The scheme, abbreviated to W.O., is the country's equivalent of an appellation system. The accreditation appears on wine labels together with the name of a production area, such as W.O. Stellenbosch, Durbanville or Robertson. The aim is to assure the buyer that 100 percent of the grapes were grown in a specific area, each of which should also produce wines with a distinctive character.
Stellenbosch, for example, is a district within the Coastal Region of the Western Cape and has wards including Bottelary, Simonsberg, and the soon-to-be-introduced Stellenbosch Kloof, which takes in the Jordan wine estate and Mulderbosch.
In total, the Wine of Origin scheme has five geographical "units" – Limpopo, Western Cape, Northern Cape, Eastern Cape and Kwazulu-Natal – broken up into 25 districts and 66 wards. However, members of the industry believe the system is antiquated, does not accurately reflect distinctive regional attributes and needs a shake-up.
On the eve of the country's biennial Cape Wine fair in Cape Town, chenin blanc specialist Ken Forrester said: “We have a terroir system based on region but we have to ask the question: is the Wine of Origin scheme outdated?"
In his view, “regionality is such a flawed concept in the system. It comes from an ancient, parochial, socio-political boundary where the railway lines and the roads defined the area. Perhaps we need to rebuild the Wines of Origin from the ground up where we take cognizance of the soils and site.”
Master of Wine Richard Kershaw said that while the W.O. administrative body, South African Wine Industry Information and Systems (SAWIS), has tried to address the “anomalies that are inherent in the system,” the scheme still makes a mockery of meaningful boundaries.
“Growers and wine producers try to explain the inherent regional attributes found in their wine as absolute regional differences, but municipal boundaries cross through inappropriate geographical incongruities – thus blurring any homogeneity in their profile,” he said.
Nevertheless, the task of redefining boundaries would be fraught with difficulties. Bruwer Raats of Raats Family Wines admitted: “It's probably easier to run a free and fair election in Libya than to lay down these borders, because every farmer thinks his egg is the whitest.”
Raats is not suggesting that South Africa move towards a French-style appellation system, whereby growers must produce only authorized varieties in a defined area with set growing techniques and proscribed maximum yields. However, without those restrictions, he said, “there will always be a problem in a making a definitive style and that's never going to change." Raats said the answer is "a more sophisticated wine-of-origin scheme.”
Not everyone agrees. Andre Van Rensburg, winemaker at Vergelegen, defended the Wines of Origin system, saying it was “doing a really sterling job.” He suggested that those calling for a shake-up were “playing petty politics which might be for their own interests rather than national interests."