Michael Fridjhon: Merlot, Shiraz and sales versus scores

By , 27 March 2019

There’s nothing in the least bit homogenous about wine – not the soils which hold the vines, the climate which nurtures them, the way to make it (from the never evenly ripened grapes which come into the cellar), the routes to market, and the market itself. A new winemaker arrives at a venerable old property and her first vintage is so different from her predecessors you might well think she bought the grapes from somewhere else. That’s before she decides to change viticultural practices and planting philosophy.

A month or two later a new marketing team arrives. They decide to shift focus away from formal distribution, start by-passing their wholesale agents and develop a direct-to-consumer model. They segment their perceived customer base and decide that those most likely to respond to the call for a more direct relationship will be millennials, so they invest in social media, spend more on wine shows and less on conventional media, and research which of the wines in their range is more likely to appeal to the newly identified market.

The message comes back that they need to make more of merlot, the one variety which has always ticked along nicely without much sales effort from anyone. They tell the winemaker to consider a special merlot cuvée and they brief their design agency to come up with a suitably striking new look for the sales drive. And, contrary to the way these stories end most of the time, the project is a great success. They lose none of their existing merlot business, they don’t alienate anyone in their existing customer base, and they open an entirely new avenue through the thicket which lies between where wine is made and where it is consumed.

All this is possible – even if it rarely occurs. There are so many different ways of approaching how grapes are grown, wine is made, packaged, marketed and sold that it’s remarkable that there are any visible routes at all. The choice of merlot in this sadly fictional example was based on the fact that it is a cultivar beloved by the punters – even when it was being excoriated by the critics and wine judges. Now that there’s been a palpable improvement in the category as a whole – and certainly in the best known and most prestigious examples – sales volumes haven’t changed. It’s as if merlot buyers didn’t care one way or another what was being said about the variety. Of course, it was the safe and logical choice for a specially designed direct-to-consumer exercise.


Darling of the critics but does it sell?

But what would have happened if the same, market-savvy team had decided that they should choose shiraz (or Syrah) instead of merlot. After all, it’s been getting a pretty good press and suitably generous ratings. The 2019 Platter Guide lists ten 5 star examples compared with only three merlot. The 2018 Guide had nine Shirazes, but only one merlot. The past five editions of the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show would have yielded much the same ratio of Shiraz to merlot gold medals. On paper, merlot should be the hard sell, and shiraz producers should be supplying on allocation only (“One shiraz for every five merlot” – a kind of DRC approach).

This is not the case, though rumours of shiraz producers battling to sell their wines are probably exaggerated. Annual shiraz production is significantly more than merlot, which may in part account for the widely held view that it’s a hard sell: possibly it’s the last 10% that struggles to find a market, but this would be true of most high-volume varieties. There is certainly a disconnect between its status among critics and judges, and how it is perceived by everyday wine drinkers.

At its most austere (and therefore the style most popular with the critics) it is a little lean and fleshless – all pepper and no texture. It’s the kind of wine you can admire – like the tennis of Novak Djokovic – rather than love. (By the way, this doesn’t make Rafael Nadal the anthropomorphic metaphor for merlot, or Roger Federer for pinot noir). But this is not the only way you can handle the grape. It’s just as easy to make it juicy, with much the same flavour profile as merlot (which is why it was such a useful blending partner to cabernet in Bordeaux before its use was outlawed.)

Shiraz is capable of both styles, and the international success of the Australian wine industry from the 1980s onwards was largely achieved through the easy accessibility of Aussie-style shiraz. At the very top of the pyramid are wines like Grange, with massive American oak married to fabulously ripe intense berry fruit – not a whiff of pepper anywhere on the spectrum. Equally, as you progress towards greater volumes, via Penfold’s Bin 28, the various Wolf Blass and Peter Lehmann selections, to Koonunga Hill, just about every one of the wines which made an impact and reeled in consumers in vast numbers had a richness, a juiciness and a plushness to them. If merlot can be consumer-friendly and easy drinking, Shiraz can be all this, and more. Only it’s not there, at least not now and not yet in South Africa. It’s almost as if our wine producers have consciously decided not to play the Australians at their game, without having designed an alternative for the wine-drinkers seeking seduction ahead of intellectual engagement.

Just as geeky winemakers seem to steer clear of merlot, so the high-volume producers are not exploiting shiraz’s proven potential to make sumptuous, opulent wines. The long-term effect of this is that shiraz could have an image problem amongst the consumers who account for the big volumes – in the same way as merlot has an issue amongst the commentariat. I guess this poses the key question to producers regarding the crossroads at which shiraz finds itself in South Africa: if you had to choose – would you rather be where the call is for volume, or where the scores are high? The answer – it would seem – depends on whether you’re aiming to make a statement or simply to make money.

  • Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is the 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.


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