Tim James: Do consumers inevitably trade up?
By Christian Eedes, 14 April 2015
It would probably be read as a confession if I say that, as a wine critic, I am neither a nationalist nor a patriot. My delight in the improving quality of Cape wine is partly a satisfaction in seeing advances anywhere, partly that this is a revolution I can enjoy close-up, partly that I now have to spend less money on imported stuff. An international economic system which means that better sales of Cape wines means better local profits and jobs but equivalently fewer jobs for workers elsewhere doesn’t thrill me. I want better wine and decent employment – everywhere.
I want more people to become attuned to the joys of lovely wine of the kind that I think is interesting, satisfying and delicious, rather than vapid. Arguably there’s arrogance and elitism in that position, but, equally arguably, wanting people to have the best stuff is the opposite of arrogant and elitist. I also want wineworkers to have decent and fulfilling jobs – in Chile and Spain too, not just here. I don’t care about anyone making big profits, especially out of cynical stuff.
An inevitable consequence of this is that I don’t identify personally with some called “the South African wine industry” as some of my esteemed journalistic colleagues do when they use “we” when referring to the local wine industry. This position played its part in my reading of a characteristically interesting and informative piece by Cassie du Plessis (former editor of WineLand) on wine.co.za about the recent growth in domestic wine consumption.
Cassie quotes a report on the Sawis website, titled Liquor Consumption Patterns in South Africa (July 2013 – June 2014) which states that “of note in the Super Premium sector (more than R30 a bottle) is the emergence of more and better Chenin Blanc wines and new white blends, as well as the growth of Sweet Red wine. We believe this trend is driven by new consumers and this aug[u]rs well for the wine industry”.
He adds that “the sugar levels have been raised in certain red wines of trendy brands like Tall Horse, Obikwa, The Saints, Fourth Street and Van Loveren (and its Four Cousins) to about 8 grams/litre to find more acceptance among new and younger consumers – resulting in plenty of action around the R30 price point.”
Now this is great news for Van Loveren and the big wine merchants who are already making a great deal of money out of the sort of wine that the vast majority of readers of this website would never drink, and that Christian Eedes has never deigned to review and his partnering wine merchant has never deigned to carry.
It is good news, if you like, for South African wine – for “us”. If those are your references.
Is it great news for wine (as maybe the growth in interest in Chenin Blanc wines and new white blends is)? The answer to that might be guided less by your patriotism than your belief in the “ladder” theory of cultural appreciation. This suggests that you begin by liking Enid Blyton as a child and inevitably end up excited by Thomas Mann and Proust. Etc. It’s quite convincing when it involves progress from childhood, but I’m not sure that most adults enjoying Enid Blyton will get much further than (or regress to?) Dan Brown.
Or that an adult addicted to Four Cousins Rosé or Van Loveren’s African Java Pinotage (apparently a recent beneficiary of the local sales boost – there’s no faulting this winery’s sense of the depths of the market) will be impelled to ascend a ladder and grow to be wild about Mount Abora Saffraan or Porseleinberg Syrah. More likely, at best, you’ll grow to a taste in sweet “serious” reds (witness the success of, for example, many grand and expensive Australian and Californian wines and a few locals.) I really hope I’m wrong in being doubtful about the likelihood – doubtful, that is, except in a tiny number of cases which wouldn’t anyway have required being offered the lowest rung of the ladder.
- Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes 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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