Single Hit Parade #2

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

Having emerged from its position as the only country to prohibit any mention of vineyard origins on its wine labels, South Africa has embraced the age of single vineyards with 352 now registered (see Single Hit Parade #1 ). To some single vineyards are the cathedrals of viticulture and represent the ultimate sense of place, to others simply painting in black and white.

The notion of single vineyard is hardly new with the monks of Citeaux some 1 000 years ago parcelling out the climats of Cote d’Or based on the observation that year after year certain parcels always produced wine of recognisable character and quality. Today, some of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s single vineyard Pinots are among the most sought-after in the world.

Other varieties to have produced among the finest single vineyard wines of the Old World are Riesling, Nebbiolo and Shiraz. In the Cape, registered single vineyards are dominated by Shiraz (180), Cabernet Sauvignon (167) and Sauvignon Blanc (145), up there with Riesling as aromatic white wine. Pinot Noir comes in at eighth (51) after Chenin sixth (67) and Pinotage seventh (68) in a more true reflection of our heritage.

Considering its global standing, Chenin Blanc’s 67 registered single vineyards at first seem a touch incongruous until you consider that as the most widely planted variety with among the highest concentration of old vines, Chenin is probably in pole position to become the best expression of single vineyard wines in the Cape. Is it a coincidence that prominent critics are starting to draw comparisons between Chenin-dominant blends and white Burgundy?

Although not always recognised as such, vineyard site selection is the most important aspect of grape production in the New World. Following the age of New World varietalism, where the winemaker and cellar were lauded above vineyard site, and marketers pooh-poohed the notion of terroir, New World winemakers are now keen to express the origin of their best wines.

This is growing both numbers of New World sites coming of age and consumers demanding more information about the precise origin of what they consume in the age of environmentalism. Owners are also finding that talking up their property is more sustainable than talking up their winemakers, who readily up and move to the next winery.

Another driving force is the imminent demise of the mid-sized winery. Like elsewhere, consumers in the US are tending to either buy cheaper mass-produced wine or they buy more expensive wines from small- to boutique-sized wineries. Of course there are some who registered their single vineyards for marketing purposes only but it’s highly likely that they – like the mid-sized wineries – will be found out by market forces.

Single vineyards offer at once the pleasure of singularity and of difference. Different wine regions show different styles and quality with the same variety and the opportunity all wine geeks love – to compare and contrast, and return to the standard bearer, the single vineyard. If terroir is the right variety in the right place, single vineyards stand as a shining example. True single vineyards become classics, in the best sense of the word, by standing the test of time.

– Jonathan Snashall