First Growth SA… Some Cape wine estates more deserving of the status than others

PARTICULARLY good reviews for Rustenberg and Groot Constantia on the show circuit in 2015 have revived discussions about the so-called ‘First Growths’ in the winelands of South Africa – First Growths being defined as the areas or wines from those areas regarded as among the very finest of a particular district or region, based on the concept of terroir, which has to do with the soil, aspect, altitude and climate (all the natural conditions that influence the vine). And in this regard, surely the selection of premier wine farms that qualify as First Growth SA should involve not only recent performance but also track record and senior status, so to speak? Surely the property must have been producing one or more very good wines from its own grapes under its own labels for a couple of generations, at least? It’s about pedigree, yes?

In Bordeaux…

The term ‘First Growth’ is much spoken about in the context of Bordeaux, France, where the region’s ultimate classification of ‘Premier Grand Cru’ applies to the châteaux (estates) and flagship Cab/Merlot-led blends of Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux and Mouton-Rothschild in the Médoc area as well as Haut-Brion in Pessac-Leognan. However, there’s also the ‘Premier Cru Supérieur’ classification bestowed on Sauternes sweet wine producer d’Yquem (Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc). There are the red blends and properties classified as Premier Grand Cru in the area of Saint-Émilion: Ausone, Cheval Blanc, Angélus and Pavie. Plus, there are the Merlots Pétrus and Le Pin, two more of the highest priced wines in the world although from the area of Pomerol where there is no official classification in place.

In Burgundy…

Outside of Bordeaux, the ultimate classification in the Burgundy region of France is termed ‘Grand Cru’ and applies to about a dozen white wine (mainly Chardonnay) estates, about two dozen red wine (primarily Pinot Noir) chateaux as well as some properties producing both red and white. The most iconic, highly valued names in Burgundy include Chambertin, Charlemagne, Échezeaux, La Tâche, Montrachet, Richebourg and Romanée-Conti, although officially, all of the Grand Crus are ranked on a par quality wise, with some amounting to tiny volumes relative to the First Growths of Bordeaux.

In Champagne…

In the context of Champagne and elsewhere such as Portugal (Port country), the classification system pertains to farms and vineyards that typically go by names that are different from those of the great brands owned by the famous houses which don’t have any of their own plantings. Champagne’s 20 or so Grandes Marques include: Billecart-Salmon (Mareuil-sur-Ay), Bollinger (Ay), Canard-Duchene (Ludes), Heidsieck x 3 (Reims), Krug (Reims), Lanson (Reims), Laurent-Perrier (Tours-sur-Marne), Louis Roederer and Cristal (Reims), Moet & Chandon and Dom Perignon (Epernay), Mumm (Reims), Perrier-Jouet (Epernay), Pol Roger (Eperney), Pommery (Reims), Ruinart (Reims), Salon (Le Mesnil-sur-Oger), Taittinger (Reims), Veuve Clicquot (Reims). Fantastic wines, yes, but First Growths, no.

Italy, Spain, Australia, USA…

Unofficially, the Super-Tuscans Ornellaia, Sassicaia and Solaia have been described as Italy’s First Growths. Some tout Spain’s Vega Sicilia as such, but it’s made from bought-in grapes. In terms of Australian wines, many connoisseurs refer to Penfolds Grange as First Growth, with Langton’s Classification listing around 20 ‘first growth type’ wines as the country’s most highly sought-after on the basis of prices fetched at auctions. And some years ago, UK publication The World of Fine Wine named the following as American First Growths: Araujo Cab, Bryant Family, Colgin Cab (Herb Lamb Vineyard), Harlan, Heitz (Martha’s Vineyard) and Screaming Eagle.

In South Africa…

In the ‘Rainbow Nation’, there are some Cape wine producers so bold as to punt themselves as First Growths. However, no matter how good the nectar, 4G Wines‘ claim is ludicrous – insofar as they don’t have a winery, let alone their own vineyards, production (contracted out) only commenced as recently as 2010 and the ‘Grand Vin’ called ‘G’ is ‘multi-terroir’ in origin. Delaire Graff of Helshoogte in Stellenbosch is doing good things but its claim to First Growth status is perhaps a little premature. Whereas few would argue against Kanonkop‘s use of the term.

A UK perspective…

British Master of Wine, wine scribe and judge Tim Atkin included 12 ‘First Growths’ in his 2014 Cape Classification: Alheit, Boekenhoutskloof, Cape Point, Chamonix, Crystallum, Kanonkop, Klein Constantia, Mullineux, Newton Johnson, Paul Cluver, Reyneke and Sadie. Although, some of these producers buy in grapes to make their flagship wines. Also, Atkin explains that he has chosen his favourites regardless of how long they have been making wine, with some of them yet to clock up their first decade in business.

On further deliberation…

Contrary to the above, and while the current classifications are telling, there’s merit in limiting SA First Growth status on the basis of farms with wineries on the properties that have been consistent in achieving very good, if not top ratings using their own fruit in recent times, and which have good, uninterrupted track records going back at least 40 years – back to the time when the country’s Wine of Orgin scheme and Estate Wine legislation were introduced:

South Africa’s First Growths – Top Wine SA

Groot Constantia