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  • Jancis Robinson
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  • Jancis Robinson
7 Nov 2009
 

This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.

10 Nov 2009 See the spirited correspondence with South African wine writer Tim James at the end of this article as well as my recent tasting notes on Great new South Africans.

Wine without geography is not unthinkable but in 99% of cases it is unexciting. Wine is one of the few things we can buy for a few pounds or dollars whose label has long told us exactly which spot on the globe produced it. Just as excitingly, the precise character of that spot, its so-called terroir, really does shape how it tastes.

This is why, when I write tasting notes, I always include the appellation of the wine, the name of the officially registered and delimited district where the wine was grown and whose characteristics it should represent. Most wine-producing countries have families of these appellations, like Russian dolls nesting one inside the other, with the smallest appellations representing the most precise expressions of terroir fitting into larger and larger areas whose wines exhibit increasingly amorphous characters. (The latest paper from the American Association of Wine Economists is The economics of nested names: name specificity, reputations, and price premia.)

In Australia, for instance, wines labelled South Eastern Australia can come from anywhere in the country apart from the 5% of vineyards that lie in Western Australia. In practice this means that they have been grown in the least blessed vineyards, typically a blend of wines from semi-industrial tracts in the heavily irrigated interior. A wine labelled South Eastern Australia has much less individuality than, say, a wine labelled South Australia, which was produced specifically in that state, which will be less geographically specific than, say, a wine labelled with the name of the Barossa Valley in South Australia. Similarly, any wine labelled simply California could have come from anywhere in the state and in practice is likely to be a blend of wines grown in the baking hot Central Valley, whose reputation is such that you would not choose to name it on a label. According to local wine regulations, if a wine producer wants to use a more specific appellation than, say, California or South Eastern Australia, then 85% of the grapes must come from that particular appellation.

Now, let us consider South Africa. Because, unlike Australia and California, South African wine law requires that 100% of the grapes must be grown in the specified appellation - or Origin, as the South Africans call it - the result is that, although there are more than 80 appellations in South African wine country, the great majority of South African wine exported carries one of two monikers which refer to areas so enormous as to be virtually meaningless to consumers. The most common by far is Western Cape, which encompasses all of the Cape winelands except the very hottest, most northerly vineyards (whose produce is rarely exported in any case). In effect, 'Western Cape' on a wine label means 'somewhere in South Africa'.

The second most common geographical name seen abroad on the labels of South Africa's increasingly exciting wines is Coastal Region. This is another catch-all appellation, except that it is misleading and illogical. Some of the coolest, most maritime wine districts of all, for example Walker Bay around the seaside resort of Hermanus, Cape Agulhas and its sub-district, or ward, Elim, and Overberg and its ward Elgin, do not qualify as part of the Coastal Region (presumably because they emerged after the boundaries were drawn up). Meanwhile such hot, indisputably inland districts as Tulbagh and Swartland, come within the wide embrace of the region known as Coastal.

Until the breakdown of apartheid the South African wine industry was ruled with a rod of iron by a monopoly called the KWV that prided itself on its draconian controls on wine production. It was particularly proud of this 100% requirement, as it was of a raft of other measures notably more restrictive than in most other wine-producing countries. If a single grape in a blend is grown outside, say, Stellenbosch, the blend cannot be so named. And if a single grape is grown outside, say, the Coastal Region, then the only recourse for the producer is to label the wine Western Cape.

Since the whole labelling business is so strict in the Cape - and since the post-apartheid South African wine scene is so fluid that the ambitious new generation of winemakers is often tempted to buy in a little bit of this grape and a little bit of that - the tendency is for them to throw up their hands and simply label their wines with the largest available geographical unit so as to retain flexibility for the next vintage.

This means that those who buy South African wines outside South Africa, and probably many of them within South Africa, are not learning anything about the Cape's wonderfully varied geography. This seems such a shame to me, not least because the generic organisation, Wines of South Africa, so firmly set its sights some years ago on the country's ecological credentials, with biodiversity playing a key part. On its website, WOSA makes much of South Africa's 'distinctive and varied topography, and diverse soils'. One would have thought that geographical traceability would complement this message. Indeed, a few years back WOSA's generic tasting in the UK, the prime export market for South African wine, broke new ground by arranging all exhibitors by their geographical origins. Such purity of purpose seems to have been lost.

