South Africa Fights Back

  • Monday 3 November 2008

Despite global acclaim, consumers’ opinion of South African wine is still poor. GUY WOODWARD looks at how the country is fighting back

What’s your perception of South African wine? Be honest.

Because if you’re anything like the

people I’ve polled recently, your reaction will feature words like ‘decent’, ‘plonk’ and ‘picnic’, and a distinct lack of ‘premium’, ‘exclusive’, and ‘quality’. And don’t even mention the dreaded ‘green’, ‘leafy’ or the taboo ‘b***t rub***’.

Yet, this is the country that has swept the board at the past two Decanter World Wine Awards, taking four International Trophies in 2007, and six this year (more than any other region), from Sauvignon Blanc to Bordeaux and Rhône varietals.

So why don’t wines from the Cape have a better image? And are consumers being shortchanged when it comes to getting the best from a country about which many in the trade are unconvinced?

The DWWA International Trophy judging is blind; judges have no idea of a wine’s heritage. A Chablis will be tasted alongside a South African Chardonnay. In such environments, South Africa seems to shine. Yet at tastings made up solely of South African wines, the response is nearly always negative, with critics and trade alike trotting out the criticisms listed above.

Is there an ingrained prejudice when it comes to South Africa? At Decanter’s last South African panel tasting (Cabernet, March 2006), tasters criticised the wines’ astringency, poor freshness and ageability. They weren’t the first, or last.

Jane MacQuitty, of The Times, has made herself a persona non grata in the Cape with a sustained attack on the country’s reds, which she claimed had a characteristic trait of ‘burnt rubber’ – a view shared by several other UK critics.

Yet, South Africa as a whole punches above its weight in wine sales. The ninth largest producer, it is the fifth biggest supplier to the UK, where it has 9% of the market. This year, it has grown sales by 13%, against an overall rise of 1%, making itself the fastest-growing region – a trend set to be further buoyed by the weak Rand. The problem is, only 14% of these sales are of wines over £5.

Image conscious South Africa has only been exporting wine for 14 years, since the fall of Apartheid heralded the lifting of sanctions. But the hangover from the bad old days still resides. In its rush to market, most of the first wines that hit the UK were at the low end of the quality ladder, meaning their critical reception was cool.

Unfortunately once a country has a reputation, it can be hard to shift. Many consumers’ image of South African wine was formed by its only real mass-market brand, the cheap but not so cheerful Kumala.

Neleen Strauss, a Cape native who came to the UK in 1998, and ran London restaurant Vivat Bacchus, was dumbstruck: ‘I remember sitting on the tube when I first arrived, and seeing an advert for “South Africa’s no1 wine”. I’d never heard of it. Yet this is what was being used to represent South Africa.’

Strauss claims her country’s winemakers have been fighting prejudice ever since, and are not done any favours by similarly mass-market brand Arniston Bay flooding the market in its ‘pouch’ packaging.

Kumala is now in the hands of US giant Constellation, and has secured the services of acclaimed Bruce Jack as winemaker, meaning the chances of it reaching higher ground are good. But as Strauss says, ‘it takes a long time to redress the balance’.

Rusty Myers, co-owner of Amani Vineyards (winner of the International Bordeaux Varietals Under £10 Trophy at this year’s DWWA), says : ‘Pre-1994, SA wines were fairly poor, and there was not much money behind them. But then suddenly they were being exported. It took 10 years for things to improve.

Now, 14 years later, things are looking very promising. But old prejudices remain.’ The complaints of UK critics are mainly directed at cheaper wines. At a recent tasting of South African wines held by specialist importer Richards Walford, the press was challenged by the winemakers present to identify a single wine displaying the infamous ‘burnt rubber’ character. They couldn’t.

Yet Tim Atkin MW, of The Observer, is adamant that ‘the burnt rubber character exists, it always has, and it’s horrible’. What’s more, ‘South Africa is in denial about it.’ With the generic marketing body Wines of South Africa (WOSA) having commissioned tests at the University of Stellenbosch into ‘problem’ wines, Atkin’s second charge would appear to be invalid.

