Getting To Grips With Site

The main motive for drawing up the Wine of Origin (WO) legislation in the early 1970s was to ease the way for South African wines to be exported to their main market, the UK, which was about to join the European Union. It was this body that demanded such regulations be in place before any member country could import our wines.

The WO demarcations – Regions, Districts, Wards (and then Estates) – were drawn up according to various criteria. Districts, for instance, were drawn up along geo-political boundaries; the smaller Wards took into account, among other considerations, topography and communities. Whereas the French had had several hundred years to discover the suitability of variety to a specific site and then put in place the AOC regulations, we were doing it back to front. The one benefit we enjoy over the French though is that there is no prescription of what may be planted where. It has been left to our winegrowers to work out where each variety grows best.

One of the original goals of the WO scheme was to pinpoint sites that can produce distinctive, quality wines. In the intervening 41 years, much more knowledge has been acquired, both through research and empirically, of matching variety to site, though no-one pretends that journey is by any means complete.

A group of young winemakers in Franschhoek has had the initiative to take this goal to a more high-profile level. After years of being better known for its fine restaurants than its home-grown wines, the valley has of late been winning awards for wines carrying the WO Franschhoek. Historically, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Semillon have been the best performers and it was this varietal trio that Rob Armstrong of Haut Espoir, Clayton Reabow of Môreson and Craig McNaught of Stony Brook decided should form the basis for their drive to show regional characteristics particular to wines originating from within the official Franschhoek WO. Semillon is probably the best known and most associated of the three. Franschhoek rejoices in some very old Semillon vines – one of the oldest is 108, others anything between 40 and 80 years old.

The exercise first required establishing detailed aromatic and flavour profiles of those varieties. This was done via a blind tasting with a group of local winemakers, some local media, retailers and sommeliers, and covered a range of vintages of each variety, from 1992 through to 2013. Despite the area’s differing aspects, altitudes and soils, the results, as in the aroma and flavour profiles illustrated here, show a surprising commonality between each.

Earlier this year, both typicity and quality were put to the test via another blind tasting to award the first Appellation Grand Prestige status on whichever wines passed the rigorous judging by receiving a minimum 80% vote from the 17 judges – all Franschhoek winemakers and retailers. Just 10 wines made the grade:


Franschhoek Vineyards Semillon 2012

Franschhoek Vineyards Semillon 2013

Haut Espoir Semillon 2009


Chamonix Chardonnay Reserve 2013

Maison Chardonnay 2013

Rickety Bridge Chardonnay 2013

Môreson Mercator Premium Chardonnay 2013

Môreson Knoputibak 2012 (includes a little Semillon)

Cabernet Sauvignon

Rickety Bridge Paulina’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2011

Stony Brook Ghost Gum Cabernet Sauvignon 2009

The AGP founder members did have the grace to feel a little shamefaced about having their wines among the awards but do assure that the tasting was completely blind, the wines receiving the requisite 80% of the vote.

The wines appear to show not only typicity but also stylistic similarity, revealing a sense of restraint and elegance but also self-assuredness.

Members of the AGP are fully aware that, despite the success of these inaugural awards, this is just the first step towards their goal. They also have to persuade some Franschhoek farm owners and others of the benefit of the project. This they will surely achieve should future awards identify the same wines from the same sites coming regularly to the top. If this happens, it will not only benefit Franschhoek as a wine-producing area but South Africa as a whole.

– Angela Lloyd