Sensorial Appellations

Friday, 25 December, 2009
Neil Pendock
Appellations, the wicker baskets into which wine producers are tossed, are typically laid out according to geography. Except in South Africa, where politics and history often intervene, and we end up with Geography I howlers like Tulbagh designated as part of the coastal appellation.
Duimpie Bayly is chairman of the demarcation committee, memorably described by Kanonkop's Johann Krige as a bunch of retired guys who drive around in a combi looking for a place to have a braai on your farm and then demanding wine. Duimpie and his committee look after these things and at the five decades of Pinotage tasting at the holiday home of Beyers Truter at Vermont in November, Duimpie revealed that the appellations have been tidied up and a proposal has been submitted to WSB for discussion.

Paul Boutinot, owner of Waterkloof, a wine farm clinging to the precipitous slopes of the Schaapenberg above Gordon's Bay, is a British winemaker/negoiçiant who has spent a lifetime living off his taste buds. He makes and assembles wines for the European market on several continents (including ½ million cases from South Africa) and maintains you get two types of grape: those that do best in maritime climes and those that prefer continental conditions. "Chardonnay needs a weird climate to excel" he maintains "a cold winter and very poor soil. It needs a continental climate." Which would explain why it does so well in Robertson at producers like De Wetshof and Springfield.

Sauvignon blanc is clearly a maritime grape in Paul's classification as he spent ten years looking for the best site on which to plant Sauvignon and plumped for Waterkloof, grubbing up the Chardonnay vines on the site (with one tiny exception). Pinot noir is clearly continental, judging by the success the heartbreak grape enjoys in Burgundy and Paul reckons that Mourvèdre is the maritime red that he is particularly keen on.

So ideally South Africa should have two appellations: coastal, including such extreme sites as the vineyards of Fryer's Cove at Bamboesbaai that have to be sprayed with water to remove sea salt accumulation on the vine leaves and continental like the five cellars of Oranjerivier Wine Cellars, scattered like trinkets on a lucky charm bracelet along 350 km of the course of the Groot Gariep from Kakamas and Keimoes in the west to Groot Drink and Groblershoop in the east.

But having only two appellations is far too few for marketing purposes. But if marketing is the objective, is geography necessarily the best classifier of producers? Surely wine style is of more use in making a purchase decision that GPS location of the vineyard? This is how Virgin Wines, the on-line UK retailer classify their wines. After all, how many people know where Koekenaap is?

The Virgin categories for whites are
1) clean and crisp
2) fragrant but dry and
3) classic Chardonnay to which a new class of
4) serious white blends needs to be added.

Similarly, reds are
1) soft and juicy
2) full and fruity
3) huge or
4) classic.

Dessert wines, fortifieds and MCCs would get their own sensory appellation.

These sensorial appellations also solve the problem that is increasingly rearing its head - quality wines are increasingly being made from grapes grown in several geographic locations, a trend that makes geographic appellations increasingly irrelevant. Tracking the performance of these terroir by truck wines in brands such as Fleur du Cap, might even reveal that site specific wines are in retreat, at least in the medal tables of wine competitions and guides.