By Patrick Schmitt
Achieving broad distribution for high-priced labels is a challenge for many wine-producing parts of the world beyond those classic regions which, for any serious drinker, would trip off the tongue. But for South Africa’s finest wineries, it’s particularly puzzling that the UK doesn’t carry more of the Cape’s critically acclaimed output. After all, South Africa is the leading long-haul destination for holidaying Brits, while the country is hardly a newcomer when it comes to fermenting grapes; it has a winemaking history that spans more than 350 years.
It’s also proved a first-rate home for Bordeaux blends, along with well-known popular international varieties such as Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. And it hasn’t just mimicked the styles found among the original European sources, or the newer homes emerging for such grapes elsewhere. Rather, the Cape brings its own stamp, which many deem a pleasing middle ground between the Old and New Worlds, meaning that there’s plenty of fruit, but also freshness.
So why isn’t South African wine better represented above £10 in UK retailers or, indeed, at higher prices in bars and restaurants? This was a question put to us earlier this year by Rollo Gabb, managing director of Journey’s End Wine Estate in South Africa and chairman of Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa (PIWOSA), which was formed in October 2012 to group together 15 producers to jointly promote South African wine over £10. To give Gabb the best response, we assembled a group of wine buyers and commentators who we knew would have plenty to say on this topic. Nevertheless, to prompt them, we also held a blind tasting of South African wines, intermingled with a few from Europe and Australia, before sitting them down to lunch courtesy of London’s Quo Vadis.
Initially, Tesco wine buyer for South Africa James Griswood expressed his confidence in the quality of wines from the Cape at higher price points. “My own perspective is that South Africa makes fantastic wine over £10,” he said, adding, “there are a lot of exciting wines that customers buying wine at that price would be more than happy with.” Head sommelier at Selfridges, Dawn Davies, was quick to agree with Griswood, commenting, “I have just increased our South African wine range by 50%, if not more, because I think it is one of the most exciting countries in the premium category at the moment.”
Similarly, Oddbins wine buyer Ana Sapungiu expressed her high regard for South African wine over £10, as well as the commercial opportunity. “We introduced a selection of more premium South African wines 18 months ago and it surprised me to find that all of them performed really well, and so there’s room to have more.” Meanwhile, at Berry Bros & Rudd, Martin Hudson MW, wine buyer for the historic UK wine merchant, recorded, “Due to the lack of success of below-par Bordeaux vintages and more challenging Burgundy harvests, the Berry Bros fine wine team has had to think about what else to sell, so we’ve just had a premium South African offer.” And the result? Hudson said, “It was at least as successful as our recent Italian offer”. Another panel member, wine writer Matt Walls, said he has observed a respect for South Africa among commentators. “Bloggers and the press are reasonably behind South Africa at higher price points, and PIWOSA has done a good job; now the real battle is changing the attitude of the UK consumer,” he said.
At this point, Griswood warned that not only were there few fine wine consumers in the UK, but those people who would seek out South Africa at premium prices are extremely rare. “Just 3.8% of wine volumes in UK retail are sold over £10, and the shoppers buying South Africa over £10 are very specific,” he said. At higher prices, he pointed out that most wine drinkers “gravitate towards Bordeaux or Burgundy”. Consequently, like Walls, he stated, “There is definitely work to be done as far as the average consumer is concerned to persuade them that South Africa can produce brilliant wines over £10.”
Marks of Distinction
But what approach should South Africa take to raise awareness of its premium labels? Davies suggested the country sell its finer wines according to their distinctive style. “Whenever I blind taste South Africa, I find it sits beautifully between the Old World and the New World, so maybe it’s about persuading people to step across to South Africa,” she said. However, she added that to do this, Cape producers will need to “convince the sommelier” because, in retail, “consumers buy labels”. Rebecca Palmer, associate director at Corney & Barrow, felt the same way: “Brands are built in the on-trade; the on-trade is the market for premium South Africa.”
As the main representative for the on- trade at the discussion, Henry Boyes, wine buyer at Mitchells & Butler, was asked for his view. “Wines from South Africa do incredibly well at the value end because they are very competitively priced, stylistically they are on cue, and they are packaged well. But if you ask a consumer what is premium South Africa, I don’t think they would actually know. That is both a challenge and an opportunity,” he said. At this point, wine writer Andrew Catchpole picked up on the possibilities presented by such a situation, stressing the favourable circumstances for the Cape resulting from Bordeaux’s poor recent en primeur campaigns, the strengthening of the Australian dollar, and the weakening of South Africa’s currency. “The opportunity presents itself now for premium South Africa – and that’s because of what’s happening to Bordeaux, and because of the currency in Australia, as well as the rand in South Africa.”
For Palmer, the Cape could also benefit from the shortage in the supply of fine wine from Burgundy: “There is no Burgundy, producers’ cellars are empty, and that’s the perfect excuse, but you need to give people a hook.” Continuing, she said, “People know what premium Argentina does, or what Burgundy or Bordeaux do, but I don’t think they know what South Africa does.” Walls concurred. “What is the USP of premium South Africa? I have trouble answering that question.” Hudson offered one solution. “South Africa should have a flag bearer, like Australia has Grange, or New Zealand has Cloudy Bay: a wine that is recognised around the world. But other than Vin de Constance, which is pretty recherché, there isn’t one from South Africa,” he said.
Griswood suggested South Africa’s extensive winemaking past would help convince drinkers of the Cape’s premium credentials. “When I do tastings with customers and I take them through the history of South African wine, they are always amazed,” he stated. Here, Boyes suggested the need to promote regional differences to sell South Africa wine over £10, and Hudson agreed, saying, “You need to take a regional route, otherwise it all becomes one amorphous mass”.
Although there was some concern that not all South African regions have developed a particular personality centred on any one variety, Griswood said this was not a barrier. “Take people on a journey – it’s exciting – rather than presenting a finished product. For example, the excitement of the Swartland revolution,” he said, referring to the move from bulk wine production to boutique blends from old vines. Walls agreed: “Swartland has a bit of a vibe about it, it is a bit of a brand, with a bit of personality”. Continuing, he said, “For too many consumers, South Africa is simply South Africa: regionality gives them something to be interested in.”
But Hudson stressed the importance of individual tales surrounding regions and the wines within them. “It’s about stories, not about saying that this is the greatest wine in the world, but this is the story.” Griswood added that while this was true, it would require the full force of South Africa’s articulate, characterful winemakers to be effective: “You have an opportunity as a group because you represent a lot of different regions, but you must use personalities to sell it, build the region around yourselves.” Sapungiu expressed the same view, commenting, “The producers should get across the message more about themselves, what their story is, what they do differently. There are plenty of great personalities in South Africa and this should reach the consumer.”
Summing up, Griswood stressed that the combination of a good story and a strong personality will be the route for South Africa’s premium wine success, particularly considering the complexity of the Cape’s vinous offering – something which the panelists believed should be celebrated, not sidelined.