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Tim James: The remarkably low number of SA wineries – Part Two

May 23, 2016
by Tim James
in Opinion & Analysis
with 0 Comments

Twenty years ago, as the millennium approached, and the Cape wine revolution gathered momentum, the Lammershoek farm on the Paardeberg was still delivering its grapes to the local co-op, where they largely disappeared into the voluminous anonymity of vast blending tanks. Then, after an ownership change, the Lammershoek cellar was recommissioned, and increasingly the grapes were going into their own bottles and into those of a number of prestigious private producers, including Sadie Family Wines.

This process of re-establishing grape-farms as producing estates is part of what the wine revolution has meant.

Saved from the producing cellars’ huge blending tanks.

It has also meant that, even ten years back, the old-vine grapes that go into some of the modern Cape’s great wines (Alheit Magnetic North is just one example) were lost, crushed along with the lesser fruit of high-yielding, irrigated vineyards.

These are not isolated examples, but typical of the way the top end of South African wine has magnificently grown. Unfortunately, though, the examples are still too few. I described in my blog last week (see here) how the weight of the big producer cellars (no longer co-ops) has shrunk in recent decades, but how they still crush three-quarters of the annual harvest. How many potentially great vineyards, how many potentially fine farms send grapes to those million-litre tanks to produce the cheap and sometimes cheerful wines that are being sold in boxes around the world, that are going into the vast-selling bottles of sweetish wine made by Distell for their 4th Street label? (In the May issue of WineLand, big industry gun Danie de Wet criticises the producer cellars for driving down prices, and points to the dire consequences of this orientation on both the country’s image and its vineyards.)

In a comment on my piece last week lamenting the comparatively tiny number of wineries in South Africa, Chris Alheit looks on the bright side by pointing out that there’s “still quite a bit of room for new and young/small producers to emerge and succeed”. Indeed, and more emerge each year (and a few fail), and there are occasional stories of the inspired younger generations on family-owned grape farms holding back some of their fruit from the jaws of the producer cellars and making some fine wines under their own labels.

There are also, it must be said, increased efforts by some producer wineries to identify special vineyards and to make small-batch wines from them: Perdeberg Winery, for example, is extending its ranges of such wines. Is it churlish to wonder, though, whether this, for reasons of image and marketing, and for reasons of winemaker mind-set, is going to work well enough?

As Chris Alheit and many ambitious tiny producers (and a few ambitious grape-growers) are well aware, it’s not always easy to divert the fruit of, say, low-yielding old bushvines from the big blending tanks and the boxes of “Dry White” or “Natural Sweet Red”. Understandably, perhaps, the producer wineries are often reluctant to allow their members to take the higher prices offered for selected vineyards. Sometimes they say: pull out of the system entirely, if you wish, and trust to the market, or stick to providing us with everything we want. All or nothing – something which would be very difficult for most farmers to do without a changeover period. Whether or not this is restraint of trade and legally problematic might depend on the nature of the contracts involved. There are, anyway, other ways of discouraging farmers who want to sell off some of their best grapes and to also start more ambitious viticultural practices for selected vineyards.

Believe me, this happens – I’ve heard too many accounts of it to have any doubts that the new producers Chris Alheit refers to are often thwarted, along with grapefarmers who might be willing to put more effort into their viticulture if it was made financially worth their while. The grapes still go to the massive tanks – until the old vines are pulled out, as the farmers tire of getting paid the same price as goes to the high-yielding, irrigated and chemically-massaged vines.

Too often, the race is to the bottom. My most pessimistic guess is that South Africa is doomed to its current status – overall dismissal as a cheap-wine country, with a handful of brilliant exceptions – while it remains locked into its present structure of dominance by huge wineries and huge producing wholesalers. How to get out of it is the problem, as a lot of money is being made by a few in the status quo.

What the industry needs, to fulfil its potential (and save its old, “uneconomic” vineyards), is more ambitious winemakers able to make use of the best vineyards at present in thrall to the big guys, and more grape-farmers going solo, or partly solo. I have my doubts that it will happen, but hope I’m wrong.

  • Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

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