Fortunately, however, the average quality of wine being exported from South Africa has progressed in leaps and bounds - even if too often we have to guess at exactly where the grapes were grown. Some of the more exciting wines, many of them newcomers and all with respectably specific Origins, are listed here.

CAPE FAVOURITES

A A Badenhorst, Red 2006 and Secateurs Chenin Blanc 2009 Swartland

Akkerdal, Kallie's Dream 2005 Franschhoek

Alkmaar, The Old School 2005 Wellington

Ataraxia Chardonnay 2008 Western Cape

Bizoe, Henrietta Semillon/Sauvignon 2008 Franschhoek

Boekenhoutskloof, The Journeyman 2007 Franschhoek

Crystallum, Cuvée Cinema Pinot Noir 2008 Walker Bay

De Morgenzon Chenin Blanc 2007 Stellenbosch

Neil Ellis, Vineyard Selection Grenache 2007 Piekenierskloof

Emineo, Liber I 2006 Durbanville

Haskell Vineyards, Pillars and Aeon Shiraz 2007 Stellenbosch

Mullineux, White Blend and Straw Wine 2008 Swartland

Quoin Rock, Simonsberg Oculus 2007 Stellenbosch

Raats Family Cabernet Franc 2007 Stellenbosch

Sadie Family, Palladius 2007/8 Swartland

Scali Pinotage 2005 Voor Paardeberg

Stark Condé, Three Pines Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 Jonkershoek Valley

Vondeling, Babiana White Blend 2006 Voor Paarderberg

Waterkloof Sauvignon Blanc 2008 Stellenbosch

For full notes, scores and suggested drinking dates, see my recent tasting notes on Great new South Africans.

Cape Town wine writer Tim James is an old friend and never short of an opinion. I was therefore braced for his reaction to this article and thought you would be interested in our correspondence about it. I think he makes the excellent point that the problem is often laziness on the part of producers rather than unnecessarily inflexible regulations. My comments are in italics below.

Hi Jancis

A few observations in response to your article on how "the great majority of South African wine exported carries one of two monikers which refer to areas so enormous as to be virtually meaningless to consumers". It's always difficult to respond to generalisations - especially when the vast majority of examples you give

Extremely carefully chosen - lots of wines I really liked I left out because they were labelled Coastal

do not accord with it, but have much more specific Wine of Origin indications; my own impression is that the majority of, at least, fairly serious South African wines do declare pretty tight origins. But I confess I haven't done much actual counting.

As I say, if you were to look at the wines we see here, I'm sure you would see what I mean

It's also a touch ironical, perhaps, that you argue for "purity of purpose" while regretting that there cannot be misrepresentation of origin (by including 15% from other areas)! I think it's not necessarily a pity that South African legislation requires more accuracy (honesty?) than other countries seem to in this regard.

My point was that WOSA seems to have ditched its original geography-based pitch

In fact, fairly recent amendments to legislation do allow for multiple origins to be given. So that the Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards TMV White which you specifically wonder about, could legally be called WO Swartland and Tulbagh (because the grapes come from those two appellations). Wouldn't it be nice it if it were? Trouble is that it is YOUR legislation which doesn't allow for more than one appellation to be given, as I understand it [not true - we see lots of McLaren Vale/Coonawarra wines, for example]- which means that anyone wanting to be accurate in this way wouldn't be allowed to be so for the European market. And the Tulbagh viognier component in this wine is usually more than 15% so that it wouldn't qualify as a Swartland wine anyway.

There are many other cases where it is not the legislation that is at fault, but rather the laziness or lack of interest from producers

[ah! Now we agree.I should have made this point explicity - well, perhaps hinted at it with my reference to 'flexibility']
.

