Tim James: What are South Africans drinking

By , 26 September 2023

“Go 4th.”

Having announced last week that South Africans were drinking more wine, I thought it might be a useful quest to find out what they were, in fact, drinking – while apprehensively aware that it isn’t what we, the refined and at least comparatively well-off sippers of Winemag, are drinking. Recently, Christian Eedes was somewhat nonplussed when confronted by the “entry-level” wines, “wine brands at the bottom end of the market” on offer at he Kruger National Park. I hate to have to tell him that, in national terms, “wines like Balance from Overhex, Meerkat from Welbedacht in Wellington, Serengeti from Swartland Winery and Rhino Tears from Paarl cellar Mount Vernon” are very far from the bottom end of the market. Nor at that overwhelmingly large lower end are “the likes of Du Toitskloof, Kleine Zalze, Nederburg”, etc, that made it into his doubtful shopping trolley.

For a start, they all seemed to be in glass bottles, and in the R100-R200 price range. Let’s see what that wonderful source of statistics, SA Wine Industry 2022 Statistics Nr 47 (mentioned last week as available here), has to say about that. As for packaging, Sawis looks in detail at still wines only, which is fair enough. Glass bottles (of various sizes, only two-thirds of them 750 ml) accounted for 36% of wine sold on the domestic market in 2022. Add in plastic bottles and tetrapacks, and a tiny volume in cans and foil bags (huh? I thought those were long-since banned?), and you get to just over half. The rest of the wine sold was in bag-in-box – three quarters of them containing five litres.

The pricing statistics make it even clearer that the Kruger Park offerings are far from entry-level or lower-end. Most of them would be in the super premium or ultra premium categories, as per Sawis, the other categories being low price, basic, and premium. In 2018, “low price” meant less than R35 per litre; ultra premium meant more than R120.

I won’t go into all the actual price brackets the booklet itemises for 2022, and I’m doing some rough approximating in my arithmetic, but in that year more than three quarters of wine sold for under R50 per litre – that’s over 300 million litres of the stuff. Wines between R100 and R200, less than a tenth of that volume (28 million litres). There was just 7.5 million litres sold for over R200 (per litre, remember). Meaning that 36 million litres of wine costing more than R100 was sold in 2022, out of a total of 414 million litres.

There, doesn’t that make you feel smugly in the elite? A tiny elite, too.

So what sort of wine are the other half – I mean the other 90% – drinking?

Success for 4th STREET in the Daily Sun Readers Choice Awards.

Here’s something that’s not in itself a complete answer, but is a voice from that “other 90%” that gives some account of wine-life there, one that must surely come as a surprise to the large majority of even South African readers of this website. Monday morning, I was flicking through the online headlines of News 24 and saw a “sponsored” item – that is, an advertisement – announcing that “4th STREET Wines wins big at Daily Sun Reader Choice Awards 2023”.

I was intrigued less by 4th STREET being a Platinum Winner than by the existence of the Awards themselves. The Daily Sun tabloid, I was to learn as I tried to find out more about the Awards, claims to be the largest circulation daily newspaper in the country, based, of course, in Gauteng. It makes a whole lot of consumer product awards each year, including awards for sparkling, bottled, and boxed wines. I didn’t notice mention anywhere of the voting process, incidentally. This year, for sparkling, awards went to JC Le Roux (Platinum), Robertson (Gold), Moët (Silver; yeah, I was also a touch surprised, not to mention depressed, by this). Wine in bottles, in the same award order: Robertson, Four Cousins, Nederburg. Wine in boxes: 4th STREET, Robertson, Drostdy Hof.

Also interesting was the texr in the advertisement for the boxed-wine winner, which devoted most of its energy to talking about the second promise contained in the statement about how their “exciting range of Sweet Red, Sweet White, Sweet Rosé and Sweet Late Harvest boxed wines can be enjoyed on their own or in signature cocktails”. Included were two “specially curated” cocktail recipes”. One of them, the Ice Queen, includes apple vodka, coconut milk, cranberry juice, vanilla syrup and ice. Plus a lot of Sweet Late Harvest. Not really suited to a low-calorie diet, perhaps, however delicious.

To return to the much drier statistics accompanying the popularity of 4th STREET, the country’s biggest brand and helping, along with its competitors, to increase wine consumption in South Africa. Sawis gives consumption figures for the most popular varietal wines as well as the generic types (Dry white, Natural sweet red, etc). Aside to my main focus here, I would like to interestedly note that, although sauvignon blanc vineyard plantings are less than two-thirds those of chenin, much more than twice as much sauvignon is sold under a varietal label than chenin – that’s by far the biggest anomaly in the list, and surely signifies that sauvignon, more than any other variety, has become something of a brand in itself..

Anyway, All the dry and possibly off-dry white wines sold here in 2022 total some 53 million litres. That a bit less than the 54 millon of semi-sweet white, while natural sweet white is 48 million litres. So, nearly two-thirds of the white wines sold is sweet or sweetish. It’s a bit different for reds. About two-thirds of red wines sold are dry; the remainder sweet or semi-sweet. But residual sugar wins overwhelmingly for rosé, where less than 10% is dry (of a total of 54 million litres. Perlé is the only other really significant category – 45 million litres; I would guess that little of that is dry. Probably quite a chunk of sparkling wines is sweetish too (as opposed to Cap Classique which is likely to be majority dry).

So, there we are. That’s what our beloved and glorious wine industry is producing, at our behest. You can ignore the fact and carry on thinking the’ Cape winelands are all about old vine chenin and whether Pokadraai Hills makes better syrah than the Swartland; or you can celebrate it for what it is. Or perhaps do the latter but try to believe in the hopeful myth of a ladder and feel confident that more than a minute fraction of the consumers of Sweet Late Harvest are going to pretty soon be clambering their way out of a sickeningly sweet cocktail in the direction we serenely believe to be upwards. Personally, I have my doubts. But let’s see what happens to those categories in the years to come.

  • 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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