Soil vs site Part 1

The Single Vineyard Wine of Origin was promulgated as recently as 2003, thus overtaking Estates as the smallest Wine of Origin. It might sound crazy but prior to that, as SAWIS puts it: ‘The word ‘vineyard’ may only be used in general descriptive terms and may not create the impression that the wine concerned comes from a specific vineyard or vineyards. (What were they smoking?) (Tim James’ Dissertation submitted for his Cape Wine Masters Diploma explains why the ‘Estates’ clung on to their smallest Wine of Origin status.)

Today, there are around 1100 sites registered as single vineyards, though only a fraction of that number produce wine under such status.

As with other Wines of Origin, the demarcation committee, headed by Duimpie Bayly investigated and drew up the required rules and regulations; included among these was a maximum size of six hectares. Bayly explains this thus: ‘When the first single vineyard appellation began there were a few applicants whose vineyards exceeded the initial 5 hectare standard … but less than 6. Those applicants requested that they be accommodated. As all vineyard blocks are registered with SAWIS it was evident that over 80% of the blocks were 6 hectare or less, hence the 6 hectare maximum.’

It struck me at the time that the maximum of six hectares but even smaller areas delimited as single vineyards could well be made up of not one but many of our heterogeneous soils. As soil is regarded an important influence on terroir, I wondered whether the wine from a single vineyard composed of more than one soil type could have a less distinctive character than that from one or more vineyards composed of a single soil type.

Here lies the crux of WO Single Vineyard, What is the point of registering a single vineyard if the wine has no distinguishing characteristics, if it’s just a name on a label?

Mullineux Schist SyrahMy curiosity was further piqued when tasting the Mullineux’s Iron, Schist, Granite and Quartz wines – each highlighting the importance of the soil on which the vines are grown rather than site. Each of these wines does indeed have its own distinctive characteristics.
I realised it was unlikely my ponderings would deliver a definitive answer, but considered a discussion among a few knowledgeable wine people could lead to some interesting opinions on the subject.

Chris and Andrea Mullineux were my first port of call, but before revealing their thoughts, I was interested to read what Gordon Newton Johnson had to say about registration of vineyards. ‘I think soil type is very much valid towards the whole terroir debate and I find it very surprising that it is nowhere mentioned in SAWIS application forms when registering a new vineyard for production or even a single vineyard itself.’ He expounds: ‘A suggested soil type should at least give an indication to the style of wine expected from a single vineyard. It should also be the basis for defining the vineyard site.’

As a Swartland producer, Chris Mullineux debates whether there is such a difference in soil over as small an area of even the largest single vineyard: ‘.. the Paardeberg is mostly deep decomposed granite (with some slate bedrock lower down); Kasteelberg is mostly schist bedrock underneath a layer of varying thickness of topsoil of eroded material from the mountain above ..’ and so on, leaving Mullineux to conclude; ‘So, there is relative uniformity within an area the size of most vineyards.’ That said the Schist Syrah is from a single vineyard on their Roundstone farm, the rest mainly blends from similar soils. Mullineux suggests they may bottle more single sites in future, but wants to establish a track record for consistency before doing so. For the record, he details that their vineyard aspects vary greatly and altitudes run between 200 and 450 metres.


Jordan vineyards, Stellenbosch
Jordan vineyards, Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch claims a quite different situation, as Gary Jordan explains: ‘While Stellenbosch vineyards may be predominantly on 570-600 million year old, coarse porphyritic granite, the differences over metres or hundreds of metres is what makes viticulture both challenging and exciting.’ The goal of uniform ripening leads Jordan to separate as much as possible vineyard blocks based on different soil types derived from differing bedrock geology.

There is one block covering seven hectares composed of exactly the same soil and slope direction, but due to height differences, this has been divided into three separate vineyards. ‘This,’ Jordan explains, ‘results in a natural lowering of the air temperature for every 100 metres rise above sea level; in addition other geographical influences such as greater exposure to wind play a further role.’
NewtonJohnsonPNOver to Gordon Newton Johnson in the Upper Hemel en Aarde Valley, who speculates; ‘Producing a wine of distinct character and quality from a vineyard six hectares or more is likely improbable, but not impossible.’ After pointing out that Corton in Burgundy is 95ha, Newton Johnson relates; ‘We make three different cuvées from a 1.1ha vineyard, largely due to different slope gradients and the movement of water in the soil.’ Even in that small area, he knows parts are unlikely to even produce quality required for the top tier, so will be channelled into a lower one.

These three producers work in their own specific area; I turned to Rosa Kruger for a broader perspective. She opened with, ‘The question has many answers,’ which rather confirmed my suspicion that there would be no definitive answer. Kruger emphasised that her following views are borne out by her experience of different sites; ‘I have no academic background.’

‘Proximity to the ocean and altitude dominate the effects of everything else – soil, aspect, clone, rootstock, canopy structure, radiation, day length … or anything else,’ she expounds. ‘The further you go inland and the hotter the climate, the more the soil type dominates.’ By example, Kruger maintains; ‘I think Kaaimansgat chardonnay will reflect Kaaimansgat even if it was planted on schist, clay, sand or granite; it’s altitude that dictates style. On the other hand, in the Swartland wines from schist or granite soil will reflect that soil (which validates the approach in the Mullineux’s Terroir range – AL) with aspect also an influencing factor.’

It is helpful to conclude Part one of this discussion with the views of my helpful respondents as to what they consider directs the distinctive character in a specific site or single vineyard. The Mullineux’s sum up terroir as; ‘The sum of different factors in and around the vineyard with certain factors more influential in some regions than others. The soil has a massive role to play in the warm Swartland; in California, fog off the Pacific is, in many parts, more influential than the soil. Both still produce terroir wines because they express their relationship with the climate.’

For Gary Jordan: ‘One has the greatest sense of place when one can identify subtle characteristics consistently in the wines produced from a single site, despite the winemaker’s influence or even the climatic conditions pertaining in a particular growing season.’

Gordon Newton Johnson reflects on the role of the winemaker/grower: ‘Whatever site/terroir characteristics we see in the bottle are nonetheless seen through the lens of this person. They make the decisions to select the vineyard site, train it in a certain way, affect its exposure to light, manage yields, extract flavour and so forth.’ He tentatively suggests the answer to the true expression of a site lies partly how it was done in Burgundy many hundreds of years ago, by tasting. ‘Perhaps single vineyard wines should be approved by, and I hate to say this, a panel of tasters from and experienced in the soils, conditions and styles produced in the area.’

Rosa Kruger follows Newton Johnson’s train of thought with a little more detail: ‘Soil is one factor, others such as altitude, aspect, drainage, steepness of slope, radiation, as well as farming method – organic, biodynamic or conventional – irrigation, way of pruning all influence the outcome.’

Part Two will consider the views of two winemakers who produce well-reputed single vineyard wines and my summary.


2 thoughts on “Soil vs site Part 1

  1. Thoroughly interesting read. It may also be argued that the age of a vine also plays a major role in how the other elements of terroir are expressed in its eventual wine. For instance, if it’s a young vine it’s roots would not yet have grown deep enough to reach different, deeper layers of soil. Also, old vines arguably adapts so masterfully to its surroundings, that it’s affected less by certain external factors than a young vine might have been.

    1. Thanks, Kwisp. There’s a lot more that can be said, but this piece was long enough as it is! Re your last sentence, that’s precisely what Rosa and Eben say about some of the old vineyards he takes fruit from and why they want to keep strain by propogating from those vines.

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