South Africa is a good example of a New World wine classification system. It defines the geographic origin of grapes but does little in terms of quality control as found in Europe. South Africa has 5 classification levels, called Wines of Origin (WO), ranging from large geographical areas down to what are called wards and wine estates.
Let’s take the newly created Hout Bay classification as an example of a WO. This is only appropriate, since the International Wine Review’s Editor is currently resident in Hout Bay. Aside from wine estates which produce wine from estate grown grapes, the smallest official unit of classification is the ward. Hout Bay is a ward, and a small one at that with just two wineries—Hout Bay Vineyards and the highly regarded sparkling wine producer Ambeloui. Next up in terms of size is the district. Stellenbosch, for example, is a WO district containing several wards Next comes the region. For example, both the ward of Hout Bay and the district of Stellenbosch are part of the Coastal Region WO. Finally, one level up from the district is the geographic unit, of which there are currently three in South Africa—the Western Cape, the Northern Cape, and Kwazulu-Natal. The Coastal Region is part of the Western Cape. To use any of these classifications on the wine label, 100% of the grapes must be grown within the corresponding WO. Ambeloui, for example, uses the WO Coastal Region on its label because its grapes are not soley sourced from Hout Bay.
What purpose does the South Africa WO system serve? There are fairly dramatic variations in terroir within a small geographic area in South Africa resulting from differences in altitude, proximity to either the Atlantic or Indian Oceans, and soil types, and the WO serves to identify these differences for the consumer. On the other hand, there are large differences in wine quality within a specific WO resulting from differences in vineyards and winemaking. As a result, the WO provides some limited information to the consumer, but the oenophile is more likely to assess wine quality and other characteristics based on the winery’s brand, or reputation, and how highly the products of that winery are assessed in Platter’s South African Wine Guide. In other words, the value of the WO designation is not much different in South Africa than it is in the US and other New World countries.
For more information on the WO’s of South Africa, consult Wines of South Africa (WOSA) (wosa.co.za) and South Africa Wine Industry Information and Statistics (SAWIS) (sawis.co.za). SAWIS is charged with enforcing the WO system.