For complexity and confusion it would be hard to beat the map of Burgundy; some vineyards are impossibly tiny, most have several owners tending a few rows each. Being able to identify origin, then the individual producer from that same origin takes years of experience and a bottomless bank balance. It is thanks to dedicated tasting by Cistercian monks who tended the vines centuries ago, and when those bottomless bank balances weren’t necessary, that the Burgundian map is so well defined.
We in South Africa have many years to go before we get anywhere near such detailed vineyard demarcations. It’s a task further complicated by winemakers’ musical chairs (do viticulturists, if the producer has a person dedicated to this important role, show similar itinerant tendencies?); it takes many years to understand the minutiae of detail of a vineyard, its reaction to the soil in which it’s grown and the space around and above it.
That acknowledged, certain sites were identified as producing wines of distinctive character way before the 2003 Single Vineyard legislation; it was no surprise that producers crafting wines from these adopted this new, smallest WO once it was written into the laws.
The regulations they had to comply with in order for their wine to carry the Single Vineyard WO read: ‘The term “single vineyard wine” may only be used in respect of wine produced from grapes derived from a production unit which is registered with the production of single vineyard wine in mind. Such a production unit must consist of a single variety and the area may not exceed 6 hectares.’ Not particularly onerous demands.
I asked two winemakers whose single vineyard wines I’d tasted for Platter about the background to these vineyards, why they’d decided to go this route and their thoughts on the legislation. Chris Boustred is winemaker on his family’s farm, Remhoogte, while Alex Starey is in charge of the cellar at Keermont .
Remhoogte Honeybunch Chenin Blanc vineyard was planted in 1987, so will celebrate its 30th year in 2017; it was registered as a Single Vineyard in 2007. Boustred reveals it’s a two hectare block on the same soil type and aspect with a 20 metre gain in altitude over the block but with a constant gradient.
The first bottling of Honeybunch was 2010, after Boustred had identified a particular texture to the wine, ‘Unlike anything I have tasted on other chenins.’ One unusual feature, maybe unique in South Africa, of this particular wine is that the grapes are harvested from the morning side only; fruit from the other side is channeled into the farm’s excellent-value Chenin Blanc. Honeybunch vinification includes a natural ferment in French oak, around 20% new, followed by nearly a year on the lees.
The Keermont single vineyards of Steepside and Topside, both planted to syrah, are much younger; Steepside was planted on the Helderberg in 2005, Topside, a year later, on Stellenbosch Mountain slopes. The former is a 1.3ha separate section of a 5ha block, with ‘fairly uniform soil, mostly north-facing aspect and 300m altitude,’ Starey outlines. ‘Soil on Topside’s 1.74ha varies from partially to well broken-down sandstone; the aspect is mostly west and altitude rises between 350 to 400m.’
Both wines were introduced under the Single Vineyard label with 2012: ‘The block produced its best wine thus far, so we decided to bottle a couple of our favourite barrels separately,’ Starey explains. Prior to 2012, the grapes went into Keermont Syrah, still the destination for the majority of the fruit. Somewhat predictably, Starey believes the wines’ distinction derives from the terroir.
Well, that will have to be proved down the line, via a vertical, as it will with Remhoogte’s Honeybunch. There is no doubt the Keermont pair are individuals.
I also asked Boustred and Starey for their thoughts on criteria for single vineyard status and whether a six hectare maximum is too big. Neither think so, but Boustred qualifies this with ‘Provided aspect, slope gradient and soil type are the same.’ He does think conditions for registration should include being ‘awarded by a board and motivated by winemaker or viticulturist.’ Starey’s thoughts focus on; ‘One undisturbed block of uniform age and which is handled by the same vineyard manager.’
So, is the Single Vineyard WO something that will advance the quality image of South African wine, or just another marketing play; yet another piece of information that will confuse the consumer?
For Boustred; ‘Single vineyards may add value by saving older vineyards that may be lost in blends.’ White Starey considers; ‘Good single vineyard wines serve as benchmarks for something that works well somewhere.’ Both believe these single vineyard wines are likely to appeal to the involved consumer, who loves wine.
For the past 43 years, South Africa has led the non-traditional, ‘New World’ in demarcating origin; I read these days about New Zealand just starting to get to grips with such mapping. What a waste it would be to use the Single Vineyard WO as a marketing tool only. As I wrote in Part 1, ‘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?’
I think it’s incumbent on the producer to have at least a few years’ experience of how a vineyard performs before venturing into Single Vineyard WO status, especially when soils, aspect and altitude vary, and I am with Gordy Newton Johnson in believing that the demarcation committee should have added a few more strictures to the legislation. I’d like to think this would be reviewed when the Wine of Origin regulations are again discussed.