Michael Fridjhon: What makes SA wine different and why should the world buy it?
By Michael Fridjhon, 17 August 2022
As the year stumbles towards the first Cape Wine show since the pandemic, I’m beginning to wonder whether we – and by that, I mean those people who think about how the industry markets itself to the world – have not fallen into the convenient trap of defining our USP in terms of our most visible high-profile players. In short, have we defaulted to the idea that what the Cape brings the world is rockstar winemakers working with (mainly) old vine chenin?
Before there was a convincing case for this (very minor) component of the industry we were out there chanting about biodiversity. (I see that Australia has now hijacked this marketing message, desperate for something to sell to the West now that China has stopped buying the Antipodean version of sunshine-in-a-bottle and left them with the mother of all hangovers.) Even with the most diverse of the world’s plant kingdoms on our doorstep, we couldn’t make that strap-line sell much premium wine – but perhaps we were ahead of the zeitgeist.
Happily for those who had nailed our colours to the biodiversity mast, the case for old vines and craft producers presented itself so compellingly that they could quietly drop the “biodiversity is in our nature” pitch and leap onto the OVP bandwagon. So now – even though this message has never been formally adopted (as far as I know), the story which appears most prominently about Cape wine in the world press comes with gnarled old vineyards set in the bleak and water-poor landscape of the Swartland.
It’s probable that, like so much of how the industry goes about its business, we haven’t arrived here as a result of any conscious intention. The story had a natural newsworthiness to it and – to use the word with which I began this discussion – we simply defaulted to it.
To be fair, it’s done us sterling service. There is more editorial about the Cape now in the international wine media than at any time since the Mandela presidency. The UK in particular has recycled more than its fair share of South Africa as this extraordinary old-vine-and-craft-winemaker amalgam. It’s reached a receptive audience. London is home to the greatest concentration per square kilometre of high-end wine buyers in the world. Their addiction to vinous rarities cannot be satisfied even by priority access to the almost boundless combination of growers and sites which defines modern Burgundy. They desperately needed a Plan B and the Cape landed up in the right place at the right time.
It now needs to remain there – despite growing rivalry from Spain and Chile, the former with significantly more ancient vineyard than we can offer, the latter with a growing number of craft winemakers.
But is this enough – even assuming we can stay perched on top of this particular pyramid (the one defined by affordable single site rarities marketed by talented and theatrical producers for whom English is not an alien language)? And even if this turns out to be possible, do we wish to let this default position land up as the final resting place of the Cape wine message? Is this how we wish to be defined – the Old Vine One Trick Pony?
The answer has to be a resounding “no”. It’s a valuable attribute, an attention-grabbing marketing slogan, perhaps even a flagpole to fly a banner, but it should be no more than a single leg supporting a much broader edifice. What we need is a vision of ourselves which can accommodate a more complete story, one which can communicate vastly more about our quality wines. That is, if we wish to avoid their being condemned to the discount shelves of the international supermarket trade.
The sad and bitter truth is that three decades after the Cape wine industry emerged from isolation there are only two messages that define us to our international customers. The one tells of the cheap-and-cheerful bulk we have on tap for whoever is ready to pay a low enough price for it; the other praises our single site rarities which occupy a place at the higher end of the price spectrum but are not always available. The wealth of high quality finely made wine in-between remains invisible. I’m afraid we have not been served well by those whose job it is to market Cape wine.
- 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.
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