Even WOSA’s UK head Jo Mason admits that the trait ‘does exist’. The problem is,

no-one knows where the defect comes from, and whether it is viral or oenological. At least the issue is being addressed.

In the meantime, Cape winemakers are aggrieved the topic could overshadow progress made, notably at the qualty end of the market. Carl van der Merwe, winemaker at Quoin Rock, claims ‘All South African wines have been unfairly tainted by this.’

There is resentment in his voice. Eben Sadie, of Sadie Family Vineyards, is more sanguine, but no less insistent: ‘We’ve had the privilege of the attention of the UK press, and you’re helping us clean up our act.’ (Translated as ‘We’ve changed. Have you?’)

The conclusion is that, at the top end, South Africa’s wines aren’t affected by these traits, and the wines are equal to anything from the New World, or Old (premium producers claim their wines are more Old World in style, emphasising elegance and restraint over extraction, oak and ripeness).

The results of the DWWA bear out the quality at the top end, as did the Richards Walford tasting, and many of the wines on show at Cape Town’s recent Cape Wine trade event.

There the UK press was impressed not only by the wines, but the winemakers’ attitudes. There was a tangible optimism and quiet confidence on display, born out of a young generation keen to travel, broaden their experience and work together to eradicate pre-Apartheid practices.

Pre-1994, every region relied on a consultant from state-owned co-op KWV, whose viticultural advice was followed, and most producers sold grapes to the co-op, and were paid by weight, meaning quantity reigned over quality.

Kleine Zalze’s managing director, Kobus Basson, recalls that: ‘When the first winemakers presented their wine, they plonked it down on the table and said: “there’s my wine”. And they expected it to be successful.

If the buyers didn’t like it, they’d argue back – they couldn’t take criticism. And they thought their neighbour’s wine was rubbish. Now, people are much more willing to discuss, learn, exchange views.’

UK retail consultant Mike Paul says that top wines are ‘crucial’ to setting the tone for a country, describing them as setting in motion a ‘halo effect’. ‘If, as a country, your ranges are skewed to the bottom end, you’re at a disadvantage.’

Naas Erasmus, general manager of Cape Legends (which produces Lomond’s Pincushion, winner of this International Sauvignon Blanc Under £10 Trophy) says: ‘SA is unrepresented at the top end, and is suffering from an image problem. We have to battle to get into top end, even though the quality is there.’

The irony is that, notwithstanding Kumala and Arniston Bay, high-volume brands are not what South Africa is about. As Paul Cluver (International Chardonnay Under £10 Trophy) says: ‘We don’t have the big brands to establsh a foothold. Our terroir is so diverse – it changes every 100m – it’s impossible to make consistent, big brands.’

This should be a strength, and WOSA has tried to make it one, trumpeting the country’s rich biodiversity. The merits of the subsequent marketing campaign are open to question, however: green values are all well and good, but are wine drinkers that motivated by such issues?

Jean Engelbrecht, co-owner of Ernie Els Wines and owner of Rust en Vrede, says the campaign ‘failed to engage the consumer’, while Tinus Els, winemaker at L’Avenir, says: ‘The UK is not going to buy more wine just because it says ‘biodiversity on the label’.

The problem was that the message didn’t highlight the quality of SA’s wines. Furthermore, biodiversity contradicts the concept of regionality which the country seems keen to emphasise. South Africa has so many different soil profiles, that defining an area big enough to resonate with consumers and has a consistent flavour profile is difficult. That hasn’t stopped people trying, though.

The country now has 63 wards, demarcations for Wines of Origin, intended to point to a certain consistency of style. Yet within each ward, there are no restrictions on what can be grown, how or where – meaning there is no guarantee of any style/grape/quality or yield. The awards are merely geographical indicators.

