, winemaking techniques for these sites will evolve to incorporate and accentuate more of the sites inherent terroir components, for even greater character and complexity.
Are these wines exciting enough to justify the significantly higher price mark-ups? Well, if you just consider the extra special attention in the cellar handling and the new oak that many are put into, then yes, I suppose they do justify the extra cost. However, consumers should not misunderstand the label (stated or implied) Single Vineyard Wine. More often than not, for the reds, it will merely mean - a big blockbuster wine, with dense rich fruit that is medium to heavily oaked, requiring several years of cellaring to integrate. Certainly a premium wine at the very least!
Some of the better known single vineyard wines available from South Africa are listed below:-
(This is by no means a comprehensive list).
The wine industry development since 1994 has already manifested itself in wines of richer varietal character and greater complexity than ever before, and South Africa, which was once ten years behind the rest of the world, is now at the forefront of New World wine innovation. Single vineyard wines are just one of these exciting examples. I think its called PROGRESS!