Sticker shock

It’s not a term South Africans are familiar with, but if you google ‘sticker shock’ the answer shows that it’s defined as “astonishment and dismay at the high price of a product”.

Well, that doesn’t fully apply to Saronsberg, Tulbagh’s most renowned shiraz producer, but it does apply to its policy of applying stickers to its multi-award winning bottles! If you want to find Saronsberg on a retail shelf, just look for the most festooned bottle.

Take the current release – 2019 vintage – of Saronsberg’s Full Circle, a shiraz-led blend with grenache, mourvèdre, viognier and roussanne. It has a bright red Platter 5 Star sticker, Decanter World Wine Awards 95 point gold medal, Drinks Business Master blazon, Veritas gold, Terroir Award national winner medal, Michelangelo gold and National Wine Comp awards too!

And why not? The expression goes: if you’ve got it, flaunt it! While many other local producers dismiss this as braggadocio or immodest, there’s another interesting way of viewing all those stickers. As facile and amusing as it may seem at first, there’s a point being made – and that is that this wine is no flash-in-the-pan. It has been lauded by judges at more than one competition or event. For more than one year too…

That speaks to consistency and quality. It’s something the owner and winemaker duo of Nic van Huyssteen and Dewaldt Heyns set out to do from day one. Both were convinced that shiraz was the grape which would set them apart, a decision which appears prescient 20 years on since South Africa’s love for shiraz shows little sign of abating.

A potted history of this Tulbagh property is that Van Huyssteen bought two farms, Waveren and Welgegund, in the horseshoe-shaped Tulbagh valley. 2003 provided a reality check for the new owner when a terrible fire blazed through, reducing the former fruit farms to ashes. But it also provided the opportunity to replant and plan meticulously, something he and Heyns did, selecting clones carefully, demarcating one hectare blocks and even going counter to conventional wisdom in terms of row direction. By 2004 the first wines hit the market – and Saronsberg has never looked back.

Combined, the land comprises 550 hectares but only 50 are under vine. The Waveren portion is the largest, with 350 hectares of weathered shale soils on the valley floor, while the rest can be found on the east-facing slopes of the Saronsberg. With higher rainfall (around 1200mm annually compared to the valley’s 550mm), it’s cooler because of its elevation and offers different soils – some gravel along with structured red and yellow clay loam.

A decade on from purchase and with only a handful of vintages in bottle, the 2012 edition of the annual Platter Guide wrote: “From start-up in 2002, Saronsberg is now one of the country’s undoubted shiraz specialists and has contributed to the continually improving regard for Tulbagh as a fine wine area.”

As cellar chief Heyns stated in an online interview with VinPro in April 2021, when all wine producers were going through a tough time in the face of continued government bans on the sale of alcohol, Saronsberg is not a one-trick pony. “Although we position Saronsberg as a winery offering high quality wines, we have a product range that consists of a variety of price ranges, from lifestyle wines to premium wines,” he said. “We cultivate 17 cultivars and believe in the diversity and complexity they can offer as part of blends. The variety of wine styles and price ranges allows us to offer consumers high quality alternatives.”

The focus on the local market – with around 70% of all sales being domestic – meant they were somewhat exposed when Covid hit. Saronsberg’s pivot was obviously to its own online sales and direct-to-consumer. Again, Heyns said: “A loyal South African consumer who believes in your brand and trusts your product serves as a buffer against external volatility in the market. Strong local base and reputation also make you less susceptible to opportunistic foreign buyers.”

So what of their shirazes? Read what the current 2022 Platter Guide states: Shiraz – Very special expression from specialist producer, 2019 (93) echoes past vintages with precise varietal definition, seductive aromatic fruit. Elaborately layered, floral accented, has silk texture, lingering finish. 20 months in 70% new barrels.

And the Full Circle which received a full house of 5 Stars. “Reliably spectacular shiraz with dashes mourvedre, Grenache, viognier & latterly roussanne, 2019 (96) ticks the boxes. Fine tannins, voluptuous black fruit in a big, bold & assertiveve, yet refined and very detailed, wine, crafted for extended cellaring.”

But it’s also not JUST about wine at Saronsberg. It’s become a popular wedding venue, boasting self-catering accommodation alongside its conference and banqueting facilities. It’s also renowned for its art gallery and sculpture and more recently has taken pride in its indigenous Nguni cattle breeding programme.

Tulbagh might have shuddered and shaken with the earthquake in 1969, but it can be argued that Saronsberg has shaken things up quite substantially itself over the past two decades!

- Blog by Fiona McDonald