Opinion, Rants, and Stories

Tracing Terroir: South Africa’s Wine of Origin System


Here’s a rather lengthy article I wrote for Classic Wine a couple months back. It turned into a sort of introduction to the South African Wine of Origin System. 

Of all the words used to describe, sell, and market wine, terroir is the one that causes the most frustration. It is a word that means much to hardened wine geeks, and little to those who just want a sweet rose. In South Africa the first stop on the journey understanding terroir is the Wine of Origin System, but how useful is the system to understanding terroir and fine wine?

I hear so often that a reflection of terroir is the ultimate goal in fine wine making. Though this is obviously problematic – I don’t want to taste your awful wine because it perfectly reflects your awful terroir – the idea and understanding of the term is still central to understanding fine wine.

That tomb of vinous knowledge, The Oxford Companion To Wine, succinctly describes terroir as “the total natural environment of any viticultural site”. The quintessentially French term suggests the complex interplay of soil, macroclimate, mesoclimate, vine microclimate and topography will be reflected in wines to some degree vintage to vintage, regardless of changing methods of viticulture and winemaking. Despite the fact the French had not conceived of anything so barbarous as coffee Pinotage when they coined the phrase, it is an immediately attractive idea.

Especially attractive to the French, for whom the location of a vineyard is of great importance when making, selling, and marketing their finest wines. I do not want to get distracted by the all the issues terroir raises. Let us say to seek, find and record which locales consistently produce the highest quality wines is important, and to understand why this happens even more so.

It is so neat and tidy when generalized like this. But which variety are we talking about? What happens when we add irrigation and trellising decisions, pruning and soil treatment, pest control, and canopy management to the rather inelegant equation? Where does the reflection of terroir end, and the creation of it begin? A complex question done no favours by the off-hand marketing remark “our wines reflect our unique terroir”. Really, and pray tell, what terroir is that?

Problems and unanswered questions aside, terroir, a word used with unabashed regularity in discussions of fine wine, points to a wine’s provenance, and suggests that in understanding place, we will better understand wine.

In South Africa to know where a wine is from we use the Wine of Origin system. It was created and implemented in 1973 mainly to ensure accurate labeling, and to meet European Union requirements for exporting our wines. To understand fine wine one must seemingly understand terroir, and to understand this in a South African context the starting point is logically the Wine of Origin System, as it is legislated and allows us to track our favourite wine all the way back to the vineyard.

The Wine of Origin system is simple and confusing at the same time. It breaks down South African wine producing areas into regions, districts and wards, each getting smaller and more specific, down to the smallest designation the single vineyard. To illustrate this let’s look at a single vineyard wine of the future. Chris Alheit of Alheit Vineyards plans to produce a Chenin from a single vineyard in the Bottelary Hills. If he succeeds, and all certification goes as planned, the wine will be designated as a single vineyard wine, in the Bottelary Ward, of the Stellenbosch District, within the Coastal Region of the Western Cape Geographical Unit. If, however, he blended wines from different wards within the district, the wine would be W.O Stellenbosch; and if made up of grapes sourced from different districts within the Coastal Region it would be ‘W.O Coastal Region’ and so on all the way to the charmingly unhelpful W.O South Africa.

South Africa is broken up into five Geographical Units, six Regions, 24 Districts, and 68 Wards. Unfortunately, it is not as neat and tidy as all that as not all wards are within districts or even regions.

An obvious consequence of having these areas legislated, as Sebastian Beaumont, wine maker at Beaumont Wines points out, is “it puts a system in place that allows you to trace the origin of the wine in the bottle, and it makes producers accountable for what they put in the bottle.” This indeed, is vital. The control of the Wine of Origin system falls under the Wine and Spirits board, whose task is to make sure, “[w]hen the term “Wine of Origin” or the abbreviation “W. O.” appears together with the name of a production area . . . on a label, it confirms that 100% of the grapes from which the wine is made, comes from that specific area.”

In this regard the Wine of Origin system exists so we actually can judge a book by its cover. In its relevance to terroir, wine writer Christian Eedes sums it up well saying, “Terroir is the difficult but rather romantic notion that wines should taste of the place where the grapes grow. At it’s best the Wine of Origin System seeks to formalise this.”

