The world of wine is a world of regions. Some regions are considered the embodiment of wine’s beginnings, others barely known yet bursting with potential. Emblematic regions become synonymous with quintessential wines - or perhaps the wines become synonymous with their regions. These mental connections are cemented in the minds of oenophiles over decades and centuries of consistent quality, achievement and legacy. We need only turn our minds to Burgundy (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) and Bordeaux (red blends), Mendoza (Malbec) and Duoro (Port), California (Zinfandel), Marlborough (Sauvignon blanc) and Barossa (Shiraz) to understand the strength of such an association.
The significance of region is also a notable local phenomenon. Legislation embodied in the Wine of Origin (WO) programme sets out the geographical units, regions, districts and wards under which our wines can be bottled. Wine tourists are drawn to towns and areas on the promise of the varietals and wine styles they expect there: Stellenbosch is King Cab Country, Hemel-en-Aarde and Elgin championing cool climate styles, Constantia for Sauvignon Blanc and other exceptional white wines. The list goes on.
The power of accepted associations notwithstanding, the shifting landscape of the South African wine industry over the last 30-odd years has shown that change and reinvention is not only possible, but vital. Few regions are proving to be as exemplary of such change as the Breedekloof Wine Valley – which is now emerging as a wine region that produces wines of astounding quality and finesse.
Chenin Blanc and the Breedekloof Makers
There is a unifying trait that defines those who signify achievement and the pursuit of excellence: they are all driven to innovate; to reject the status quo as given to them and shift it to their advantage. Many smaller South African wine regions are carving out their place in the national (and global) market by playing to their strengths. Arguably, the Breedekloof’s elevation of Chenin Blanc is the exemplification of a region reinventing themselves as purveyors of premium quality wines.
The pinnacle of this pursuit of pioneering Chenin Blanc culminated in the formation of the Breedekloof Makers - a collaboration of wine makers aiming to bring attention to the quality and diversity of Chenin in the region. The Breedekloof Wine Valley has been synonymous with Chenin Blanc for decades - some farms are home to Chenin Blanc vines planted as far back as 1962. The unique geography of the valley ensures slow ripening of the grapes, layering complexity and lending nuance to the wines. Attie Louw, winemaker at Opstal Winery conveys that the winemakers in this initiative are encouraged to think outside of the box and express themselves and the unique terroirs through their wines.
Making Chenin Blanc the focal point of this invigorating movement is a pragmatic and well-suited approach to renewing the image of and interest in the area. Breedekloof supplies 21% of all wine made from Chenin in the country (including many new plantings), though the Breedekloof Makers have chosen to vinify from grapes harvested from the prized old vines - a calculated and appropriate decision. Of all the old vines in South Africa, 52% are Chenin Blanc vines. Wines made from old vineyards have in recent years contributed immensely to elevate the reputation of South African wines; undoubtedly the Breedekloof Makers’ offerings will have the same effect on the region. Typically, old vines are characterised by a weighted, textured and more complex mouthfeel, attributes found in many of the Breedekloof Makers’ wines.
It’s not just Chenin
The Breedekloof have of late been producing wines that sweep up local awards, and with 26% of the total harvest going to wineries outside the area, these accolades are not limited to the valley’s own winemakers.
Grapes for Flagstone Winery’s ‘Time Manner Place’ Pinotage come from one of the highest vineyards in the country - the Writer’s Block Pinotage vineyard - which is 700m above sea level in the Waaihoek Mountains. Though Flagstone Winery is in Somerset West, the Pinotage is WO Breedekloof – something winemaker Bruce Jack takes great pride in! The 2014 Flagstone Time Manner Place Pinotage achieved 5-star Platter status for 2017. Another Breedekloof winery excelled in the Platter’s Guide. Two Opstal wines were awarded 5 stars - the Carl Everson Chenin Blanc 2015 and The Barber Semillon 2015.
In May this year, Du Toitskloof Cellars cinched the top honour at the 14th Muscadel SA Awards. The Du Toitskloof Cellar Red Muskadel 2014 (made from 100% Muscat de Frontignan) was awarded the highest recognition of Platinum. Badsberg were also awarded gold, further settling the area’s reputation as a sweet wine capital.
The list of honours is a long one. Badsberg dominated the SA Young Wine Awards this year, taking home both the General Smuts Trophy for overall champion SA Young Wine (for their wooded Pinotage) as well as the Pietman Hugo Trophy for the cellar with the highest score (five best entries - and the fifth time they’ve claimed this trophy).
The valley collectively bagged 43 top awards from the 2016 Michaelangelo International Wine & Spirits awards. These included two trophies (Garagiste Trophy for Stofberg Family Vineyards Mia Chenin Blanc 2016 and the Multi Color Corporation Dessert Wine Grand Prix Trophy for the Badsberg Wine Cellar Badslese 2012). Flagstone Winery received a Platinum Medal for the Writer’s Block Pinotage (WO Breedekloof), and eight wineries awarded Grand’Or Medals (Badsberg, Bergsig, Deetlefs, Du Toitskloof, Jason’s Hill, Merwida, Silkbush Mountain Vineyards and Daschbosch). A further 13 Gold Medals and 16 Silver Medals were also snapped up by the valley.
The laundry list of awards goes on: Top 10 Sauvignon Blanc (Merwida), Vitis Vinifera Awards (Slanghoek Cellar), Novare Terroir (Bergsig) etc. The true value of these accolades lies in bringing the quality and recognition to the attention of the consumer. By excelling when compared to larger, more familiar regions like Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Constantia, the valley becomes a must-visit place, and their wines become must-try.
Arguably the most competitive edge these wines have over others must be the price point. Rarely do even their top wines exceed the R250 per bottle mark, with most of the award-winning wines mentioned here averaging more towards R100-R150 per bottle. Astonishing value!
The Breedekloof Wine Valley has undoubtedly embarked on a mission of reinvention that surpasses simple marketing or a superficial rebranding exercise. The laser-focus on their strengths (Chenin Blanc, slow-ripening, old vines) and their willingness to reinvent and reinvest in new vineyards, technology and opportunities has infused the area with rejuvenated lifeblood. Building on the solid pillars of family heritage (the majority of the valley’s farms are owned and operated at least by the third generation, with some farms going as far back as nine generations of custodianship), this crop of winemakers are interweaving sustainability, technology and tourism with their legacy in order to promote the Breedekloof in unprecedented new ways – wine lovers are encouraged to watch this space!*
*From November 15th to December the 17th, visitors to the picturesque Breedekloof Wine Valley will encounter the true generosity of its cellars, as each of these will host and spoil visitors with a range of activities, which include picnics, delicious food offerings, unique food and wine pairings, craft beer and gin tastings, lucky draws and more. Of course, visitors will be poured unique and award-winning wines from the wineries’ cellars where they will be able to enjoy these in what is one of South Africa’s most dramatically beautiful wineland settings. For click here.