How SA wine can go from good to great

By , 14 December 2016



“Good enough isn’t good enough” is an aphorism that legendary South African creative Brian Searle-Tripp instilled in me during my studies at advertising school Red & Yellow in the 1990s and when my subsequent few years as a copywriter proved spectacularly mediocre, I realized it was time to apply it and try my hand at something else. This took the form of wine writing as at least I would be dealing with something I actually cared about rather than long-copy retirement annuity ads for Old Mutual – I started in February 2000 and I’m still at it.

It strikes me that “good enough isn’t good enough” is something that the South African wine industry might also embrace. Whereas Platter’s South African Wine Guide highlighted wines rated 4 Stars in red ink and everything below that in black up to 2014, wines now have to rate at least 4½ Stars to get the red ink treatment. The implicit point here is that a wine worthy of 4 Stars is no longer remarkable. Similarly, those of us inclined to use the 100-point quality scale as is standard practice internationally all know that 90 points is the crucial threshold – wines rating 90 and above get attention, below 90 and they’re just about consigned to the dustbin of history.

cheap-wineNow you might think that the quality of South African fine wine has never been better and you wouldn’t be wrong but the most staggering statistic I’ve come across all year is the following: 30% of the country’s wine producers are loss-making, 6% break even, 49% are low profit and only 15% are profitable. Which pretty quickly brings us back to wine quality and the thought that for all the advancements made in this regard, there is still work to be done.

Here’s what’s at stake: Wines that are merely technically correct, no matter how balanced, no matter how sound, don’t cut the mustard any more. In order to be really outstanding, wines have to be something more. They have to excite. What do I mean by excite? I mean they must stir, arouse, stimulate and invigorate, both emotionally and intellectually. When wines do this, they stop being agricultural commodity and start becoming cultural artifact. For the producer, and to put it bluntly, they start to become something that can be sold for more than it took make, package, market and sell.

There are other ways of being profitable in the wine industry (wine as luxury good existing outside the wine geek sphere is one example) but for those wishing to make wine for wine’s sake and succeed, then the following strike me as critical: 1). Site – some vineyards are simply more capable of greatness than others as Chenin Blanc from Skurfberg or Pinotage from Kanonkop prove; 2). Personality – a figure behind the wine with a definite creative vision and the ability to communicate this clearly and 3). Excellence in branding – from the packaging to the tasting room and everything in between.

It’s not easy but it can be done, witness the likes of Chris Alheit of Alheit Vineyards, Hans Astrom of Klein Constantia, Adi Badenhorst of AA Badenhorst Family Wines, Abrie Beeslaar and Johann Krige of Kanonkop, Charles Back of Fairview and Spice Route, Paul Cluver of Paul Cluver Estate, Ken Forrester of Ken Forrester Wines, Anthony Hamilton Russell of Hamilton Russell Vineyards, Gary and Kathy Jordan of Jordan Wine Estate, Marc Kent of Boekenhoutskloof, Thys Louw of Diemersdal, Chris and Andrea Mullineux of Mullineux Family Wines, Bruwer Raats of Raats Family Wines, Mike Ratcliffe of Warwick, Eben Sadie of Sadie Family Wines and David Sadie of David & Nadia.


1 comment(s)

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    Christian | 21 December 2016

    The following via email from Mike Ratcliffe of Warwick:

    Hi Christian, Your piece above made me recall the observation by Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible, that only one percent of the world’s wine is considered “investment grade.” To qualify as such, it’s generally agreed that a wine must be from a prestigious chateau or domain, have the ability to age for at least a quarter century, have a documented history of price appreciation, be available in sufficient quantities to be traded, and have top scores from the world’s major wine critics. Investment grade wines are usually insured against damage.

    This relates to what I believe needs to be the next phase in the evolution of SA’s wine industry as it attempts to penetrate the upper echelons of fine wine trade. By McNeil’s definition of “investment grade wines” it is clear that SA wines are far from truly making an impact at the top end. There are few – if any – wines that tick all the boxes and this will likely continue to hold us back.

    Fragmentation of offering and lack of specialization IMHO are the biggest obstacles. It is difficult to name the SA specialists focused on a single offering and where there are, the volumes produced are not sufficient to supply the market. Focus will likely be the key that stimulates pricing and positioning into the future.

    The second obstacle is likely the lack of vision in holding back wine volumes to allow older vintages to be sporadically released and to prove the 25 year ageability thesis as most of SA’s top wines actually do sell out easily every year – completely.

    Finally, I believe that future international success for the industry will only be achieved by adopting an attitude of increased gravitas, the current generally playful tendency that applies in the industry not the catalyst to drive us forward.

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