If then, the Wine of Origin system exists to fomalise terroir, the most important question to ask is how are the wards and districts created? The Wine and Spirits Board explains:

When a ward is defined, soil, climate and ecological factors are very important as they have a clear influence on the character of the wine.

Districts have to meet the same criteria as wards, but with a broader definition of the relevant area by using macro geographical characteristics such as mountains and rivers as criteria. Naturally, a greater variety of soil types are allowed than in the wards.

The first problem with the Wine of Origin System, one that Richard Kershaw MW immediately pointed out is that “It has carved up wine producing regions on the basis of political boundaries including roads and railways lines and not on the basis of terroirs.”  Secondly, even if the Wine and Spirits Board has done their best to make a sensible system, the resulting system is less than perfect.

Join me as we dive down the rabbit hole.

Bruwer Raats, in a speech he delivered recently asked, “Do certain officially demarcated areas of origin deliver a specific quality or own unique character of Chenin Blanc in South Africa?” His answer is illuminating, but let’s bear in mind that he is only discussing Chenin Blanc.

About 75 cultivars have been approved for the production of Wines of Origin. And though the Wine and Spirits board admits “Each cultivar has specific characteristics regarding its adaptability to the soil and climate, and the suitability of its fruit for the production of a wine with a specific style or of a specific quality,” South African winemakers can plant any of these varieties in any of the districts or wards.

Raats is asking that if a consumer picks up a bottle of Chenin – let’s use our single vineyard Chenin of the future,– and reads ‘Wine of Origin Bottelary’ will she be able to notice “a clear and distinctive influence on the character of the Chenin Blanc produced from this ward, as opposed to the Voor Paardeberg ward Chenin within the district of Paarl?”

Though we are now deep in wine geek territory, this question is very important to the future of South African fine wine, and our Wine of Origin system. When I asked Eben Sadie of Sadie Family Wines about the system he said, “Wine of origin is intrisic to the value of wine . . . wine is supposed to reflect its orgin.” He pointed out that just because some wine does not reflect its origin it does not diminish from the “greatest fact about wine: that it is the one agricultural product that should resonate its origin above all. A Piedmont Barolo or a German Mosel Riesling or a Loire Sauvignon from Sancerre above all, if produced properly is a decree of origin.”

Let us return to the Alheit’s future Chenin and Bruwer Raats’ question. In his speech Raats makes it clear that terroir can contribute to different characteristics in a final wine. I remember attending a component tasting of Raats’ Family and Raats Original Chenin Blancs. It was at this tasting that I first, quite obviously, tasted a difference in terroir. The wine that came from Chenin grapes grown on Table Mountain sandstone-based soils showed white and yellow fruits with a fuller, richer structure than the wines which came from grapes grown on decomposed Dolomite granitic soils that showed a leaner character with more citrus notes. Since then I have noted this in other Chenins from similar soil types.

Bruwer points out the problem, “These soils are, however, not specific to any one particular ward or district in South Africa, let alone a region.” So our imagined Alheit Single Vineyard Chenin in the Bottelary ward in Stellenbosch,  might be “more similar to the characteristics of Voor Paardeberg in the Paarl district (which both share granite based soils) than Simonsberg ward in Stellenbosch which have decomposed sandstone based soils.”

While this obviously does not mean that the entire system is faulty – remember the importance of knowing for certain a wine’s provenance – it does show the problem the system has in formalizing terroir.

Richard Kershaw MW points out that it is not only soil but also temperature that is at issue. “ [I]f you buy a Villiera Sauvignon Blanc and a Vergelegen Sauvignon Blanc that both have WO Stellenbosch on them how can anyone including MW’s really pick up a regional trait. With 8ºC in the summer difference between the two they are in completely different regions.”

We have made a brief foray into wine-nerd land and, as usual, emerge with more questions and problems than answers. We have a system that is, according to Sadie “amazingly accurate and something we should be proud of,” but if it is to reflect the difference of terroir, or regionality in our wines it still has a way to go.

How can the system develop into one that closer reflects these diverse conditions? Is the answer to develop something akin to the French appellation contrôlée, where to be certified only certain varieties can be used in specific areas? Not yet, seems to be the answer.

Alex Dale, owner of The Winery of Good Hope, believes that “being prescriptive in this manner would probably only be driven by vested interests, agendas, manipulation and a lack of time-honed justification, let alone true suitability.” If the top down approach is taken, the results will almost certainly be flawed.