Duimpie Bayley, who heads up the body responsible for designating awards, confirms that anyone can apply to have one registered, and in 15 years, the body has yet to turn an application down.

All of which suggests that the wards exist more to massage the ego of the producer than for any practical consumer benefit. ‘There’s nothing more exciting than laying claim to your own unique terroir,’ says Niels Verburg of Luddite.

That may be so, but it doesn’t help consumers recognise a wine they like. At Cape Wine, we were treated to a tasting of wines from Hermanus.

Yet, in the UK, the region is better known to wine lovers as Walker Bay. Then we were introduced to the sub-regions of Hemel-en-Aarde (upper and lower). And just for good

measure, Luddite’s wines are now presented as from the ward of Bot River.

They were very good, but how on earth are consumers meant to navigate their way through such a minefield of place names? And isn’t it a little early to define the terroir characteristics of such a variety of regions, especially when producers don’t appear to have yet reached a consensus on which varieties work best?

‘The success of wards depends on price points,’ says Carmen Stevens, winemaker at Amani. ‘If I can make a Chardonnay that’s different to the norm, I can demand a higher price.’ Even so, Myers, concedes ‘It’s difficult to generalise about the taste profile of wines from a single ward.’

Not least because most regions have so many varieties planted. ‘Maybe we’ve taken a shotgun approach to planting, but we’ve only been going for 14 years, so we’re still experimenting,’ says David Nieuwoudt of Cederburg (International Red Rhône Varietals Over £10 Trophy).

‘Understanding the right cultivar for the right region – that’s our focus for the future.’ All of which makes perfect sense, but shouldn’t this be done before the demarcating? Bayley remains insistent: ‘I believe people at the premium end of the market want to know where their wine comes from, while Verburg reiterates that ‘people want to know if a wine speaks of its region.’

Maybe, but it’s asking a lot of consumers to get to know the identity of 63 wards, each with a range of varieties and producers.

The shame is that the quality of the wines coming from the Cape has undoubtedly never been higher. And the rich range of styles should be a strength As WOSA says, ‘Variety is in our nature’.

Sadie believes it’s ridiculous that ‘The New World essentially relies essentially on just five grapes, yet there’s 80 in Portugal alone. A strong advocate of blends, he says ‘We owe it to ourselves to pursue variety.’

Yet even Sadie admits that South Africa needs a calling card. Anthony Hamilton Russell, of the eponymous estate, believes his compatriots should stick up for their heritage – the much-derided Pinotage.

‘The temptation now is that producers avoid anything not already on the market or with a following from rival country. We risk becoming a follower.’

Mike Radcliffe of Warwick Estate disagrees: ‘We made a huge mistake by not properly marketing our message in the ’90s – it was all about value and Pinotage. It’s wonderful that Pinotage plantings have dropped – people were being paid for quantity, not quality.’

Speak to another winemaker, and he’s likely to give you another variety which should be the Cape’s flagship. South Africa is right to celebrate its diversity, especially as other nations drift ever closer to an ‘international’ style. The emergence of its cooler-climate regions, notably Elim and Elgin, add further belief.

Sauvignon Blanc is a case in point. Amid signs of a backlash against the zingy variety that made New Zealand’s name, South Africa has shown more than a little potential to span the gap to a more minerally Loire style.

Yet 60% of Sauvignon plantings are less than 10 yeas old – think what producers will do when its plantings and know-how mature. And that’s something likely to happen faster than in other New World countries, which have already done the groundwork.

As Paul Cluver observes, ‘80% of the Australian export market is dominated by four players. Our top 10 players only make up 25% of our market.’

The country is well-placed to take advantage of such individuality. A short harvest in Australia after the drought of 2007 (when the yield was reduced by almost 30%) has left an opportunity for South Africa to muscle its way into the public consciousness, particularly around the key £7 to £12 range that is becoming more and more important in the current economic climate.

Whether consumers will let it in remains to be seen.

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