Michael Fridjhon: Time to give SA’s medium- and large-scale producers more credit

By , 16 August 2023



The world of wine is driven more by fashion than most people realise. Remember how hard it was to sell a bottle of chenin blanc thirty years ago? Writing in the early 1930s, Andre Simon lamented the high prices of the top German wines, pointing out that many of the rarest examples traded at more than double the cost of Lafite or Latour. While that might be true today of a handful of trockenbeerenausleses from the likes of Egon Müller, most top German producers look with envy at the prices obtained by their counterparts in France. Fifty years ago a bottle of Romanée-Conti sold for 50% more than Lafite. Now you can buy a case of Lafite for the price of a single bottle.

When you are in the midst of an era it’s difficult to imagine another reality. The fashion which drives wine collectors today to seek out the smallest sites and the rarest bottlings is no more eternal than any other from a bygone time: in 16th century England the beverage of choice was “Sack” – a fortified wine which originally came from the Canary Islands but which later included Sherry.

To judge from the tasting notes and comments published on Winemag,co,za today you would have to assume that the readers are all fascinated by low-volume, artisanal bottlings. The fact that the editor could actually publish an article (“The significance of entry-level wine brands”)in which he confessed that he had little tasting reference for the wines he found in retail outlets in the Kruger Park reflects the divide between “geeky” wines and what the rest of the country is likely to be drinking.

So when – as happened two years ago – Winemag hosts a blind tasting of blended wines and Chateau Libertas emerges amongst the front runners, a sense of disbelief greets the news. The editor himself went out immediately and bought stock off a supermarket shelf to make sure the panel hadn’t been given a special bottling (see more here). Nothing better reveals the implicit prejudice that fine wine cannot possibly be made in a big cellar.

This comes with another pre-judgement – one which says that if a wine is cheap, it cannot be good. The assumption is that the raw materials were inferior, rather than that the producer was able to benefit from economies of scale. The contrary doesn’t hold, by the way. The fact that clever producers use price as a proxy for quality tells you that the premium you pay for these wines may have nothing to do with the inherent quality.

There is another way to look at high-volume cellars and the brands they sell: big producers get the lion’s share of the fruit. If they manage their quality grading correctly, they are able to select immaculate grapes for their show-off cuvées. Perfect fruit in peak condition processed in a cellar with the best technology, the finest oak and a dedicated winemaking team is likely to trump many – perhaps most – of the wines coming from boutique and garagiste cellars. This is probably what makes the smarter small-batch producers steer clear of competitions and to refuse to submit their wines to the Platter Guide’s tasting teams.

Australia’s highest priced deluxe wine (Grange and the special ultra-deluxe versions of it) does not derive from a single site.  Most years the same vineyards contribute to the final assemblage. The fact is that Grange is a high-volume, multi-vineyard brand. The highest ranked wines of the Medoc’s classed growths come from some of the biggest properties: Lafite has just under 100 hectares under vine, Margaux about 75, D’Yquem around 80.

HRV aerial shot – total production of the Chardonnay 2022 was 66 000 bottles and the Pinot Noir 2022 was 27 180 bottles.

So the question we need to ask ourselves – at this stage of the development of the Cape wine industry – is whether or not we have become dedicated followers of the “small is beautiful” fashion. We certainly don’t appreciate fully the role played by the mid-size estates in putting Cape wine on the world map. Anthony Hamilton Russell made this point very clearly at a function involving his Hemel-en-Aarde property, Klein Constantia and Kanonkop. All three of them produce enough volume to export to around 60 markets, giving the SA wine industry a profile it would otherwise battle to achieve on the back of the more fashionable boutique wineries.

Of course, bigger producers do make single-site wines.  Generally, they don’t achieve the stratospheric prices paid for the super-rare wines from the more boutique producers. This tells us that perceived rarity (which is a function of brand), rather than real shortage, is an important driver in this fashionista segment of the market.

Common sense suggests that it’s dangerous to assume that quality is in inverse proportion to volume produced. Smaller, more artisanal cellars have nowhere to bury their mistakes. On the other hand, the best of them give their sites – and their single cuvées – more attention than would be possible in larger commercial wineries.

If you’re buying wine for drinking pleasure, then you should sample it blind. If you’re buying for investment, it pretty much doesn’t matter what’s in the bottle: all you need to know is the track record of the wine on auction.

  • 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 Trophy Wine Show.


5 comment(s)

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    James | 26 August 2023

    My rationalization for paying more for the wines of boutique (particularly négociant producers) is that they’re paying more for grapes, and generally encouraging more sustainable practices all the way along the value chain. I know that it’s not always the case, but when producers make a point of it in their communications I take them at their word. I don’t know the industry well, but I get the impression that the economies of scale you mentioned come at the cost of farm labour, or of some of the worse aspects of industrial ag.

    Francois Schaap | 20 August 2023

    I poured a bottle of Boekenhoutskloof Wolftrap White 2021 (sourced from Lacotte in Franschoek for R59) together with some “esteemed” international wines. Our group tasted blind and everyone rated the wine very highly (estimated to be in R400 – R500 bracket). They couldn’t believe their eyes when the wine was revealed. We all know that blind tastings are tough but it does level the playing field. Just a pity this wine is not bottled in magnums like the Wolftrap Red…hint+-hint Boekenhoutskloof (!)

    Mike Froud, Top Wine SA | 19 August 2023

    Boekenhoutskloof Wolftrap Red 2022, gold medallist at the International Wine & Spirit Competition (UK), going for R55pb at Ultra Liquors until end-August 23.

      Mike Froud, Top Wine SA | 26 August 2023

      Wolftrap Red 2022 now under R50pb at Pick n Pay until 3 September… if you buy by the case, are a wine club member, and load the special discount offer onto your Smart Shopper card… Just how low can the wholesale price be then, you wonder!

    Kwispedoor | 16 August 2023

    You make some good points, Michael. Literally nobody on the planet is entirely immune to their own bias once they know what they’re tasting. For some people, this wine hobby/lifestyle of ours has much to do with status and ego. Then again, most true wine lovers actually find great pleasure in discovering less expensive or less heralded wine at a great price. Just in the last few weeks, I’ve tasted quite a few wines that punch above their weight. Some expectedly so, while others performed above expectations. Amongst them were Vergelegen Chardonnay 2015, Tierhoek Chenin Blanc 2021, De Morgenzon DMZ Concerto 2013 and Boschkloof Syrah 2013. I can’t think that I paid more than R110 for any of them at the time of purchase and they provided proper drinking pleasure. I’ll leave the trophy hunting to other people – I’m after pleasure.

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