Tim James: The clarities and obscurities of wine statistics

By , 12 July 2021

Opstal, Breedekloof.

Do you already know how easily one can get seduced and led from one’s true purpose by a compilation of statistics? It looks like a limpid pool of understanding and so it is – at first. Jump in for a refreshing dip, splash out to a new part and there’s an undertow, and rocks both slippery and sharp, and strange questions nibble worryingly at your toes.

The release of the annual compendium of Wine Industry Statistics from Sawis (SA Wine Industry Information and Systems) is a midwinter thing. Number 45, essentially covering information to the end of 2020, has been available from their website for a month or so now, in both English and Afrikaans – but mostly in numbers and diagrams. As something of a statistics junkie (though an arithmetically challenged one – I have to work out each year how to calculate percentages), I find it a fascinating wallow. But, as usual in recent years, I’m first transfixed by the overall picture of South Africa’s wine production, which I find fundamentally disturbing.

It’s not the continued steady decline in the hectarage of wine grapes in the Cape that worries me in itself (as I suggested some months ago, looking at aspects of the topic, it could well be a positive thing to give the industry a smaller but higher quality profile – if that’s what is happening – while also producing more nuts, lemons, wheat, etc instead of winegrapes that no one really wants). The problem is precisely that the profile of actual production is getting larger. That is, fewer hectares (with ageing vines) are producing more wine, year after year.

The current statistics booklet mostly compares recent years, but consulting with previous sets of stats one can see a rather longer-term development. Let’s consider the past ten years for hectarage and production. Total area of winegrapes in 2010 was 101 016 hectares. This fell to 92 005 ha in 2020. The same decade saw a rise in the harvest (including for distillation, brandy and grape juice) of 118 million litres (to 898 million). That is, a vineyard reduced in size by 9% produced a crop almost 9% larger (despite the lingering effects of drought).

This substantial increase in yield per hectare is arguably a triumph for VinPro’s viticulturists and the agrochemical industry but is more than unlikely to be a triumph in terms of wine quality or the fundamental condition of the vineyards.  Incidentally, the only two areas which have increased their hectarage over the past decade are the already high-yielding Breedekloof and Worcester (although Stellenbosch, Paarl and Robertson have lifted plantings over the past year or so). However, the area probably most associated with lesser-quality bulk production, the Northern Cape, has reduced its hectarage of wine grapes by over 30% since 2010, more than any other region – and I defy anyone to prove that that is likely to be a bad thing for the overall quality of South African wine. But where are all the new grapes coming from?

As to the consumption of all that production, the Sawis booklet has a wealth of information in which one can happily get lost, sometimes scratching one’s head in wonderment – because of course statistics are one thing, understanding the reasons behind them are quite another, and sometimes they’re pretty opaque. For example, sweet and semi-sweet wines are the big sellers in South Africa (think 4th Street, Four Cousins et al), and on the whole their sales stood up remarkably well during 2020, given the overall decline in local alcohol consumption because of pandemic-induced bans on its sale for many months of the year. This is according to the fascinating Table 7.2.2 – “Wine sold per cultivar/type”.

The sweeter styles nearly all did better than the dryer styles, as categories. Natural Sweet reds and whites sales were at over 95% compared to 2019. But semi-sweet white was at about 75%, while semi-sweet red had more than doubled sales at 205%. Huh? Why this sudden boost in demand for semi-sweet red? Was it a price thing perhaps? This massive rise seems to have been at the cost of, especially, the sweet rosés. And the massive perlé market (57 million litres sold in 2019 – about the same as ALL dry white wines together) slumped worst of all, at under 65% of the previous year’s sales.

Sparkling wine altogether did rather worse than most categories – not too much to celebrate in 2020, it seems. But here’s a quirk that I dearly hope some knowledgeable reader can explain to me. Red Cap Classique is not a category I am aware of more than theoretically. Platter’s lists only two tiny producers of the stuff (as opposed to red non-MCC sparkling, which does better). The Sawis guide says that a grand total of 193 litres of red MCC was sold in 2018. This leapt, from its low base, to 4 049 litres in 2019. But in the year of Covid, sales were 27 893 – a year-on-year increase of nearly 700%, by far, far the winning category in 2020, making the proportional increase in semi-sweet red seem tiny by comparison (though not the total volumes, of course).

But did I really want to know this thing that now seems vital? Having checked the latest info on my semi-obsession, I was just idly scrolling down, resting here and there with interest and pleasure (“Vine types”; “Particulars of packaged wine sold on the domestic market”; “Bulk wine exports per country”…). And I end up wondering about the irrelevancy (in the grander scheme of things) of red Cap Classique? Who is making it all? And clearly marketing it so brilliantly that so many are suddenly buying the stuff? Googling doesn’t help me one bit. Could Sawis possibly be wrong? Perish the thought.

  • 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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