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Michael Fridjhon: What future for the New Wave?

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Those who are serious about South African wine cannot fail to be excited about the dynamic energy which courses through every aspect of the industry, from the achievements of the “new wave” (some not so new anymore) to the profoundly satisfying premium wines of the Cape Winemakers Guild members. If the latter are more like the Left Bank Bordeaux chateaux producing polished high performance wines, the former are more akin to Burgundy, working tiny parcels and seeking to obtain more nuanced expressions from single sites.

As France has shown, both approaches can exist in the vinous firmament. The Medoc model allows for a statement of place (Lafite tastes different from Mouton and Latour, even though they are all in the same appellation) and a statement of craft. Burgundy is capable of almost infinite detail – though the number of growers who are in a position to coax this perfection of expression from an appellation is relatively limited.

Most of our new wave producers work to the Burgundian ideal – in that they wish site to trump style. This means that they must work within the narrowest possible definition of site (so single vineyard rather than appellation) and they must tailor their winemaking accordingly. As a result, they are generally exponents of the minimal interventionist school. They eschew new wood, they avoid technical adjustments, many describe themselves as “natural wine producers.”

Just as Burgundy has lately become more interesting and more collectable than Bordeaux, so the South African new wave has been enjoying a disproportionately high share of press. Ask most geeky wine drinkers what they are trying to buy, and the odds are it will be the latest releases from the more boutique size operations. The CWG still reels in the money, but it’s at one high profile event which is the Cape equivalent of the Bordeaux Primeurs.

So far the analogy works well enough. However it founders on the one key component which distinguishes Burgundy from the Cape’s new wave. Simply put, it’s about ownership, and therefore not only about security of tenure, but more importantly, about persistence of site. There are vineyards in Burgundy which have been in the same family for countless generations. Different heirs/owners/winemakers have done better or worse with their inheritance. However, the one certainty is that they were committed to growing grapes, which meant working with pinot or chardonnay from that particular site.

Chris Alheit and Franco Lourens
Chris Alheit of Alheit Vineyards and Franco Lourens of Lourens Family Wines.

South Africa’s new wave made its reputation by creating or evolving the Cape’s equivalent of Burgundy – small sites identified as much by what is planted on them as they are by their location and their geology. However, in almost every case the producers don’t own the land. They may lease it, they may have 100% control over how it is farmed, but they have no say over its future. Nothing is for ever: Chris Alheit’s Radio Lazarus vineyard finally succumbed to the drought – notwithstanding the efforts of real professionals who wanted to keep it going.

Many of the sites supplying fruit to the new wave producers are owned by growers who, until the tide changed, delivered their grapes to nearby co-ops for a pittance of their true value. While now they have a financial incentive to keep their vineyards productive, many are also financially marginal. The extra income they obtain from the garagistes and boutique winemakers who pay a premium for their fruit may not be sufficient to ensure that things stay the same.

The Cape is losing vineyard at the rate of 8 hectares per day. On average, one grower abandons grape farming every second day. You don’t need a sangoma to tell you that in this attrition some of the sites supplying grapes to the new wave will vanish – either because the owner has checked out, or because he decides that an alternative crop will better suit his needs.

The new wave movement has grown at an extraordinary rate over the past ten or fifteen years, primarily because of the availability of under-appreciated old vineyard sites. For the growers as much as for the producers this was a marriage made in heaven. There were plenty of parcels of vines capable of yielding suitable fruit, and not too many winemakers chasing them down. Meantime, while the number of producers has increased, the number of sites has diminished. Like Radio Lazarus some have simply withered and died. Others have been abandoned. Many of the best are now contracted, with other blocks belonging to the same owners optioned to existing producers. Newcomers today are not going to find it as easy to identify these special sites, and to secure them for as long as it might be necessary to persuade their owners to keep them going.

This doesn’t mean that the model of split ownership/production is fatally flawed – merely that its benefits are finite. This should not come as much of a surprise. There aren’t all that many great sites in Burgundy (or anywhere else in the wine world) and they are there either for those who nail them first, or for those who pay most. The charm of the Cape model is that initially it was driven by passion not cash. Now that there’s palpable value in what is being produced, and therefore in the primary resource, expect buyers with deep pockets to supplant the bright-eyed idealists.

  • Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is founder of Winewizard.co.za and holds various positions including: Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town; founder and director of WineX – the largest consumer wine show in the Southern Hemisphere and chairman of The Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show.

2 COMMENTS

  1. A very important article!

    I’ve long believed that the long term strategy and viability of the “new wave” is, for the most part, fatally flawed in South Africa. Any business, in whatever sector, requires a secure supply chain to achieve long term viability. Their supply chain is very weak and in the long term unsustainable. It is inevitable that the large producers and wealthy players within the wine industry will seek to increasingly ride the zeitgeist and augment their ranges with single old vineyard offerings. These larger wealthier players, with their large marketing budgets, global distribution and strong cash flow will, probably sooner rather than later, push the price of the best varieties from the best sites beyond the cashflow of all but the most established independent producer.

  2. Michael deftly summarises the known problems, adding an important focus on persistence in site rather than on persistence in individual producers (the latter, less interesting point is taken up by Tim Rudd). But while his Burgundian model is in various ways relevant, we must remember that far from all the new wave wines are single-site expressions – the two wines that, arguably, founded the new wave here (Sadie Columella and Palladius), are blends not only of varieties but also of site. Add in Cartology, Mullineux Syrah, etc. Furthermore, old vines are not inevitably part of the recipe. It should also be noted that the more established of the new wave (is that a mixed metaphor?) have long noted the problem and responded to it in entirely different ways – in the Swartland, look at what Mullineux, Badenhorst, Sadie and David & Nadia have done. These guys aren’t stupid. They know its not Burgundy. (They also have to grapple with land ownership laws that are unfriendly to small farming operations.)

    Some smaller new wave producers have already gone under, and more will too, inevitably. Happily, however, I think Tim Rudd is not correct in his prognosis. For a start you can’t just say that the “supply chain is weak” and “unsustainable” without arguing the point – not everyone agrees. More importantly, however, “large producers and wealthy players” certainly don’t always know what to do with tiny, low-yielding vineyards. They also seldom want the effort:profit ratio involved – except, perhaps, as a way of making the more profitable parts of their business shine with added lustre. Without Eben Sadie’s or Chris Alheit’s intense devotion and hard labour, the good prices they get for wines off some of those vineyards would just disappear. Relevantly, KWV has been trying for a long time to make its Mentors range successful, and their budget and distribution havn’t helped all that much. Nederburg has sort-of tried, and sort-of failed. Though DGB has probably done better.

    And if a serious winelover tried to name the large handful of wines coming off the “Skurfberg”, I bet the last one to be remembered, let alone adulated, would usually be that vinified by large, wealthy Anthonij Rupert. Some of the largest producers (co-ops) have tried, with indifferent success in terms of reputation and profit, to skim off some of their own cream and produce single-terroir, carefully made wines. Who cares all that much, however many awards they win in Paarl or Ljubljana?

    I don’t believe big(ger) business is in any relevant way the enemy of the new wave. They’re playing different games. Of course, it could easily arise (as happened in Australia as well as Burgundy) that big wine business would like to buy-up highly successful small new wave producers as complete entities, but that would involve trying to keep the small producer as an independent profit source, not destroying its niche market. They know the importance of story to the new wave, and that big business is not such a good story as Chris Alheit weeping over his dead vines and sweating mightily over his living ones and doing the sort of brilliant micro-work in his winery that the big wineries could hardly even conceive of.

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