Swipe right – what must SA wine do to get the world to love it?

By , 5 September 2022



The theme for this year’s Cape Wine, the flagship business showcase of the South African wine industry presented by generic export body Wines of South Africa (WOSA) in October, is “Sustainability 360”, the three pillars of focus being “People, Place and Prosperity”, the idea being to demonstrate to delegates how a “brighter and better future” is being created for “those who are directly involved and invested in South African wine, surrounding communities, the fauna and flora that envelops it and the longer-term growth and upliftment of the industry”.

All very worthy but the industry’s major challenge is surely that it is still not regarded as a major player in the world of fine wine. In 2021, 51% of wine sales by volume were exports, and of that, some 60% was bulk. However, those bulk exports only accounted for about 25% of  value.

When it comes to packaged wine, the country is still identified with its large brands which sell in the affordable rather in the deluxe price segments – easy-drinking Kumala as owned by Accolade Wines South Africa, for instance, remains massively powerful in the United Kingdom, which is the country’s most important export market.

South Africa’s immediate challenge is to persuade sophisticated consumers that its top wines are worth the kind of money that many are willing to shell out for French or Italian appellations.

To a large extent, the market is taking care of the problem of unbranded wine at the lower end of business. As has been noted many times, the national vineyard peaked at 102 146ha in 2006 and has declined every year since then – total plantings at the end of 2021 were 90 512ha.

When it comes to packaged wine, it’s difficult to see were SA’s next mega-brands are going to come from – the acquisition of producer-wholesaler Distell by Heineken still needs bedding down while DGB and KWV don’t look geared to produce a Yellow Tail (Australia) or Blossom Hill (USA) just yet.

It would seem that SA’s wine’s only hope is to convince the world of its fine wine credentials. What determines fine wine? Essentially, it’s two-pronged – terroir and the cult of winemaker personality. It can be debated what’s more important – site or charismatic creator – but after a point, it’s irrelevant as both are needed to capture the imagination of the highly involved wine consumer.

Readers of this website might be forgiven for thinking that the credentials of small-scale, independent wineries now go without saying. I suspect, however, that Alheit, Sadie and even Kanonkop are far less well known in Paris, Sydney or New York than some local stakeholders might presume.

When it comes to SA wine, small is beautiful. The country DOES have both the richness of terroir and winemaking personnel to win over the world – 224 of the 536 wineries in operation at the end of 2021 crushed 100 tons or less per year so that’s pretty much how the industry is structured in any event. A lot of these producers cannot supply supermarkets because they don’t have the necessary volumes, but equally do not want to, because they don’t have the inclination to get involved in the grubby world of promotion and discount.

It could be argued that if these small wineries were prepared to invest not just financially, but emotionally, in the local market then they would have no need to export – cellar door and direct sales through databases offer the highest margins and most control. It does seem, though, that small wineries like travelling to export markets regardless of the ultimate profitability – as a producer, checking on your listing at Copenhagen’s best restaurant probably makes 2am punch-downs less intolerable.

When everything is taken to consideration, specialty stores, wine bars and wine-committed restaurants remain the primary channels to reach the right consumer. The internet killed specialty music stores and the internet seems to be killing cinemas but when it comes to wine, consumers still seek information, variety and even, dare I say, the sort of communion that only face-to-face interaction can provide. Sustainability, whether it be social, environmental, or economic, is obviously vitally important but we must be relevant and attractive to the world in the first place.


6 comment(s)

Please read our Comments Policy here.

    Magatho | 11 September 2022

    I think that the essence of the argument is that South African wine is not at the level or recognition that it deserves. What or how that can be achieved can be debated.

    That is a fact.

    Even travelling the African continent, the finest restaurants will only have 10% South African wine at the most. And I am talking about really fine restaurants and hotels.

    So there’s no doubt that there’s work needed to market and position our wine industry.

      Greg Castle | 15 September 2022

      Why the SA wine industry is fighting for a piece of an over traded European market or even the complex fragmented US market is beyond me. Why we Africans don’t wake up to the giant that sits on our own door step is beyond me..

    Stanley Edwards | 8 September 2022

    What are we missing? Tim Atkin says SA wines “belong among world’s elite”. We’re winning and featuring well in international wine competitions. What more do we have to do convince the world of our fine wine credentials? Are we marketing our wines the right way internationally? Don’t we need a broader industry co-ordinated marketing campaign? This will help raise the overall profile and benefit everyone. But……who pays for this?

    Mike Froud, Top Wine SA | 7 September 2022

    How critical is the winemaker’s personality to the success of a wine, generally speaking? Most serious wine lovers and collectors couldn’t tell you the names of many if any of the top cellarmasters in Europe, America and elsewhere, so why should it be any different in terms of South Africa’s best. The back-story is important, of course, as is the reputation of the brand. Sure, speciality stores, wine bars and top restaurants have a large bearing on raising interest in, the demand for and the prices of the Cape’s best, but so too does marketing to consumers, more so than to the trade. Great reviews by individual critics aren’t enough.

      Stanley Edwards | 8 September 2022

      You’re right Mike. Hardly any wine labels include the name of the winemaker or talk about terroir so these can’t be important. Or are they? We’re changing this by using Augmented Reality Codes for our SOLEIL Wine Tasting Kits and these AR Codes can be included on wine labels and wine displays in retail stores. They include a personal voice note from the winemakers, food pairing suggestions, videos and much more. They create an immediate personal connection with the winemaker and gives the information a wine lover needs, including info about the terroir. Every wine label should have one and every retailer should display AR Codes to help wine lovers select wines. Try out some AR Codes at: http://www.SOLEIL.club

    IZAK SMIT | 6 September 2022

    Agree 100% as that is exactly what the SA Wine Index is persuing. To highlight SA’s fine wines in regional context.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Like our content?

Show your support.