The Estate wine model

By Jamie Goode | 9th April 2024

One of the distinctive features about South Africa’s wine scene over the last 50 years has been the existence of the category of ‘Estate Wine’ enshrined in wine law. This was part of the Wine of Origin (WO) scheme which was drafted in 1973. It’s an equivalent to the appellation systems in classic European wine regions.

The Estate wine model

Rules for wine production can seem quite boring, but they are needed to act as a guarantee of authenticity. Without this sort of scheme, you can’t be sure that a name on the bottle signifies the origin of the wine. Usually, once a name has been recognized for a region, it’s use isn’t allowed on a label unless the wine meets the requirements for the Wine of Origin. In South Africa, for example, Stellenbosch carries some premium as a good place to grow wine grapes, so it’s important that if the wine has Stellenbosch on the label, 100% of the grapes used to make the wine actually come from here. Without wine law, you could put Stellenbosch prominently on the label and people would be assuming that the wine comes from there – for example, you could be a Stellenbosch producer making a Chenin Blanc from more affordable grapes and use the location of your winery to give people the impression that this is a Stellenbosch Chenin.

The idea with the WO scheme is that it delineates the different wine regions. And over times, each wine region develops its own style, or becomes known for certain grape varieties. For example, if I see a Chardonnay from Elgin, then I’d be interested because Elgin has a good reputation for Chardonnay. I also know that Elgin has quite a cool climate, so this will give me a clue as to the style of the wine. And I like many of the wines from the Swartland, but if I see a Swartland Pinot Noir, I’ll likely pass because this region is generally too warm for good Pinot Noir.

So back to the concept of Estate Wine. The idea behind this category is that if you see the word ‘Estate’ on the bottle, then 100% of the grape growing and winemaking took place on this specific farm. Understanding why this is so important for South Africa is gained when we think about the wine scene back in 1973. There weren’t many single estate wineries 50 years ago. Most wineries sold their grapes to either KWV or the Stellenbosch Farmer’s Winery (now Distell), which both operated on a cooperative basis. A very few were bottling under their own name: Simonsig was one of the first to do this.

In 1973 there were 14 Estate wineries recognized, 8 of which were from Stellenbosch. They were Alto, Backsberg, Groot Constantia, Meerendal, Middelvlei, Montpellier, Muratie, Neethlingshof, Overgaauw, Simonsig, Theeuniskraal, Twee Jonge Gezellen, Uiterwik and Verdun.

Other wineries bottled wines under their estate wine, such as Kanonkop, who also began in 1973, but had their grapes vinified at the Stellenbosch Farmers Winery. They later joined the estate model. It wasn’t until 1983 that they took all their wine out of the cooperative.

No other wine countries have the equivalent of the Estate Wine legislation as part of their wine law, although unofficially producers are categorized as independent cellars, negociants (buying grapes and wines and then bottling under their name) or cooperatives (where grape growers bring their grapes into a central processing facility who then makes and markets the wines).

The Estate Wine model has really helped over the years in terms of acting as a buying cue for consumers. Of course, not all single estates make great wine, but your chances of finding a good bottle are dramatically enhanced if it’s from a winery grows all its own grapes and then makes the wine on site. For a start, it’s an issue of scale: for wine quality, big is rarely better because vineyard source has such an impact on the quality of the wine. Also, it’s nice to know when you visit a region or a vineyard that the wine you like actually comes from there. For example, in Franschhoek, there are many wineries that have lots of visitors but don’t have vineyards (or very many vineyards) in Franschhoek. They are there because the tourists are there, but many of the wines being drunk in the setting of this beautiful wine valley are made from grapes grown nowhere near Franschhoek. Look for WO Franschhoek on the label to be sure, or else look for Estate Wine on the label – then you know it is from that vineyard.

When I started tasting South African wines quite a bit, in the early late 1990s and early 2000s, all the wines we were getting excited about were Estate Wines. The people making serious wines were those who owned the vineyards and had an on-site winery. But this has begun to change. The Estate Wine model is still a good one, but it’s no longer the only route to excellent wine.

Now, many of the wines we get really excited about are from wineries who work with multiple wines of origin, thus losing estate statues, or who buy some grapes in. The good news is that there are many great vineyards that actually sell high quality grapes, which means that negociant activity (buying grapes) doesn’t necessarily mean that the wine can’t be great. As examples, look at Sadie Family, Rall, Crystallum, Savage, Alheit, Van Loggerenberg and Damascene – all top producers who buy grapes and thus aren’t part of the estate model. The Swartland revolution, so important for the emergence of so many interesting new producers, has largely been driven outside the wine estate model.

The WO system itself has had to change, with new subregions being identified and labelled. One of the best-known examples was in Hemel-en-Aarde, a wine region in a beautiful valley heading north from Hermanus. Previously the vineyards here were part of the Walker Bay, but when this was promoted from ward to district in 2004, producers in the Hemel-en-Aarde pressed for the creation of three new wards. Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley were created in 2006, and the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge was created in June 2009. This has worked really well. No appellation or wine law system is perfect, but South Africa’s seems to have a degree of flexibility and pragmatism that makes it really useful.

As for the Wine Estate model, it keeps its relevance, even in the face of dynamic wine scene that has seen some of the top wineries taking a different negociant-style model.