In every major wine grape growing region of the world, there is a system in place which regulates the information being presented on the wine label as truth, and protects the consumer from being intentionally misled. Each system is different, and can have varying levels of complexity even within the same system. In the United States we use the AVA (American Viticultural Area) system which is overseen by the Tax and Trade Bureau of the United States Government (https://ttb.gov/). An AVA is described as a designated wine-grape growing region that is distinguishable by geographic, physical, or climatic features. This is an important distinction for a wine label. If you purchase a bottle of 1986 Heitz Cellars “Martha’s Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, you have a guarantee from the US Government that the wine in the bottle came (almost) entirely from Martha’s Vineyard in Napa, and NOT from North Dakota. Adding to the complexity of the system, there is some wiggle room for labeling within 15% on broader designations and 5% on single vineyard designations. We have had this system in place since late 1980 when Augusta, Missouri was named our countries first AVA. Napa Valley was second.
South Africa uses a similar system which is known as the WO (Wine of Origin) system. Introduced in 1973 as the Wyn van Oorsprong act, the system is built much like a pyramid, with the most basic geographic designations forming the base. There are 5 generic Geographic Units in the country, these include the Eastern Cape, the Northern Cape, the Western Cape, Limpopo, and KawZulu-Natal. Although almost all the fine wine we encounter in the US is from the Western Cape. The next segment of specificity within the pyramid is known as a Regional Designation, with the greatest concentration of regions being in the Western Cape. These include the Cape South Coast, the Coastal Region, Breede River Valley, Klein Karoo, Olifants River, and the fortified wines of Paarl, Franschhoek, and Tulbagh (collectively known as Boberg). Moving further up the pyramid, just below the top, are the Districts of South Africa. Places like Stellenbosch, Elgin, Walker Bay, Swartland, Franschhoek, the Cape Peninsula, and Wellington are all Districts within the WO system. Unlike the American Viticultural Area System, which only requires 85% of the grapes to come from the area designated on the label, the WO system requires that 100% of the grapes in the bottle be from the area on the label. Terroir is what sets regions apart, and within this system you can get a great sense of everything that influenced the growth of the grapes, and how that comes through in the wine. Lastly, the most site specific designation you can have on a bottle of South African wine is a Ward. Most importantly, a Ward does not indicate that it is a sub-region of a district. Yes, there are Districts with Wards. There are also Districts without Wards. To complicate things even further, there are Wards without Districts. In the Eastern Cape of South Africa for example, around the city of Port Elizabeth, there are no Regions or Districts within the greater Eastern Cape. There is only the Eastern Cape, and its one single Ward – St. Francis Bay.
Ultimately, there are flaws in every system. No one has determined a fool proof way to simplify wine law, or make it more digestible for the average consumer. The rules are constantly changing. I suppose the best advice for someone who is unsure about the information being presented on a wine label, would be to ask. Ask your local wine shop owner, or restaurant Sommelier, or well informed “wine guy” to help you out. You just may stumble on something you would have never thought about drinking before, and for most of us in the wine trade, that’s something we take great pride in.