Shining a spotlight on SA’s premium wine-producing regions
SA wine is going regional and you need to know about it
There’s an awful lot of noise in the world these days. E-mails ping into our inboxes, mobile devices buzz with social media alerts, and brand messaging bombards our eyeballs everywhere, from the cinema to the golf course. Even choosing a glass of wine is a complicated business, with thousands of wines from hundreds of cellars begging us to pop the cork.
Though he can’t do anything about your inbox, Wade Bales would like to help with that last problem. And perhaps do the wine industry a favour along the way.
With more than two decades’ experience as a high-end wine merchant, Bales is increasingly establishing himself as a négociant, assembling wines from a variety of producers and cellars. Each year he creates up to 10 own-label wines, working with winemakers of the calibre of Martin Smith, Arco Laarman and JD Pretorius.
But Bales’ latest releases have loftier ambitions, perhaps playing their own small part in rebooting the perception of premium SA wine both at home and abroad.
"Internationally there’s some confusion about where SA wine is positioned," says Bales, his simple office in the Constantia valley littered with bottle samples, the whiteboards behind his desk covered in strategy scribbles. "Our wines get fantastic ratings from the critics, but when you look at the wine on the shelf there seems to be a perception problem; we have always had this cheap and cheerful image as a jack of all trades."
The solution, believes Bales, is to follow the French example.
"What they have done so well is create regional brands. If you’re in France and you want to drink a cabernet-style wine, you’ll look to Bordeaux. It’s what they’re famous for. If you want chardonnay you look to Burgundy. For syrah you go to the Rhône. If you’re in the south you drink rosé."
Enter Bales’ new "Regional Series", which aims to identify SA’s premium wine-producing regions, and shine a spotlight on the style which best defines that specific area. He has more than two decades’ experience in the Constantia winelands, so the valley was an obvious place to start.
"A classic Bordeaux blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon is the style that sets this valley apart," says Bales. "Historically it’s what the valley has done better than any other winemaking region."
That’s largely thanks to the valley’s sauvignon-friendly terroir: soils of decomposed granite, vineyards at altitude and the cooling effect of ocean breezes. And, by working with a selection of estates, the end result taps into a variety of vineyards to provide a true snapshot of the region.
Bales invited winemakers from all the estates that were members of the Constantia Wine Route and produced their own sauvignon blanc or semillon. That included household names such as Boela Gerber of Groot Constantia, JD Pretorius of Steenberg and Matthew Day of Klein Constantia.
Each of the seven winemakers tapped their best barrels, bringing samples of sauvignon blanc and semillon, wooded or not, to taste, blend and collaborate on one wine to rule them all.
"We knew we wanted it to be predominantly sauvignon blanc, with a wooded component of semillon," says Bales. "We didn’t want wines too green or too ripe. We were going for elegance and longevity."
While the Constantia white blend — 900 cases of the 2018 vintage, blended and bottled by Pretorius at Steenberg — certainly ticks all the right boxes, it’s only the thin end of the wedge. The second release in the Regional Series is already maturing in bottle and, fittingly, it’s the red partner to the white Bordeaux-style blend.
Cabernet sauvignon is dubbed the "king" of the noble cultivars, and in the Cape vineyards there’s only one place to look for world-class cabernet.
"Stellenbosch is cabernet country," says Bales, who invited one winemaker from five distinct regions to contribute their best barrels to the final blend. And it’s an impressive roll call: Nico van der Merwe from Bottelary Hills, Morné Vrey from Delaire Graff, Jose Condé from Stark-Condé in the Jonkershoek valley, Abrie Beeslaar from Kanonkop, and Louis Strydom from Ernie Els Wines in the Helderberg.
The maiden vintage of the wine dubbed, simply, "Stellenbosch", comes from the 2017 harvest and Bales is bullish about what’s in store: "2017 is going to be as good as the 2015 vintage, which is one of the best of the past two decades."
This pair of Bordeaux blends is just the beginning though. Next up is a pinot noir encapsulating the Hemel-en-Aarde valley outside Hermanus. After that, a syrah from the Swartland, and a chenin blanc from the up-and-coming Breedekloof.
There’s certainly no shortage of enthusiasm for expanding the series, and "the winemakers have all been so passionate about this project", says Bales.
"They love the opportunity to collaborate with other winemakers they respect."
Is the Constantia white or Stellenbosch red the very best wine each region has to offer? That’s for your own palate and pocket to decide. At this price point, perhaps not, but with such a variety of winemaking "voices" singing in harmony inside each bottle, Bales has certainly hit on an enticing new way to discover the classic cultivars of SA’s storied winelands.