Tim James: Disentangling facts and figures about the SA wine industry

By , 18 July 2022

What are most South Africans drinking? The stats don’t lie…

When writing a few weeks back about some of the viticultural statistics recently offered to a grateful world by Sawis (well, I at least am grateful), I made the obvious point that such compilations are blandly neutral: we are often left to draw conclusions from the statistics and, occasionally, argue over them. Some statistics are more unexpected or surprising, or downright confusing, than others, however, especially when one doesn’t know the principles behind the way they are compiled.

The latest collection of general statistics available from the Sawis website, No. 46, “South African Wine Industry Statistics 2021” has two such puzzling bits of info included under the heading “Wine industry structure in 2021’. Firstly, it says that, separated from from the 114 wholesalers (that just buy in wines and resell them), there are “536 wine cellars which crush grapes”. It breaks that number down into 43 producer cellars (ie what were the co-ops), 22 producing wholesalers (that buy wines in bulk and also make their own – the Distell labels, etc), and 471 private wine cellars.

The strange thing is how those numbers have nearly all declined. Another table, showing where the different cellars are, gives figures going back to 2010. The “co-ops”, as has been easily observable, have gone down – from 54 in 2010 to the present 43. Private wine cellars have gone from 493 then to the 471 now. My puzzlement is, however, that this reduction doesn’t easily square with something that’s even more easily observable: that each year sees an increasing number of new labels, new producers.

I suspect that a small part of the answer lies in a smaller number of primarily grape growers that are no longer making any of their own wines, rather sending all of their grapes to the co-ops or producing wholesalers. But also there is clearly a distinction to be made between wine cellars and wine labels/producers. Many of the new small producers are sharing facilities (ie cellars) – at the likes of Zorgvliet, Gabrielskloof, Karibib Wine Craft, etc; there really are quite a number of these communal cellars. After all, this sort of co-operation, of sharing resources and energies, is one of the most pleasing features, I think, of the Cape wine revolution of the last decade or two – and even an enabling one. And, of course, many other newcomers are the own-labels of winemakers already attached to established cellars – where they make their own wines, not adding to the total.

So I hope I’ve solved that satisfactorily. On the subject, though, I do wish Sawis would give some statistics about the number of distinct labels/producers. It should be easy enough to do, and would be interesting.

The second structural statistic that puzzles is the “Number of primary grape producers” – that is, basically, grape-growers This has declined radically over the years. In 2010 there were 3667 of them; in 2021 just 2613. So more than 1000 grape growers, nearly a third, have gone in a decade. Can that sort of decline (which began long before 2010) all be attributed to mergers or to farmers giving up entire grape-growing farms? The decline in the size of the total vineyard (see my piece of a few weeks ago) makes it clear that some of the total (as opposed to partial) shift from grape-cropping would fit in with this picture. But such a huge and continuing drop?

One wine farmer had suggested to me that one cause of the reduced number was, in fact, more apparent than real – that for various reasons some properties had been listed under more than one ownership, and that it was sorting out such anomalies that was making for the big drop. So I asked Sawis about this, and got a response from Charles Whitehead, Manager of Information Services. He said that the biggest reason was in fact the obvious one: a farmer shifting from grapes to other crops. Next significant would be consolidation of farms under one registered owner and “tidying up some anomalies”. Also, as the number  includes all producers delivering grapes in a specific year, it would include “share-croppers” – I daresay that involves very small producers, whose impact is not great but whose numbers might be.

So, altogether, the number of primary grape growers is a statistic that is a bit less easy to deploy than it might at first seem.

I haven’t left myself much space for considering the wealth of other statistics in the Sawis presentation. Always worth considering, though, is what we South African are drinking. Per adult consumption of most categories of alcohol has not yet, in the 2021 figures, recovered from the Covid restrictions and consequent decline; including wine of course. Of interest to the wine industry, brandy has had a calamitous fall throughout the century (many of the other spirits going up meanwhile, especially gin). Total wine consumption locally (apart from the Covid dip) is looking pretty good, really. In 2000, says the Sawis Table 10.1, consumption was over 364 million litres. It’s gone up and down annually, but since 2014 it’s generally risen nicely. After a peak of 447 million in 2017, in pre-Covid 2019 it was nearly 408 million litres, then a dip, and in 2021 was back to just under 393 million litres.

What sort of wine are South Africans drinking? Readers of this website are not going to feel anything other than minority outsiders here. Total white wine consumption in 2020 was nearly 132 million litres. Of which 81 million was sweet or semi sweet. Total red consumption a little less than white; of which about 42 million litres was sweet or semi-sweet. Rosé is a smaller category – only a little more than 46 million litres in total – but 41 million of those were sweet or semi sweet.

So, not even considering sparkling and Cap Classique, let alone the still minuscule categories of low-alcohol and dealcoholised wine, we can see that an overwhelmingly large proportion of South Africans drink sweet or semi-sweet wines. Plastic and bag-in-box containers greatly outrank glass ones, so probably the largest part of that sweet stuff comes in boxes.

This website’s coverage is a bit out of touch with reality. Happily.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

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