Especially the big producers. Take Boschendal; I think the larger part of their large production could, if they wanted to and if they did their paperwork carefully, qualify for specific appellations - but it is much easier for them to use the catch-all one. But it's not only the big producers who do this, and sometimes it is for strange reasons. Boekenhoutskloof Syrah, one of the Cape's best wines as you know, comes from a single vineyard in Wellington, yet they choose to label it WO Coastal Region - presumably because either the producer (whose winery is in Franschhoek) doesn't want to confuse anyone, or because it DOES want to confuse people! - because Wellington is widely seen as a rather un-sexy origin (so Wellington loses out by not becoming known as the origin of this fine wine). The Boekenhoutskloof wines from home Franschhoek vineyards do declare this.

I'm not sure why accuracy should be seen by you as "draconian"

[the old KWV regime was surely very repressive and not always directed by considerations of wine quality].

Would you really think it a good thing if Chateau Lafitte was (still) able (as I don't know, presumably it is) to include 15% Hermitage, or Cabernet from the Midi, to beef up a poor vintage? If you would think that a travesty of terroir and accurate labelling, why should you regard it as draconian for a Constantia Shiraz not to be allowed to include 15% from the Swartland? It could improve the Constanta Shiraz hugely - but would it still be a Constantia Shiraz? Would you happy if Romanée-Conti called itself that while include 15% pinot noir from elsewhere in a problematic vintage? If not, why not, given your position on South Africa?

My comparisons were with other, more similar wine producers California and Australia.But actually (and I didn't include this because it really is a can of worms) the EU allows 85% and it has been only on a local level that producers can impose tighter controls.New EU wine rules coming into play are deliberately allowing the softening of 100% requirements in place to 85%.Please don't ask me to go into more detail at present, All is in utterly confusing transition.

But anyway, I'm not conscious of it as a problem as much as you are.

Because you live in SA rather than in an export market, I'd argue.

As I say, most of the wines you mention in your two recent articles do claim specific appellations (Incidentally, so will the Ataraxia wines once they are made from home vineyards in Hemel en Aarde Ridge, as they mostly will be when that's possible in a year or two). And when I myself wrote about the 41 Platter five-star winners this year, I welcomed the fact that the overwhelming majority of them declared small-scale appellations

which is great

- and some of the others (like Fleur du Cap's Sauvignon Blanc) are very deliberately aiming at style rather than terroir expression and sourced very widely indeed.

You like seeing proper appellations on labels, so do I. But I'm not sure why your problem is with countries that want the truth to be told rather than with those that take appellations only 85% seriously! I think you should rather welcome the seriousness with which the South African authorities (and, dear me, I don't usually have much praise for them!) take the issue. This is probably the only New World country which also has very strict rules about claiming a wine comes from an estate/domaine, and probably the only one anywhere to also strictly control claims to single-vineyard origin. I agree that it's occasionally a pity that a wine with a small admixture of "foreign" grapes has to resort to a catch-all and meaningless appellation; but more often than not, it is either an issue of a genuinely widely-sourced wine, or it's the producer who should be blamed for laziness or lack of interest

[I think this is a very good point and one I will try to underline].

Not the authorities who are trying to encourage accuracy and honesty in label representation.

LATER:

You don't address my concerns about the illogical and misleading nature of the Coastal region?

I completely agree.

As to multiple origins, the legal officer of Sawis has specifically and officially informed producers here as follows:

'In Wine Law [his publication] of 4 September 2006 you were informed that, under certain conditions, it is now possible to blend wines (or grapes) from different origin areas and indicate it as such, for example, "Wine of Origin Stellenbosch and Constantia". We also promised to let you know whether this practice will be allowed for export to the EU. The EU Commission has now indicated that this practice is prohibited on the EU market.'

I don't know if the Australian example you adduce is still permitted, or whether for historical reasons Australia has an exemption, temporary or otherwise. Or whether SA has been incorrectly informed.

I am inquiring as to whether the EU rules have changed on multiple appellations.

Yrs

Tim

LATER STILL

I have checked the question of multiple appellations and it seems as though third countries can negotiate with the EU, as Australia has, to have the right to use them,