For wine lovers, Burgundy in France evokes an association with pinot noir, Bordeaux is renowned for cabernet and merlot-dominated blends, the Napa Valley in California triggers thoughts of cabernet sauvignon. But what do the different wine regions of SA evoke?
This is the question Wade Bales has set out to answer — with a little help from some friends.
For the past few years Bales has been driving a collaborative approach to identify what differentiates SA wine regions, and building a brand for each of the areas by pinpointing their calling-card wine.
This is an innovative endeavour for Bales, who runs the Wade Bales Wine Co and has been a negociant for the past 25 years. What’s a negociant? The French term describes a wine merchant who doesn’t own vineyards but assembles the produce of growers and winemakers and bottles them under their own brand.
Explaining his new project, Bales says: "SA top wines are highly underrated and undervalued from an international perspective. I’ve tasted our wines against the best wines from around the world and … SA wines are really as good as, if not better than, many of the great wines of the world."
He started a process to determine how the best wines from around the world market their product, and found it’s through a strong association between the style of wine and region.
"If you look at Bordeaux, they have a particular association with specific style of wine … a cultivar or style associated with cabernet sauvignon and merlot. If you look at Burgundy, they have a strong association with pinot noir and chardonnay. In New Zealand there’s Marlborough, which is famous for its sauvignon blanc. Argentina’s Mendoza region has malbec and the Napa Valley in the US is known for its cabernet sauvignon."
To start something similar here, Bales teamed up with the winemakers of Constantia to bottle a classic white blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon — a style of wine this region does best.
Next in the series was Stellenbosch with a cabernet sauvignon. For the Breedekloof Wine Valley there’s a chenin blanc.
"Perhaps the success of the series has to do with a singular goal — in every region, we have sought to select the finest sites, passionate winemakers with long and respected track records, and their very best barrels. Then, together with these all-important components, to create a seamless blend that definitely represents the signature style of that region. By doing so, we hope to create proudly regional wines that compete and compare with the finest examples of their kind from anywhere in the world," says Bales.
The Stellenbosch cabernet sauvignon scooped a five-star rating in the John Platter wine ratings, The Constantia white 4½.
And the chenin? Five leading Breedekloof winemakers were involved in the selection and blending process, testing multiple blends together before creating what they believe is a world-class example of the wine. It also got five stars in its maiden release.
"These are luxury brands, not mainstream brands. This is showcasing what SA regions do best," Bales says.
The regional series can be found in some of SA’s most exclusive establishments. These include Marble in Joburg, and The Cellars-Hohenort and Tryn in Cape Town.
"It’s a slow burn," says Bales. "It’s about sharing the story, spreading the word and sharing the wines. The winemakers are the heroes in the story. They’re the artists and craftsmen; I just bring them together to work as a team with a common goal."
He and the team will release a second round of Stellenbosch cabernet shortly. It’s from the 2018 vintage — also a recipient of a five-star Platter rating. And then, as far as new regions on the horizon, possibly a chardonnay from Elgin or a shiraz from the Swartland.
Bales is stoic about the process and its role in the local wine scene. "If SA is going to succeed in a very competitive global market, we have to stand together as a country. This is a step in the right direction. Let the valleys work together … diversity is in our nature and we are stronger together.
"We have to back ourselves; we have to get better recognition and we deserve higher prices for our wines. Only when we get higher prices and we’re not bullied by international sellers will the SA industry reach its potential".
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