The importance of origin

I took the opportunity over the recent holiday season to do an impressive amount of much-needed tidying up, mainly in my office, which now looks fairly habitable again. Going through one of many boxes, I re-discovered our family tree, a complicated (to me) genealogy of one family spread over several branches and dating back to one, John Forsett, born about 1465. We are now on generation 18 or 19 with Forsett changing to Fawssett around the 17th century.

There is something very pleasing in knowing one comes from such a long lineage and where the many roots were set down. That original John Forsett was ‘Of Billesby, Country Lincoln and came out of Northumberland.’ I’m from further south, but my roots are firmly Anglo-Saxon.

I feel the same about vines. Thanks to the painstaking work of Robinson, Harding and Vouillmoz in their heavyweight Wine Grapes, we now know the family tree of so many well-known varieties and also in many cases their origin.

Vines, like us humans, are happy wanderers and will put down roots even in some of the most unlikely places. But they also need to be planted in the right spots to be fit for the end purpose.

When the Wine of Origin system was drawn up in the early 1970’s, boundaries were demarcated mainly along political lines, though factors, such as topography and a sense of community was employed for the Wards. Within those, there was no restriction (other than what was both available and fashionable and, of course, the quota system) as to what went into the ground. Winemakers’ excitement at the arrival of, for instance, sauvignon blanc and merlot, led to a rash of plantings without taking into consideration where conditions would suit them best.

Today, there is a far more scientific approach to site selection, based on knowledge and, since the demise of the quota system, the opportunity to seek out new sites which imbue their own distinction on the wine. Viticulture is at last being acknowledged for the important determinant to the end result – the wine – that it is.

Not by all though. Recently, I have read that it doesn’t matter where the grapes come from, branding is of prime importance for consumers – or words to that effect. Now I grant that some wines are built on consistency of style rather than expression of individual site, but even for stylistic consistency, the producer needs to know that the grapes going into that wine will enable this end goal. Perhaps the best-known and one of the most expensive wines of that ilk is Penfolds Grange; this is how the website describes its origin: ‘Usually a multi-district blend, South Australia. Significant Shiraz contributions from the Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, McLaren Vale and Magill Estate; Cabernet Sauvignon from the Barossa Valley, Coonawarra, McLaren Vale, Padthaway and Robe’. Although shiraz-based, in some vintages a small percentage of cabernet is included.

Although Grange is a brand, each source of fruit that goes into it is carefully chosen to produce a wine worthy of the label and the price. Consumers are just as discerning at the other end of the price scale: Virginia, Graca, Tassies, if any veer too much off the familiar path (as Tassies did when a red-wine shortage required some Argentinian wine to be included in the blend), consumers’ voices will be heard loud and clear.

Where the grapes come from most certainly does matter.

At the other end of the individuality scale and compared with traditional winelands of France, for instance, we are very much in the early stages of determining the best sites producing distinctive, quality wine. Some producers are exploring the possibilities via their own vineyards – Beaumont Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc, Keermont Steepside Syrah and Riverside Chenin Blanc and, of course, Eben Sadie’s Old Vines Series.

The village and vineyards of Franschhoek in forefront, as seen from the top of Franschhoek Pass
The village and vineyards of Franschhoek in forefront, as seen from the top of Franschhoek Pass

As valuable as the work of all these individuals is, I was particularly excited two years’ ago, when a small group of Franschhoek young guns decided to work together to pinpoint the best sites from three historically best performing varieties in the Franschhoek Wine of Origin. The varieties concerned being semillon, chardonnay and cabernet.

Their starting point was a tasting covering a wide range of ages of each of these, the point being to determine characteristics common to each. There was general delight that, age notwithstanding, much commonality was discerned within each variety.
Next step was a blind competition, to select the best 10 across these varietal categories and which would carry the Appellation Grande Prestige designation. Regulations demanded currently available vintages, minimum stock and, of course, the wines had to carry WO Franschhoek.

I really liked the focus of this and the ten winners were all of really good quality, as well as reflective of the characteristics discerned in that initial tasting.

It was with great disappointment I learned that, due to pressure from other Franschhoek producers, this year’s competition had been opened to any style or variety, provided the wines fulfil the other criteria applied in the previous competition. Thank goodness they’ve held fast on WO Franschhoek!

To my thinking, this new move deflects from the original focus; here we have just another competition. Some varieties do not have a long association with Franschhoek; success this year might well not be repeated next or even the following year. Consistent performance was the point of selecting that trio of semillon, chardonnay and cabernet; there’s a far better chance of examples of each receiving the AGP designation as one of the 10 best entered. Indeed, it’s gratifying to see all three among this year’s winners; the same three wines and their producers were also in last year’s Ten best: QED!

Would it not have made much more sense to create another class for the other varieties and styles, on which they have to perform consistently over five or seven years before upgrading to the senior class and the possibility of AGP status, along with the above trio?

As it is, the event has lost the distinction for which it strives. Time for a re-think, Franschhoek young guns?

Winners of 2015 AGP Franschhoek Top Ten

Black Elephant Brut MCC NV
Môreson Mercator Chardonnay 2013
Franschhoek Cellars Semillon 2012
La Chaumière Pinot Noir 2013
La Bri Affinity (Bordeaux-style blend) 2013
Holden Manz Cabernet Franc 2013
Stonybrook Ghost Gum Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
Lynx SMV 2013
Môreson Chardonnay Straw Wine 2013
Maison Straw Wine 2012

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