Wines with a true sense of place

Tuesday, 13 July, 2004
Huibré Hoff
There is a deep-rooted awareness of terroir in the Robertson Wine Valley.

Being one of the largest areas in the South African winelands geologically situated on limestone, the influence on the wines is obvious and well-known: fresh zesty Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay with evident acidity a la the great Burgundies.  

The names of several Robertson wines speak of this soil awareness: Springfield's Life from Stone Sauvignon Blanc, Zandvliet's Kalkveld (limestone) Shiraz, Goedverwacht's Good Earth Sauvignon Blanc and An acre of stone Shiraz, Graham Beck's The Ridge Syrah, Weltevrede's Place of Rocks Chardonnay and The Travelling Stone Sauvignon Blanc (which refers to terroir originating from stones which were once situated on top of the mountain).

This says a lot about Robertson winemakers, their connectedness to the soil from whence their wines are produced and testifies to their belief that good wine is made in the vineyard.  

The term terroir refers not only to the soil alone, but to the combination of soil, macro (regional) climate, meso (site) climate and micro (vine) climate. Jancis Robinson refers in her Oxford Companion to Wine to the controversy surrounding the term terroir. The debate centers around the major regional European vineyards which have been proclaimed due to their terroir and the New World wine producers who have, in the opinion of some, mostly dismissed terroir, yet often try to imitate French wines.

Robertson wines captures a true sense of place and cannot be compared with any area in the world.  The terroir is unique due to the combination of limestone, shale and flaming red Karoo soil, as well as the sunlight, the wind, which cools the vineyards and keeps them healthy and the cool continental-like nights, which concentrates the flavours in the grapes.

Robertson Chardonnays have a minerally, steely acidity from the limestone soil and the ripe flavours of peaches and citrus derived from the valley's hot days. Cool areas can produce austere wines with submerged fruit, often needing years of bottle age for the acidity to settle and the flavours to become a harmonious whole. Robertson Chardonnays have the best of both worlds - the acidity usually associated with a cool climate and and the rich fruitiness that only a warmer region can produce. A perfect combination!

A lot has been said recently about regional authenticity and site specific viticulture in the New World. Robertson Chardonnays are a case in point that South Africa does produce regionally authentic wines that taste uniquely South African.

A lot is also being said in wine marketing circles about the need for a consumer-focused approach to winemaking.  Afterall, a wine can be as regionally authentic as they come, but someone has to drink it.  We should however guard against 'GTBC' or Global Totally Boring Cuvée - wines with no personality. This is of course where terroir has a role to play.

Philip Jonker from Weltevrede Wine Estate once mentioned that he does not wish to produce 'a John Wayne wine', but rather soft spoken wines, which have a lot to say if one is keen to listen.

There is a popular saying that South African wines offer a combination of French finesse and Australian opulence. I think South African winemakers are a bunch of individuals and that this, as well as the unique attributes of our country's diverse terroir, are reflected in our wines.

Huibré Hoff