Worcester-based operation Overhex Wines International (OWI) exports 12 million litres of wine a year. Of this, two million litres gets bottled in South Africa, four million litres gets shipped in bulk to be bottled at destination as OWI brands and six million litres ends up under buyers’ own brands. “Because domestic wine consumption is more or less stagnant, South Africa is in trouble if it doesn’t export 350 million to 400 million litres a year,” says OWI managing director Gerhard van der Wath, a former lawyer.
The main OWI brand is Balance, the logo featuring an elephant perched on top of the letter “l” (more of that latter) and the company brains trust has realized that their wines need a stronger presence in South Africa if they are to be successful and hence a tasting yesterday of some of the wines, including the new Winemaker’s Selection tier in the range.
Appealing if not hugely complex was the Balance Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2010 with a faint grassy note on the nose, and lime flavour on the palate, the impression of sweetness offset by zingy acidity. At R27 a bottle, no surprise, it appeared in the 2011 Wine magazine Best Value Wine Guide.
As for the wines designated as Winemaker’s Selection, the Sauvignon Blanc 2010 largely featuring grapes from a vineyard outside Darling showed a piercing pepperiness on the palate making it arguably too demanding for its R40 a bottle price point. The Shiraz 2010 from a combination of Swartland and Wellington grapes seemed better resolved at its price point of R45 a bottle, a pleasant, medium bodied wine with red fruit and spice flavours.
“The South African wine industry is production rather than market orientated,” says Van der Wath “OWI primarily exists to develop markets and build brands”. A huge challenge for OWI is getting the flavour profile on any particular wine to appeal across as many markets as possible. “The difference in palate between different cultures is enormous,” he remarks.
Sauvignon Blanc provides an example. South Africans like it light and fruity, with palate weight not being that important because consumers tend to add ice. In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, they like a green style while in the USA, consumer feedback is that they don’t want to taste anything resembling a vegetable in their wine. In order to arrive at the most suitable blend at specific price points, JC Martin, Swiss trained and co-owner of Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge property Creation Wines has been involved as production director since 2006.
Van der Wath regards Europe as his most important regional market on the basis that the population here is “used to wine”. The biggest challenge to success in Europe is that South African wine quality is generally perceived to be low and Van der Wath calls for a concerted effort to elevate the country’s wine reputation.
The USA does not feature prominently in OWI strategy as getting wine to market is too expensive, while Africa and Asia are “long term prospects”. Both consumer bases are biased towards red, and Van der Wath feels a big increase in red plantings is needed if South Africa is to supply these markets successfully. Aren’t local whites better in any event? “Unfortunately, yes. We need to make a plan.”
Even so, Van der Wath relates that overtures to China have been well received. “They like the elephant on the label, but requested that his trunk should be depicted up and not down.” Why, asked a colleague at the table. “Why do you think?” he replied.