MICHAEL FRIDJHON: Why site still matters when it comes to fine wine
The quest for wines which express the place in which the grapes were grown has become more refined
Site has been the buzzword of the wine world for so long you would be forgiven for thinking it might now be out of fashion.
Instead, the quest for wines which truly express the place in which the grapes were grown has become ever more refined.
Fifty years ago the world of fine wine regarded the classed growths of the Medoc as the ultimate example of vinous pedigree. The fact that there were tasters who could identify a fair percentage of the 60 or so wines blind was held to be proof that they were the purest known vehicles of vinous authenticity.
Since then Burgundy has become the grail in these matters, while cynics rightly point out that some of the best known Medoc estates comprise numerous individual vineyards, many of which are not even contiguous.
When the wine of origin legislation was introduced in SA 50 years ago the smallest certifiable unit of land was an estate. Many of the original properties — like their counterparts in Bordeaux — were made up of a hodgepodge of vineyard parcels. Many years later the concept of single site (no larger than 6ha) was introduced. This narrowing down of origin is the logical destination of both fashion and regulation, assuming you believe that wine can indeed express the specifics of place.
Over a decade ago Nico Grobler, formerly winemaker at Eikendal, acquired a site in Elgin — the coolest of the Cape’s fine wine appellations. The property — called “La Brune” — is manageably small and now has mature vineyards which include some high density pinot. There are only 3ha under vine.
His estate wines are superfine: the oak is invisible but not absent, with texture as important as aroma, and varietal character evident but not caricatured. Neither is cheap (about R500 a bottle) but with limited volumes and a dedicated following they sell out quickly.
If you like these varieties but balk at high prices for other-than-special-occasion drinking, his Valley cuvées, composed from bought-in Elgin fruit, represent exceptional value. The chardonnay 2022 sells for at about R170 a bottle, the pinot for about R200.
Jean Smit, whose Damascene wines are among the finest produced in the Cape, has also just released his latest (mainly 2022) vintage. He too pursues site above all else, though with an unusual angle.
Where he finds several complementary vineyards within the same appellation, he’s happy to sacrifice the claim to single site to meet the objective of producing a result greater than the proverbial sum of its parts.
His range therefore expresses origin above single block. However, every wine is so carefully assembled that whatever might be lost in the marriage of the parts is more than compensated for in the final achievement. His Franschhoek Sémillon (from two blocks planted in 1942 and 1962) is simply extraordinary: restrained but with real presence, weightless yet mouth-filling.
His range includes chenins from Stellenbosch and the Swartland. Both are luminous, but for me the Swartland cuvée, from two vineyards planted in 1979 and 1983 on mainly granitic soils, is the more complete — at least for the moment.
He makes Syrah from several appellations — Cederberg, Stellenbosch, the Swartland and the Ceres Plateau. Here again I found the Swartland execution the most profound. Despite alcohol levels less than 13% there is that almost impossible achievement of complete fruit ripeness expressed as a ribena-like intensity layered with hallmark notes of white pepper.
His 2022 cabernet franc is pure and linear. His 2021 cabernet sauvignon (from Vlottenburg/Polkadraai on ferrocrete soils, Bottelary and Helderberg) and matured in (mainly) new French oak followed by 2,000l Stockinger foudre, is a marvel of precision. Bright cassis fruit kept savoury by seamless tannins.
His only single site wines come from his home base in Elgin, and are sold under the Moya Meaker farm name. Both are worth chasing down. They are well priced (about R300), and deliver exceptional quality. The Pinot has long been a favourite while the riesling is comfortably the best made in the Cape.
• Standard Bank WineX takes place at the Sandton Convention Centre October 25-27. More than 150 of the country’s finest producers will present more than 900 different wines each night.
Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.