The significance of entry-level wine brands

By , 18 July 2023



The red wine section at Olifants rest camp, Kruger National Park.

What to drink on safari? I had this conundrum when embarking on a recent holiday to the lowveld with extended family and while I’m aware that many wine lovers go to great lengths to ensure that they have access to only the best when in the bush – either accepting onerous excess baggage costs or even transferring very good wine into foil pouches – I was inclined to take a more pragmatic view: We were to live off the land.

The majority of the vacation was spent in Kruger National Park – four nights and Mopani rest camp and three at Olifants – and I’m happy to report that the selection of wines available on site was broader than I had expected. That said, most of what was on offer was priced between R100 to R200 a bottle and was either “critter wine” or big-brand.

How then to make a selection? While prestigious labels as featured regularly on this website often steal the spotlight, it is essential to acknowledge the vital role played by wine brands at the bottom end of the market, these serving as a foundation for the entire wine industry.

At this point, it’s important to make a distinction between commodity wine and branded entry-level wine. All the wines were approachable in price but how to be confident about quality? Straight away, wines like Balance from Overhex, Meerkat from Welbedacht in Wellington, Serengeti from Swartland Winery and Rhino Tears from Paarl cellar Mount Vernon (no matter how worthy the latter’s cause of raising money for anti-poaching efforts might be) were rejected on the basis that I’m unaware of these wines ever receiving any meaningful critical endorsement. Even Ashton property Arabella, with its relatively good market visibility, was left on the shelf, again because I had no real fix on the basic merits of the wines.

The fear is always that the lower end of the wine market is a wasteland of mediocrity but there are operators at play here who’s commitment to quality is unwavering and well demonstrated. What did end up in the shopping trolly were wines from the likes of Du Toitskloof, Kleine Zalze, Nederburg, Painted Wolf, Zonnebloem and, dare I say, Tassenberg.

Du Toitskloof and Painted Wolf enter our category reports as sponsored by Prescient and often out-perform much more vaunted wines. In 2020, Kleine Zalze was both the top performing winery of the year in Platter’s and most successful producer at the Trophy Wine Show and while it would have been its top-end wines that earned it these accolades, a positive impression is created for the rest of the range and rightfully so. Nederburg and Zonnebloem, despite all of what was Distell’s mismanagement, still deliver intrinsically to a greater or lesser extent and inspire confidence while Tassies has been a gateway to wine discovery for too long not to be drunk with some fondness. In fact, it still completely overdelivers at its price of around R35 a bottle…

Of course, entry-level wine brands act as beacons, inviting neophytes into the world of wine but their importance extends beyond consumer enjoyment. As mentioned above, wines that are successfully differentiated from their competition and are therefore commercially viable serve as the load-bearing part of how the wine industry is structured. By stimulating demand and fostering a vibrant market, such wines contribute to the economic sustainability of the industry – as these brands flourish, the benefits ripple through the entire value chain from vineyard to cellar door and beyond.

A proviso to all of the above is that it is up to brand owners to communicate with consumers and this is not one of the South African industry’s greatest strengths. Conversely, it’s beholden on consumers to act shrewdly. Any decent safari involves gin and tonic as much as wine and while the holiday started out with the premium Tanqueray (R315 a bottle) and Bombay Sapphire (R349), we finished on the supposedly humbler Gordon’s Special London Dry Gin (R179). I struck me, however, that the Gordon’s was very fine, something only endorsed by the outcome of this year’s Trophy Spirits Show which saw it win the trophy for best in class.


20 comment(s)

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    Michael Fridjhon | 22 July 2023

    Hi Christian, I don’t think you’ve addressed Schalk’s observations with anything more than a little soft soap and baby oil. Are you saying that as the editor of South Africa’s closest thing to a consumer-oriented wine magazine you have no authoritative tasting experience of many of the country’s mid- to high-profile entry level brands? That if the producers don’t come and play ball at your competitions, you’re not motivated to go out and sample their wines – despite the fact that, by your own admission, they are very visible on shelf? That you don’t think it’s important to taste these wines (blind) whether by dipping into your own pocket or simply by soliciting samples from producers for this purpose? (In my experience they would all be very happy to send samples). The inescapable conclusion is that unless they pay a tasting “bribe” in the form of an entry fee they don’t exist in the eyes of WineMag. I know that after 29 years of ANC rule we’ve become inured to corruption but unless you can satisfactorily dispute this I’m left with no alternative but to conclude that WineMag has no integrity and that it’s editorial space is open to the highest bidder.

      Christian Eedes | 23 July 2023

      Hi Michael, I’d like to think’s tasting methodology is well-publicised but for the record here it is again:

      Day-to-day reviews as conducted by me are sighted and designated as “CE’s rating” while Prescient Reports involve a panel tasting blind (label out of sight).

      Wineries can submit to me for sighted review at no cost but also with no obligation on our part to publish or they can submit for blind review involving assessment against their peers by the panel as part of our category tastings – this involves an entry fee of R1250 per wine.

      Wineries that prefer to have their wines tasted sighted can either drop off samples or make an appointment to meet in person.

      Over and above this, we still purchase some wines at all levels of the market out of professional curiosity.

      If producers aren’t availing as a promotional platform that’s on them not us and I can assure you I have no lack of confidence in our integrity.

