Brand Focus on Hero Varieties

Friday, 21 September, 2018
Graham Howe
Specialisation – a brand strategy with a focus on a hero variety or wine style – has been a key theme of winter tastings on the winelands circuit.

Diemersdal over the last two decades epitomises the renaissance of an old family winery based on a specific brand focus on a single variety. Under sixth-generation winemaker Thys Louw, one of the oldest wine farms in South Africa (1698) has adopted Sauvignon Blanc – the signature white grape of the Durbanville Wine Valley – as its hero variety. Planting almost half of the farm to the Queen of the White Grape, Diemersdal now produces ten styles of Sauvignon Blanc in 1,5 million bottles.

At a recent benchmark tasting of current and older releases of Sauvignon Blanc at Diemersdal, Thys Louw asked, “Why do we make so many different styles of Sauvignon Blanc? We like the challenge. Sauvignon is the most popular style of wine in south Africa, the UK and the USA, the most exported South African wine in the bottle – and earns the most value per bottle on export markets.”

He says South African consumers prefer the fuller, more tropical style of Sauvignon Blanc expressed in their standard and reserve styles. The sultan of Sauvignon comments, “I don’t like green flavours in Sauvignon Blanc. I try to prevent all pyrazines which develop into tinned asparagus and vegetal flavours – and look for the thiols which develop into peach, apricot and citrus flavours in the bottle.” He adds, on a controversial note, “If you irrigate your vineyards, you can’t talk about terroir. I’m a firm believer that the best wines are grown in lower vineyards with cooler night temperatures and longer hang-time.” All vineyards at Diemersdal are dryland – like the top French wines he admires.

The highlight of the Sauvignon Blanc tasting – inter alia the unwooded Eight Rows single block expression and flagship Sancerre-styled oaked MM Louw made from old 1982 vines - was the new kid on the block: the Winter Ferment 2018. The first South African wine made in this style is made from unfermented juice frozen in one thousand litres cubes. Thys explains that it takes a week to defrost and inoculate with yeast – the thiol levels are four times higher; bottled fresh it expresses what he calls “the frozen terroir of Diemersdal” – rich and chalky tropical, passion-fruit flavours. It joins his skin-fermented Wild Horseshoe Sauvignon Blanc with its intense savoury, citrus fruit.

Chardonnay was the focus of another recent tasting with De Wetshof. Nicknamed “The House of Chardonnay”, this leading producer of Chardonnay has played a key role in the development of this hero variety of the Robertson Wine Valley and beyond. Patriarch Danie de Wet, the King of Chardonnay, was one of the pioneers of the variety back in the 1980s when the first clones were smuggled into the Cape. Four decades later, the third-generation family winery is one of the biggest exporters of estate Chardonnay from South Africa with six different expressions of terroir, ranging from the flagship single vineyard Bateleur to the new barrel-fermented The Site from 1986 vines.

If specialisation is the secret to the global success of De Wetshof’s unwooded Bon Vallon and Finesse Chardonnay and their best-selling high-volume Limestone Hill; the chalky, mineral Robertson terroir is the foundation. Speaking at the annual release of the new Limestone Hill 2018 at the new Upper Bloem Restaurant in Cape Town (the newest tapas venture by the owners of La Moutte), the de Wet brothers spoke about their pursuit of specific site expressions of Chardonnay on the Robertson farm. The perfect match for what the chef calls “the cultural terroir” of his modern Cape Malay tapas. CEO Johann de Wet is experimenting with six different clones of Chardonnay in a single vineyard project.

He comments, “Like all our Chardonnays, the grapes are sourced from vineyards growing on sites specifically suited to the style of wine. These are vineyards on limestone-rich soils, with a high clay component ensuring coolness and a high water-retention capacity. Many commentators are saying South Africa makes the best Chardonnays in the world outside of Burgundy. It’s now time to make the best un-wooded Chardonnays outside of Chablis.”

What is important in making an unwooded Chardonnay, says Johann, is that, “The chemistry of the grapes and the vineyard conditions have to be conducive to producing a Chardonnay that shows its best features in an unwooded environment. The Bon Vallon and Limestone Hill vineyards were especially planted for producing this style of wine.”

My learning curve in hero varieties and styles ended at Colmant Cap Classique & Champagne in the Franschhoek Wine Valley, a region which has adopted Methodé Cap Classique as its signature wine style. Owner cellar master Jean-Phillipe Colmant led a seminal tasting of a vertical flight of their MCC Brut Chardonnay NV from the maiden release in 2006 to 2015. A decade later, Colmant produces over 50 000 bottles of bubbly in six different styles. JP comments, “This tasting tells a story of the evolution of our house style – and proves that Franschhoek MCC can last for ten years or longer.”

Authenticity, quality and consistency are brand intrinsics for Colmant. “We’re not for label drinkers” declares JP. “I keep a lot of reserve wine to maintain consistency of style.  We use wood and reserve wines to build complexity. In South Africa we don’t get the same variation in vintage as Champagne”. Non-vintage MCC might be the best way to make vintage bubbly in the French style!”

Competing with over 300 MCC brands on the South African market is a challenge. JP says, “Blending is the answer – not mono-vineyard of mono-vintage”. Around 20% of each new vintage goes into the reserve blending wine every year – helping to grow the complexity of their reserve blending stock. Colmant’s multi-regional non-vintage MCC blends draw on the building-blocks of fruit sourced from ten vineyards in Franschhoek, cool-climate Elgin and Robertson.  No lees contact, no malolactic and a precise use of wood from one cooper used by top Champagne houses like Krug. Every year they invite consultants, consumers and Colmant fans to participate in the blending exercise.

“That’s how you learn to understand bubbly” declares JP, a man on a mission. Why is the tasting of Chardonnay Brut – and not a Chardonnay/Pinot Noir reserve blend? He says, “Chardonnay makes up 60% of our reserve wine. You can show on Chardonnay. It’s the real expression of what you make.” Why is it not called Blanc de blanc? JP says consumers struggle to pronounce Blah de blah! He adds, “Rosé is under-rated. It must be distinctive. I want a joyful, romantic colour. What you see must be what you drink. And (off-dry) sec opens up new palates for bubbly – and is good for food pairing”.  

The tasting culminated with the unveiling of JP’s “laat lammetjie”, the cheekily named Absolu Zero Dosage, a 100% Chardonnay which spent 85 months on the lees, the cellar’s new flagship which he hopes will set the bar for this style – at R480 a bottle in an exquisitely packaged black box. Freshness, vibrancy of fruit and scintillating acidity is the Colmant style. With wine consultants of the stature of Nicolas Follet and Pieter Ferreira, Colmant is the king of cool. There’s no turning back for JP who left a tombstone business in Belgium to celebrate a new life by making bubbly in the Cape.

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is likely the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for a wide variety of print media, online and radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over seventy countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra.