If you examined the supplier list of South African producers that have had the biggest impact on the country’s sales around the world then Origin Wine would be amongst the biggest and most influential independent names on there. But up to now the majority of its wines have been aimed at the mass consumer, working with major retailers to make a case for South African wines. Now it is looking to take its commercial know how into the premium and specialist wine sectors through the Le Grand Domaine estate it now runs in the Devon Valley area of Stellenbosch.
Origin Wine bought Le Grand Domaine in 2015 as part of its wider push into owning and making its own premium wines – under Origin Vineyards – not just in South Africa, but with estates in Argentina and Switzerland.
If you have spent any time in Stellenbosch recently you will have seen for yourself just how far it has been transformed with the opening of a number of wine bars and restaurants that are long overdue in what is essentially the wine capital of South Africa.
That said it is still a pretty laid-back place with its grid-like street system and long avenues of tree decked streets providing a relaxed home for locals, tourists and an ever-growing student community alike.
One of the new places to open in 2022 is Le Grand Domaine Enoteca, a premium, chic wine bar and restaurant on Church Street in the centre of the town that it hopes reflects and showcases the wines and approach that Origin Wine is taking at its new premium estate of the same name situated around 5km outside the town at the top of Devon Valley. A venture that is a joint project with another premium Devon Valley producer, Stellenview Wines.
It’s a big, ambitious departure from what has made Origin Wine’s name as one of the most significant suppliers of volume wine from South Africa at all the major commercial price points – both with its own range of branded wines and long standing exclusive, private label and bulk contracts with major retailers across the world, particularly in the UK.
Origin Vineyards has had to go through a complete re-planting program at Le Grand Domaine since it took over the estate six years ago. But that has also allowed the team, headed up by winemaker Debbie Thompson, formerly 20 years at Simonsig, and well-known Stellenbosch vintner Deon Joubert, to really stamp their own mark on the estate and introduce carefully selected clones and rootstock that can work in a micro climate that is ideally suited to red Bordeaux varietals.
Both are united in the vision to make wines that are true to their terroir but also fully express what the Devon Valley can do in the purity of each varietal they work with. Joubert says he wants to “farm lighter and with more consideration for the environment and South African heritage”.
Vines that are planted between 600m to 1,200m above sea level, Its red varietals are mostly planted on Hutton and Oakleaf soils.
Joubert explains: “We work the soils to achieve good penetration of the water at depth. Subsoiling is performed to counteract any compaction that may occur. Inter crops are planted in between the vine rows to keep the soils active when the vines shut down in winter. These crops will be worked back into the soil as organic matter once the vine enters its new growing season. Our aim is to farm in a sustainable manner to protect our soils”
Thompson adds: “With its rare microclimate and terroir, Le Grand Domaine is ideally suited to red Bordeaux cultivars. With that in mind, we have been focusing on selected, not only, the right varietals, which is basic, but, within the varietal, the right clones to, firstly, fit the various changing soil conditions but, as well, to enhance and give a polymorph dimension to the varietal character.”
Bernard Fontannaz, founder of Origin Wine and chairman of Origin Vineyards, says he wants to create a new “chateau concept” in Stellenbosch that really helps elevate the premium image that has worked so well in Bordeaux.
He believes premium South African wines need to elevate but also simplify their message. By introducing more of a “chateau concept” it allows producers to talk to consumers around the world in a way they are familiar with and instantly recognize as being a premium operator making high quality wines.
“I believe in the Grand Cru or Chateau concept classification and concept, well known in the Old World,” he explains. “It has been pioneered by the well know wine critic Tim Atkin MW in his South African Wine Report and very much reflects our brand building concept.”
Le Grand Domaine now has just over 10 hectares of its own vines on its estate – split 1.8 hectares of Cabernet Franc, 5.1 ha of Cabernet Sauvignon, 2.5ha of Merlot and 1.1ha of Petit Verdot.
The vines might only be six years old but the quality of fruit is already coming through, says Thompson. “It just shows what proper mapping of varietals and clones can do -with an outstanding soil and terroir of course.”
“I am already really excited about what fruit we are taking from the vines and they will only just get better and better,” she adds, who is loving the opportunity to work on what is effectively a premium start-up wine producer and help make its name from the beginning. “That’s what really appealed to me when I decided to join the team here. Everything is still possible, we are discovering and experiencing, which is a winemaker dream. We are all working so hard together as a team to achieve what we can.”
Le Grand Domaine’s own vineyards may be based on Bordeaux varietals, but the estate’s overall wine portfolio also covers a wide number of other styles, including a Cap Classique (50/50 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir), using grapes carefully sourced from its expanding network of growers situated in other regions of the Cape outside Stellenbosch. “I believe there is still real untapped potential with Cap Classique,” adds Thompson.
Grand Vin and The Pledge
It has two main ranges – Grand Vin de Stellenbosch and The Pledge – which are both positioned in the premium price bracket, particularly for South African wine. The Pledge is on shelf for around £16.49 discounted down to £14.49 and Le Grand Vin de Stellenbosch ranges in positioned at an RRP of £18
The Pledge allows Le Grand Domaine to work with larger volumes of fruit sourced outside of Stellenbosch, particularly in Durbanville Hills and Darling. All the wine, though, are made at Le Grand Domaine.
Each wine in The Pledge range is focused on offering “the best expression of…”, be it by a varietal, or the influence that barrel ageing can have on a wine, or what working with old vines can do to the quality of the final wine. It’s an interesting extension from just having a varietal-driven range. It’s also very much a winemaker driven project, aimed at spotting or re-defining a particular style and offering and it has a definite new world approach reflected in the presentation, stresses Thompson.
‘The Grand Vin de Stellenbosch range hope to reflect the premium wines, in a more classical approach, focusing on traditional grapes from Stellenbosch, being made at the Grand Domaine, of course, and are more structured and texture and thus, ideal, for ageing” she adds.
Fontannaz says it wants to “push the quality boundaries at Le Grand Domaine with each wine treated as a specific project, established with the best grapes we can source, with no expenses spared and utter attention to detail”.
Wines like the Grand Vin de Stellenbosch Rosé has taken a while to get right and took a lot of trials and experimentation to source the right grapes to make a 50% Shiraz, 50% Clarette Blanche rosé, explains Thompson. “The same applies to the Pledge Our Passion Appassimento.”
“It is a serious project to make an elegant style of rosé,” says Fontannaz, pointing to its £15 price tag. “We think South Africa has a massive role still to play in rosé, particularly at the premium end. It fits the lifestyle and the beautiful outdoor experience of Stellenbosch.
Attention to detail is helping to build its reputation as a quality producer with a string of recent awards including being named as one of South Africa’s Top 10 Sauvignon Blancs in 2022 for its The Pledge Darling Sauvignon Blanc 2020. Its 2021 was a finalist in the top 20 Sauvignon Blancs. The estate has also received double gold status at the Veritas awards for Pledge Our Darling Sauvignon Blanc 2020 and 2021. It also won gold medals at Veritas 2022 for its Grand Vin de Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 and and Grand Vin de Stellenbosch Merlot 2020. The Pledge Our Origin Sauvignon Blanc 2021 won a gold at the IWSC 2022.
“It has made a big difference to us to get this level of awards at such an early stage,” says Thompson. “But it also shows the potential that this part of the Devon Valley has.”
The scale of the wider Origin Wine business means Fontannaz is well placed to give his views on how he sees the overall wine market. Although he admits it is difficult to give a totally accurate picture as it is “all over the place at the moment, it’s very volatile”. “In 2023 we are entering a permacrisis world,” he adds.
“One thing is for sure is that tomorrow’s wine market is not going to look like it does today. That has been the biggest change. Once you break people’s habits about how they buy wine and what they buy, then you can’t go back to where it was before. In the future we are going to have to be much more reactive, more flexible, but then we are used to lots of uncertainty in South Africa,” he explains.
“Due to unprecedented cost increases across board, the segmentation between commercial wines and premium ones will become more and more acute. I would easily imagine a world where cost sensitive entry level wines will be packed into a PET bottle or similar cost effective packing with glass reserved for more premium lines.”
He certainly believes South Africa has earned the right to be treated as a quality wine producing country and would like to see the category as a whole see its prices pushed up. “It is a matter of overall sustainability of the industry, South Africa is less than 100,000 hectares and cannot compete and should not compete with countries with 1 million hectares and more.”
He adds: “A 50p increase in the entry price of South African wine would have an enormous impact on the country as a whole, as well as a better mix from commercial to high end and this will certainly contribute to a more lasting sustainability.”
He is certainly trying to play his part with Le Grand Domaine and its range of premium wines.
The Pledge Range
Our Origin The Pledge, Sauvignon Blanc
Our Darling The Pledge, Sauvignon Blanc
The Pledge Our Barrel, Chardonnay
The Pledge Our Lekker, Pinotage
The Pledge Our Stellie, Cabernet Sauvignon
Grand Vin de Stellenbosch Range
Grand Vind de Stellenbosch, Sauvignon Blanc
Grand Vind de Stellenbosch, Rosé
Grand Vind de Stellenbosch, Rosé (1.5l magnum)
Grand Vind de Selection, MCC
Grand Vin de Stellenbosch, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot
Grand Vind de Stellenbosch, Cabernet Sauvignon
Grand Vind de Stellenbosch, Shiraz