Focus 6 May 2020

In the world of wine, focus has long been considered a virtue. It’s pretty much a standard promise at a new winery launch, with the implicit but unspoken suggestion that most of the other producers have allowed themselves to be distracted. Focus can mean many things, from concentrating on a single variety or style of wine, to a single origin or approach to viticulture.

Some of these claims are, or should be, self-evident. “The wine can never be better than the fruit which goes into it, so our primary focus is viticulture” has been heard more often than the regular assurances from government that corruption will not be tolerated. Sometimes the focus is genuine enough, though the reason for it is left to the imagination: “we only apply organic viticultural practices” is somehow supposed to impart an assurance that whoever drinks the wine won’t succumb to the early death which awaits whoever buys wine from producers who used herbicides. (In fact there is an increasing body of empirical evidence that organic and bio-dynamic farm management simply produces better wines.)

Mostly, however, the focus story is about cultivar, site or type of vineyard: certified old vines, a single estate, or, for example, chenin blanc or pinot noir. Sometimes the claims of specialisation embrace a whole area. Ever since the late Tim Hamilton Russell restored viticulture to the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, the appellation has been associated with Burgundian varieties – chardonnay and pinot noir – even though other cultivars do well there.

Focus, in the most extreme sense of the word, is very much an Old World attribute. If you farm in one of the classic sites of the Mosel or Rheingau, you will only work with Riesling even if other varieties are permitted in terms of German wine law. At Romanée-Conti in the Cotes de Nuits, the vineyards are only planted to pinot noir. At Chateau Petrus in Pomerol, the entire 11 hectare vineyard is just merlot.

In South Africa, producers, especially those in the more craft-oriented sector of the industry, are more likely to concentrate on method than on a single cultivar, or even a single wine. They will talk about a “minimal interventionist” approach to winemaking, and they will be consistent in applying this to all their wines. However, except for the tiniest boutique operations, I cannot think of anyone or makes only one wine, or only works with a single variety.

This doesn’t mean we don’t have large scale and very credible producers who have resisted the temptation of side shows. Anthony Hamilton Russell substantially tightened up the approach proclaimed by his father (but more honoured in the breach than the observance). Today Hamilton Russell only produces red and white “burgundy-style” wines – that is to say, pinot noir and chardonnay. Gone are the Bordeaux blends and sauvignon blancs which served as cash cows for the cellar in the first decades of its life. Instead there is another wholly separate operation (Southern Right) which makes pinotage and sauvignon blanc.

Kanonkop is another very focused (rather than specialised) operation. In the 1980s there were several white wine vineyards, one of which yielded a Superior seal from the Wine and Spirits Board. Much to the chagrin of the winemaker, Beyers Truter, Johann Krige grubbed it up all of them because he decided that a small volume of white wine was a distraction when the main thrust of the business was high quality, age-worthy reds.

These decisions always come with cash-flow implications, which is why most estates land up with far larger ranges than they can possibly defend: every line you cull is revenue lost for marginal cost. It’s harder to put a number to the intangible benefit that comes with the enhanced performance and the subliminal message to consumers. On the other hand, one glimpse of the selling price per litre of Hamilton Russell or Kanonkop should make it clear that the short term downside yields a manifestly better long term result.

 

 

 

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