What I’ve learnt about wine


You might be asking, “Why would I want to be a wine snob?” You know why. Imagine the next time somebody starts rambling on at a party about stuff like terroir, “on the nose” and “fruit-forward thiols”. If you knew just a couple of the basics, you could easily join in the conversation by asking a clever-sounding question, adding an interesting factoid, or better yet, correcting them when they say something that is so obviously wrong. Knowledge is power, after all, and there are few topics as rewarding, enlightening and empowering as wine. The truth, though, is that you can never know everything there is to know about wine, no matter what the wine snobs tell you, so talking about it should always be about discovery and sharing experiences – not trying to outwit others – and the best way to start immersing yourself in the world of wine is just to start. But where? Well, why not start with the topics that might put a wine snob in their place?


Most wine snobs are united in the view that wines produced in the Old World (that is, Europe) are superior to New World (the rest of us) wines. True, the “old” world certainly came up with the idea – and they have those appellations that ensure their wine regions keep up their good names – but subscribing to the view that wine produced outside of those regions are somehow mistaken is just so narrow minded. Think of all the fun you’re missing out on!

What makes South African wine so endlessly fascinating is our creative freedom. A stone’s throw from Cape Town in any direction but the ocean, we’re spoilt for choice, and every slope along almost every hill and mountain produces wine of outstanding quality and intrigue – and each wine tells a great story. Having a commanding knowledge of the appellations of the European wine regions is impressive, make no mistake, but it’s not unlike starting your sentence with the words, “Did you know?” Not a vibe. Where’s the story?


Have you ever heard the one about how Syrah expresses white pepper notes and Shiraz black pepper? Don’t repeat that at a wine tasting… although, it probably depends on who’s hosting the wine tasting, come to think of it. As you can imagine, there are more opinions on the topic of wine than you’d be able to comb through in a lifetime. As much as this kind of talk might impress your in-laws on a visit from the beer-and-brandy-drinking binneland, but anyone with a basic knowledge of wine will know it’s definitely not a thing. Ever heard of the varietals Candive, Hignin Noir, Entournerein or Antourenein Noir? Don’t worry if you haven’t. They’re all synonyms for the same varietal, Syrah (or Shiraz).

Back to the Syrah-Shiraz debate, the Syrah grape is said to have had its origin in Persia centuries ago, from whence (snobby word alert) it migrated to Europe. It was only when the Australians started growing it that it became known as Shiraz. Nowadays, whether it’s called Syrah or Shiraz is a marketing decision, and usually based on whether the winemaker follows an Old World (Syrah) or New World (Shiraz) approach.

For more on the topic, read this conversation with La Motte Cellarmaster and head of the South African Shiraz Association, Edmund Terblanche


What is terroir anyway? Isn’t just another way of saying where the grapes grow? You’re not wrong, but the handy thing about words like terroir is that it attempts to take the whole thing into account. Not only does it account for the slope, soil and climate where the grape grows, but also takes into account the people behind the wine – and so the “culture” of it.

Of course, the winemaker is central to the people part of terroir, but winemakers come and go. Terroir also considers everyone involved in the wine estate. A marketing manager, for instance, might have just as much influence on a new range of wines as the harvesters who grew up on the estate. So really, terroir is a beautiful concept that acknowledges everyone’s contribution to the winemaking process.

On the topic of soils, South Africa is blessed with some of the most ancient soils in the world, from koffieklip, bokkeveld shale and decomposed granite, all of which are the envy of the winemaking world. A winery like La Motte has deep roots in the Franschhoek Valley, a region whose soils lend its wines a creamy, sweet quality, but the winery also has farms in Botrivier and the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, which accounts for the multilayered quality of its blends. But apart from the difference in climate and soil in these three regions, La Motte wines are unified by the Estate’s vision.

There is no definitive guide to becoming an informed “wino”. But if in this 5-minute read you thought to yourself, “I never knew that,” you’ve got all the materials for a lively conversation about wine at your next gathering, whether you want to be snobby about it is up to you.