Brand South Africa in need of some TLC
By Christian Eedes, 10 November 2020
That the South African wine industry is set to experience some contraction as Coronavirus drags on looks inevitable, although how severe this will be remains unclear. Prior to the pandemic, local fine wine was succeeding in large part because of the collective pursuit of growing an integrated wine, food, arts and sightseeing industry but now that travel for leisure is limited, this approach is obviously strategically compromised.
The temptation for wineries is surely to go it alone – already there is evidence of the more commercially aggressive pursuing their own agendas in relative isolation to the industry as a whole. There is now a significant group of independent winemakers with carefully curated wine brands that have developed a cult following in key local and international markets and are therefore set to come through the Coronavirus relatively unscathed. They don’t produce very great volumes and the quality is high but they make sure that their wines aren’t reviewed in blind tastings so that the reputation of quality is never very acutely tested. They are business savvy and know the importance of keeping highly involved consumers engaged, not necessarily belabouring wine intrinsics but rather telling a compelling individual story.
And, on one level, all you can really say is: good luck to them. The industry can be separated into two broad sectors, namely “fine wine” and “commodity wine” with the first making up about 20% of production and the second the remaining 80% and if it’s the commodity wine sector that is set for attrition, who really cares? The problem is that the two sectors are not stand-alone but rather deeply inter-related. It would be entirely wrong-headed to argue that the lower end doesn’t help support and sustain the industry in general. The national vineyard now measures 92 067ha after declining by 9% in the period 2009 to 2019 and all indications are that more plantings are set to be lost soon, decisions to uproot typically based on yield rather than grape quality. Distressing anecdotes of low-bearing old vines being ripped out are already common and will only become more so.
What we don’t want to perpetuate therefore is a seeming polarization of the industry where a few “rock star” producers forge their own paths and leave the rest of the industry to the mercies of the global market. In particular, a situation where the likes of Alheit Vineyards, Mullineux and Sadie Family Wines become divorced from their country of origin in the minds of consumers must be avoided. The modern era of the South African wine industry is still short and frankly a cohesive set of distinctive attributes for our wines is limited if not entirely missing – this does not bode well for the industry in the long-term.
Somehow a way must be found to keep “Brand South Africa” as it applies to all tiers of the production in the conversation and, what’s more, to ensure that it is perceived as aspirational. This is going to be extraordinarily difficult in a country beset by profound political and socio-economic problems but an attempt has to be made. You would think that a very great part of the solution will involve taking South African wine online – how best use the channel that is the Internet to connect wine buyers and sellers? Webinars and Insta Live are surely a start but hopefully the collective effort only gets better from here…
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