We’ve honoured winemakers (too much), we’ve started to honour viticulturists (not before time), now we need to honour vineyards.
South African vineyards have had a rough ride. The scourge of leafroll virus is still rife; a few, with rigour, dedication and general sanitary practices, have eradicated it; Vergelegen is a notable example. Sadly, a newly planted, virus-free vineyard can soon turn: virus-free vines doesn’t equal virus-resistant.
Until 2006, individual vineyards were spoken of only in whispers and behind locked doors; they certainly didn’t receive official recognition. The Cape Estate Wine Producers Association saw to that; they enjoyed and protected their status as the smallest unit under the Wine of Origin scheme. With changes to the Estate legislation, so the single vineyard designation became legal. Such vineyard has to be registered, planted to a single variety, be no larger than six hectares and ‘single vineyard wine’ has to appear on the label (whether or not it’s accompanied by a particular name of the vineyard), as does the designated Wine of Origin.
Judging by the numerous responses to my request for designated single vineyard wines, even among knowledgeable wine friends, there is confusion – I received dozens of proprietary names, few of which are labelled ‘single vineyard wine’.
So how many registered single vineyards are there? According to the latest SAWIS figures – 1711; many producers register multiple blocks, some the whole farm; these are often listed as Block 5 or similar, only a few have a name. It might look a large number but not when one considers the extent of South African vineyards.
An interesting recent proposal suggests ‘in addition to the other stated objects (sic) (I think they mean objectives), in the case of single vineyard wine, the objects are “to express the distinctive characteristics of a small specific site as determined by soil, cultivar, rootstock, clone, meso-climate, exposure and viticultural and winemaking purposes.’ One might have thought such details would have been top of mind when the legislation was first passed.
It is relevant not only to the wine’s distinctive characteristics but its consistency. The old Vine Project has increased awareness of not just old, but quality vineyards. This recognition now needs to spread more generally; top vineyards need to be recognised alongside the top wines produced from their fruit. The chain shouldn’t stop at the winemaker nor viticulturist.
Of course, not all single vineyards are capable of producing stellar quality; nor are single vineyards the be-all-and-end-all, but the single vineyard does focus on the issue of matching variety and site for the purpose of revealing a sense of place in the wine.
This doesn’t happen overnight or it shouldn’t; it requires experience and understanding.
It was while reflecting on the issue of honouring vineyards that serendipity offered a hand. Andrew Gunn of Iona Vineyards invited me and my colleague, Tim James, to taste and discuss new wines, including the maiden single vineyard wines.
The single vineyards, Kloof, Kroon and Fynbos, are defined by both aspect and soil. North facing Kloof (both chardonnay and pinot noir) is on silica quartz with clay; Kroon (pinot noir) comprises alluvial gravel, sandstone and Ferrocrete underpinned by clay and faces south; north-facing Fynbos (chardonnay) lies on alluvial gravel, sandstone with underlying clay.
An important self-imposed restriction is that the vineyards have to be at least 10 years old before they’ll be considered for the single vineyard label; a period during which the vineyard can prove its quality credentials and the winemaker his understanding of it.
While waiting for ten years to elapse, these and some older chardonnay and pinot noir vineyards are channeled into Iona Chardonnay 10 Barrel and Iona Pinot Noir 10 Barrel, currently both 2018 and sold exclusively through Woolworths, where they offer terrific value for R250. There’s no dumbing down, no new oak, pure flavours and freshness that offer ready pleasure but are soundly built for a good few years.
Next level up incorporates the former Iona Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, both 2018 and now indicated by Elgin Highlands on the label. A gentle introduction to perhaps a future new Ward, from which Elgin would benefit. Selling for just R40 more than the 10 Barrel pair, they are drawn from blocks of older vines, evident in their increased concentration which is well able to handle 30% of larger format new oak. The fragrant pinot is particularly charming; very Elgin in its lively freshness, with a delicacy matched by concentration.
The single vineyard quartet, all 2017s, selling for R500, are labelled ‘Limited edition’ as the official single vineyard wine label will come into effect with the 2018s. I think of them as unadorned, essentially holding up a mirror to each vineyard. The Kloof chardonnay and pinot pair are firmly built, their full flavours needing time to develop. The pinot stony, dark-fruited with a suggestion of truffles; concentrated and prolonged but again, with lightness and delicacy. There’s stony quality to the chardonnay too, complemented by a grainy texture and a sound acid backbone: it might sound unlikely but this is a graceful wine.
Kroon pinot and Fynbos chardonnay are more forthcoming; seductive, juicy and luscious .. but plenty of support to benefit from ageing.
Much of the wines’ freshness, purity and alcohols around 13.5% can be attributed to long, slow ripening with harvest taking place in mid-March, a full two weeks later than the rest of Elgin.
The approach Andrew and Rosy Gunn with winemaker Werner Muller are taking shows first and foremost they are respecting their vineyards; at every step doing all they can to ensure each vineyard’s voice is heard loud and clear.
We may be far off a vineyard classification but it’s a goal that would duly honour our vineyards.