      Thomas | 23 July 2023

      I think this is a bit of an overreaction Michael. Remember, the context/premise of this article is that he was on holiday without access to the wines he usually buys, and the question that he set out to answer is how then to inform buying decisions. In this context, it’s perfectly rational to adopt an approach whereby you aim for brands that you know to have entered blind competitions before and thereby demonstrated quality. Of course it’s no guarantee to quality, and it does not imply that the remaining wines are not of good quality, but it’s nevertheless a useful, and I would argue rational, piece of information to rely on. I think that I would do the same, and maybe you would too. This is a piece about being on holiday and making choices about what to drink. Christian couldn’t buy every wine in the store and do an objective benchmark tasting of all entry-level brands there. I don’t think he set out to do this either, or pretended that that was his intention.

    Ira Basson | 19 July 2023

    This isn’t exactly the content that I expected when I read the title of this article. I would have appreciated a more adventurous approach, where the writer actually bought and explored the lesser-known wines in stead of just reaching for the usual suspects with their stickers and known basic merits. I bet you missed some excellent wines which would have done well with your endorsement on this platform.

    Donald Griffiths | 19 July 2023

    Really slumming it Christian! Du Toitskloof deserve their mention. I bought their 2017 Heritage Cabernet Sauvignon recently for way less than R100 per bottle and it over delivers on all fronts. There is plenty of value on offer between R100-200 – finding it is always the challenge.

    Hayden Reinders | 19 July 2023

    This was a great read. I actually also try and keep drinking wine for my braais and my guests, often bottles 4 and 5. I find if you take the time to age some of them, even to the 4 year mark, they open up fantastically in the bottle.

    Callum Smythe | 19 July 2023

    I recently bought the Meerkat red and white box wine simply on the basis of the discovery that it was Schalk’s wine (notwithstanding I am a Sharks supporter!). I am astonished at how much I have enjoyed both. Delivery way above price level. Mooi gespeel Meneer!

    Uwe Böbs | 18 July 2023

    Thanks for the humour and, pleasingly, the positive responses from some of our respected winemakers and personalities, Welbedacht, Durbanville Hills, etc.
    Just a thought, would it not be a nice idea to have a more formal wine rating of these wines with a quite simple proviso being a price limit (say R150) and less complicated than the Ultra Liquors sponsored Value Wines competition?
    Secondly, why is it that the better, at least the mid-tier ranges (possibly R200 – R300) are not being sold at the KNP shops? Are they not missing a point and marketing/sales gap here?

      Christian Eedes | 19 July 2023

      Hi Uwe, When Wine magazine was still in print back in the 2000s, it used to publish an annual booklet called the Best Value Wine Guide which was hugely successful. When we tried to launch a similar project aimed at finding the best wines costing between R60 to R120 a bottle in 2019, it failed to attract much support, the feedback from producers being that they didn’t want to draw attention to their offerings at such low prices.

    Schalk Burger | 18 July 2023

    Dear Christian, Seeing that you are supposed to be in a different territory than what you are used to being in, with wonderful animals, birds, sights and sounds, and taking it all in, one would expect that there could be some great sightings on the shelf as well and if not known to you, and not in a guide book, you could have tried some of the mentioned wines and as such written a thought provoking article about new finds, given that on opening this online site you are confronted by banner requesting you to pay a fee and then get reviews and ratings. Or is this a marketing article wherein you state that the industry is weak in communicating to the consumer and the industry must use these avenues?

    I must state that the article leads one to believe that if you have not entered one of the competitions that you mention, you are not going to be bought by yourself? That is not how I have come to know you.

    We are very pleased with the excellent sales of South Africa’s most Gregarious Wine, our Meerkat brand in SanParks stores as a brand. With regards to your point of critical endorsement and to make you aware our Meerkat range has won various best value awards, the awards that we value the most for the brand and furthermore the cherry on top is even an Absa Pinotage Top 10! According to all our Meerkat experts, of which there are many, as well as neophytes who are growing by the day, consumers, the Meerkat family ticks all the boxes in the times we are living in. Thanking you for the opportunity to have some wine debate as a producer, of which we have so little at present . We furthermore invite you to a Cape Safari with the family in our restaurant echt in Groenberg!

      Christian Eedes | 19 July 2023

      Dear Schalk, Thank you for your measured response and I’m glad to learn that the Meerkat brand is performing well – the current front-of-store promotion in the Kruger Park camps was certainly eye-catching even if it didn’t convince me to buy a bottle! More generally, I’m not suggesting that reviews and ratings are the only way to gain traction with consumers but I certainly would argue that given how overtraded the market is, some way of measuring quality standards is valuable.

    Tom Prior | 18 July 2023

    Industrial Liquor are a good place to stock up at for a Kruger trip. They distribute to the private lodges putting on an interesting wine experience and have a retail outlet in Hoedspruit. It’s one of those places where you’ll find epic wines on the shelf which you’d struggle to land back in the Cape.

    Daryl | 18 July 2023

    Chateau Libertas is always my first pick when having to shop supermarket shelves such as those in KNP. Eternally reliable.

    And of course, the Painted Wolf range typically punches way above its price point, especially The Den selection.

    Jenna | 18 July 2023

    Good read. Our Brand, along with consistency, is what sells our entry level range. Bearing in mind that we do have more ultra premium offerings, these offerings are however not what pays our salary. Making enjoyable wine that’s vastly available at an accessible price point is how we make money. What would be interesting though, is to see how wines in this price point with gold stickers compare sales wise (per unit) to more expensive wines with the same awards. I am a sucker for a wine priced under R150 with a prestigious award and would rather grab the entry level gold winner than the ultra premium bottle at R500 with the same sticker.

    Ed Beukes | 18 July 2023

    Thank you for including Du Toitskloof in your positive statement and emphasizing our commitment to quality. I assume the Shiraz made it in the basket 😉

    Dave Ingram | 18 July 2023

    Great to see you come down to earth and drink normal wines like us mere mortals who actually pay for our wines.

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