Craig Hawkins of Lammershoek and Testalonga told me that “it’s very important to create an understanding from students, consumers, growers, and winemakers that certain grapes just belong in certain regions, and when planting new grapes not just planting the ‘next trend’, but rather those grapes that work.”

This, perhaps, is the best route for the system, winemakers and consumers. The system is continually being refined and silly designations such as landlocked Tulbagh falling within the Coastal Region are being corrected, however, issues such as Elgin being a ward, and Stellenbosch a district remain.

Kershaw agrees, “producers should work together more giving a district or ward a particular hook thus inspiring commentators to visit the area.” He used the Australian model as an example, “say you want to taste Riesling then you head up to Clare despite the two hour drive from Adelaide. Once there you get invited to taste their Riesling and then continue onto their other wines.”

Wine writer Angela Llloyd is likeminded, “what I do see happening is that certain key varieties, maybe only one, will come to be identified with an area as far as quality is concerned.”

This means that producers within districts, and perhaps in time, wards, work to promote their area as being the best for certain types of wines or varieties. The catch is, however, producers must share some sort of common goal in what they want to produce. As Sadie points out, “the problem is not the [wine of origin] system, but rather . . . producers trying to make a wine for every potential customer out there regardless of site or place.”

A current example is the Swartland Independent. “A group of like-minded wine-growers in the Swartland” who have banded together laying down guidelines so the “DNA of the region” can be expressed in their wines.

To join is voluntary, of course, but to have the Swartland Independent sticker on your bottle certain rules must be adhered to. They are working from within the current system, and their first rule is all wines must be certified as W.O Swartland. From there other rules apply concerning vinification, and which varieties can be used.

The end game here is not to snub or remove themselves from the current system, but to create amongst themselves a way of signaling to consumers that they have purchased a bottle of wine that seeks to best capture the terroir of the Swartland.

Another future use of the Wine of Origin System, suggested by Sebastian Beaumont, relates to the value of the grapes in different areas. Instead of only certain varieties being able to gain certification within an area, varieties that have shown over time to excel on particular sites could be acknowledged by the Wine of Origin System resulting in farmers being paid a higher price for their grapes. This, like all other improvements to the system takes time. Alex Starey of Keermont, wine writer Tim James and Craig Hawkins all said we need to wait a hundred years before we can be confident where different varieties should be planted.

So where have we ended up. Perhaps with no groundbreaking ideas relating to the Wine of Origin system, but the need to keep raising the issue – for the next 100 years even – is important. In South Africa we have a system that is cumbersome in some areas, but very efficient in others. It is a base that has to be worked from.

Solutions will come from producers that are dedicated to finding out what grows best where, and working together with their neighbors. If this is done, in conjunction with the Wine and Spirits board, purposefully over a number of generations we will start to see a map of our fine wine producing regions that closely reflects our diverse terroirs.

It is a process for which the best wines of the country will benefit, but will have little impact on the poor ones. The hope is to have more and more wines that are a “decree of origin” making the penning of maps that much easier.


3 thoughts on “Tracing Terroir: South Africa’s Wine of Origin System”

  1. As an American Master Sommelier candidate, I find your article refreshing. Try to study South Africa is mind numbing. For the average American consumer, the system is set up to label wines with gibberish. I’ve visited numerous sites, read several books, and there is no way any sommelier or wine shop owner can fully explain the differences in key wine wards from key wine regions, In blind tasting, forget about it. Great article.

    1. Hey Keith,

      Thanks for reading, and I am very very happy that my article has helped you understand SA wine a little better. Understanding area relating to taste is tricky at the moment with the vast amount of styles and wines produced in very different terroirs. We’re getting there with especially with increased amounts of finer wines being producer here. The challenge is getting those wines to you. Again, thanks for reading. If you are ever in town please get in touch.

  2. Great article Harry, we are coming over in October for a wedding in Paarl and then have 2 weeks for a big wine tasting tour with our South African friends (parents of the bride) – we are looking forward to tasting some great Chenins and comparing them to our favourite whites from the LOIRE, and hunting down some single varietal reds – I am looking for Cabernet France and Petit Verdot to compare with the Californian ones I had in the summer but which were about $60 a bottle more than I could afford.
    We have planned the trip using my friends local knowledge plus Platters guide – cant wait!!

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