Tim James: Number of SA cellars down, labels up – what gives?

By , 19 July 2019

A while back I reported on the depressingly small volume of “serious” – indeed, basically dry – wines drunk in this country, as opposed to the likes of 4th Street and Four Cousins. I was drawing on the latest annual compilation of South African Wine Industry Statistics brought out by Sawis, and today I was browsing its charts and tables again, and wondering why this was proving a rather melancholy exercise.

Not that there isn’t good or at least neutral stuff to report – exports are keeping up, for example. But then so is the proportion of bulk wine going overseas (which reminds me to wonder what happened to that noisy campaign of a few years back about changing this proportion). In fact, bulk exports have crept a little closer, very close in fact, to 60%. And of the packaged exports only about 80% is in glass, as opposed to bag-in-box.

Total hectarage of grapevines continues its downward trajectory – to just over 93 000 ha at the end of 2018, from nearly 100 000 ha five years ago. That could be either bad news or good, I suppose, unless you’re a gung-ho size queen and regard any diminution as a loss. But too much of the Cape’s production is of bad wine, and if poor, or poorly managed vineyards get replaced by lemons or wheat that strikes me as wholly good news. It’s the loss of vineyards on good sites, especially older ones, that is a worry. And production of wine is down, because of the continuing drought, but that’s sadly to be expected.

Also continuing to decline is the number of winegrape-growers. Just five years ago there were 3323 of them; now there are 2873. At the beginning of the century there were 4501. This plummeting is really rather remarkable. Some people read it as a consequence of the comparative lack of profitability in the wine industry, and I suppose it is that – but the decline is so much greater in terms of proportion than the decline in vineyards that it must reflect consolidation of landholdings. Whatever that reflects. I suspect not a lot of good, in terms of quality and our social structure.

A statistic that always puzzles me is the “Number of wine cellars which crush grapes”, and thinking about it I realised the pretty obvious reason for the generally depressing effect of the statistics despite my frequent celebration of the continuing excitement about South African wine. Depression and celebration respond to two different realities, two different industries. The statistics give the overall view, and as the industry is largely dedicated to producing pretty poor (sweet!) stuff, that overall view is not going to be cheerful.

The best news occurs in the little gaps and absences. Like the exciting new varieties being planted and now harvested – but in small quantities so they are lumped together as “other”, far far down the list after colombard and sauvignon blanc and merlot.

And take that number of wine cellars. It is also declining: five years ago there were 564 of them, now there are 542, and the decline is largely in the number of private wine cellars, down from 493 to 468. It’s been happening every year and always seems counter-intuitive to me, when I think of how many new labels there are. The Platter tasting season is on now and there are dozens of new producers, as there are every year. So why is the “Number of wine cellars which crush grapes” year-on-year declining?

Actually, I have no idea why some cellars are no longer being used (can anyone help me with that?), but I can see why the number isn’t rising in line with the number of new labels. It’s simply that a huge proportion of new (and older) small producers make their wine in other people’s cellars – either where they are working as winemakers in their “day jobs”, or where they rent space.

Momento-Thorne-Daughters-and-Crystallum
Four labels, one premises: Marelise Niemann of Momento, John Seccombe of Thorne & Daughters and Peter-Allan Finalyson of Crystallum and Gabriëlskloof.

Gabriëlskloof is an example which occurs to me as it has (as a shadow mostly) featured on this website quite a bit in recent weeks: apart from its own wines, the cellar also hosts three other splendidly notable producers ­ – Crystallum, Momento, and Thorne & Daughters. Also on this website in the past few weeks have been Thistle & Weed, Keet, Schultz and City on a Hill – all made in other people’s cellars.

But somehow it still doesn’t add up (or subtract down). What’s happening to those apparently newly disused wine cellars?

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing 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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