The prevailing wine classification system in South Africa that defines areas of production is the Wine of Origin Scheme(W.O), established in 1973, which demarcates production units as Regions, Districts, Wards and Geographical Units, the latter coming into effect on 2 April 1993.
The legislation that introduced the W.O. scheme was aimed at providing a guarantee to consumers regarding the information contained on the label of bottles purchased. The Wine and Spirit Board is primarily tasked with overseeing the analysis and tasting of wines, before issuing a Certificate label. Part of the analysis includes sulphite levels, quality and varietal character.
The inclusion of the three Geographical Units, namely Western Cape, Northern Cape and Kwa-Zulu Natal as production units allows for wines being produced from grapes covering several wards or districts, therefore different sites or terroirs. You would not be wrong in thinking that predominantly bulk wine falls into this category, but how does one explain the fact that a Kwa-Zulu Natal producer was able to buy in grapes from the Boland, make the wine and then bottle it under the geographical unit of Kwa-Zulu Natal. The hype and excitement about this geographical unit thus becomes farcical.
There is also cause for concern when wines produced by smaller, boutique style wineries begin to label their wines in terms of broader regions and refrain from pin-pointing the district and ward, if applicable. It is possible to purchase a Syrah produced in Franschhoek with grapes brought in from Wellington; however, the label will only confirm that the W.O. is Coastal Region. The average consumer, having visited the winery, tasted and purchased the wine, will assume that the grapes have come from the winery – the vineyard visible from the tasting room will reinforce this perception. It is also possible to purchase a wine that displays both Constantia and Stellenbosch as Wine of Origin and website information confirms that the wine has been made using grapes from the slopes of Helderberg and Constantia.
Surely this practice is counter-productive to the aims of the Wine of Origin Scheme? Sour grapes, you might say, but take a closer look at what is defined as a District and Ward: When a ward is defined, soil, climate and ecological factors play a very important role as they have a clear influence on the character of the wine. The proposed area name also has to be the real geographical place name and nature has to dictate that the specific area can actually produce wines with a distinctive character. Districts have to meet the same criteria as wards but with a broader definition of the relevant area using macro geographical characteristics such as mountains and rivers. Naturally, a greater variety of soil types are allowed than in the wards. Wines produced from grapes that cover differing wards and districts thus take us away from the objective of producing wines that show varietal character in terms of their terroir or site. Perhaps we should be calling this Scheme Grapes of Origin?
It is at this point that we need to question why this is taking place? Is it done to create certain styles of wine that will appeal to the consumer or that have a better chance of winning at competition level? Right now red wines walking away with first prize in competitions seem to show similarity: higher acid, higher alcohol and higher residual sugar. Does this account for the inclusion of warm, riper fruit from warm climate Stellenbosch being integrated with cool climate Constantia? The riper, warmer fruit will bring added dimensions to the final product. The manipulation of the wine has not taken place in the vineyard via canopy management or in the cellar, but rather by crossing wards and districts within the same Region. Proponents of this practice will argue that it is important to have access to top quality grapes and lets face it, too many of our vineyards still suffer under the leaf-roll virus, rendering under-ripe, green wines. But, times have changed and today our wine producers have access to top clones and rootstocks, which are disease-free.
And what about the inclusion of wines from outside countries, marketed and sold as a product of South Africa? Are these wines to be ignored because they are uncertified, hence are not considered important enough? The fact of the matter is that there seems to be a dilution of a system that is aimed at protecting consumers and promoting regional and varietal character of wines. Wosa (Wines of South Africa) have been promoting the concept of “variety is in our nature” for quite some time, but just how varietal are the wines that are being produced?
All is not lost though. There are dedicated winemakers who are committed to producing terroir or site specific wines and these are the wines that local and international consumers should be encouraged to drink. The future of South African wine lies with these producers because there can be no confusion as to what the wine is and where the grapes have come from.