Origin is a seriously mis-used word in the world of wine. It can be so loosely applied that it becomes meaningless in the context of the connection between place and taste, or so narrowly applied that it’s impossible to obtain the product which expresses it. Most Cape wine is sold with the broadest of appellations on the label. Producers – especially the major wholesalers (whose customers don’t appear to care much about it) – don’t want to be at the mercy of those who own the key sites.
When did you last look at the claim to place of the well-known premium brands? The Rupert and Rothschild winery is on the Franschhoek side of Paarl-Simonsberg, but its biggest selling wine (“Classique”) is sold under the “Wine of Western Cape” origin. That means that fruit can be sourced from pretty much anywhere except along the Orange River. When you buy Classique you are buying a style, and a guarantee of quality.
There are ways of playing the origin game: an increasing number of producers are making wine from sites certified by the Old Vine Project – single blocks of vines at least 35 years old. Of course, simply because the fruit was harvested from clearly identifiable ancient vineyards doesn’t mean that it has been made in a way that respects origin over wine-making technique.
Andrea and Chris Mullineux (Mullineux and Leeu Passant) play both games. They are manic about seeking out the best sites, based on geology and climate. Where there’s a proven benefit to ancient vines, they’ll add them to the mix. The Leeu Passant red includes fruit from a cinsaut vineyard near Wellington planted at the end of the Boer War. But their vision sees components as building blocks, not museum pieces. Where they require something – like cabernet franc for example – where the best fruit can only come from younger vines, quality takes precedence over antiquity.
If you seek single site precision, you could consider La Romanée, a vineyard – and appellation – under single ownership in the heart of Burgundy. It’s less than a hectare and current releases sell for over R100k per bottle. Even if you have that kind of money and the patience to wait for it to be mature enough to express its origin, you might battle to find a genuine bottle. Great site-specific wine comes with its own burdens.
On the other hand, you could buy a bottle of the recently released Krone 2016 Blanc de Blancs. Harvested from the 30 year old Kaaimansgat chardonnay vineyard near Villiersdorp, it has been made with an obsessive refusal to let extraneous factors affect its sense of place. The primary fermentation (which took place in wooden foudre specially selected to minimise the intrusion of oak flavours into the wine) was spontaneous – so free of the influence of non-native yeast. No sulphur was added at any stage. Instead, the yeast used for the second (bottle) fermentation was chosen because it contributed the barest minimum of natural SO2 as a pretty much natural preservative. Only the fractional sugar adjustment that comes with the topping of the bottle after disgorgement, and which still leaves it drier than most Brut Champagnes, did not come from the site. It’s impossible to imagine a Cap Classique designed to better express a single origin.
Why would the country’s largest MCC producer go to all this trouble over a few hundred cases of Blanc de Blancs? It’s a fair question to ask especially since, at around R300 per bottle, the wine has not been priced in proportion to the effort which went into its production. The answer is probably that projects of this kind satisfy the creative needs of winemakers whose day job is a little like making VW Polos in the same factory which turns out Audis and Porsches. It also serves to remind consumers dismissive of big brand technology that behind even a R100 bottle of fizz is a winemaker still working at upping his game.