by Tod Stewart
So, I was sitting at a bar in downtown Toronto slurping glasses of Chenin Blanc with the Cape Crusaders. No, that’s not a typo; I meant to say “cape” and not “caped.” Though these guys are superheroes in a way, they were wearing jeans rather than spandex (as was I, so let’s get that cleared up right away). Their mission isn’t ridding the world of crime but rather ridding it of ignorance, precon-ception and overt cluelessness. All in the name of South African wine. Gesondheid to that!
The Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa — PIWOSA for short (which is not quite as sexy as, say, UNCLE or SPECTRE maybe, but certainly acceptable as far as acronyms go) — is a 10-winery league of merry (as far as I could tell) men (and woman) that came together via a shared vision.
“As a united force we aim, over time, to open up the World to premium South African wine consumption and to bring the spotlight very much onto the flourishing premium facet of the South African category” reads the group’s website. But surely the world — at least the wine world — already knows about the fabulous wines South Africa makes, ones that sell at equally fabulous prices, no? Well, maybe not.
“South Africa remains a largely unknown winemaking country in Canada. It is geographically very far away so, quite fairly, many people have not visited and therefore, their frame of reference is limited,” suggested Laurel Keenan, Market Manager, Wines of South Africa, Canada and the U.S. “That, in and of itself, can be a big obstacle. The second is the amount of shelf space we are generally afforded in retail stores, which is quite small and sometimes hard to locate. For a long time, the selection was also not reflective of the best wines being produced [in South Africa], but that is slowly changing.”
What that translates to, as far as South African winemakers are concerned, is frustration. This frustration, combined with an equal portion of necessity, is what PIWOSA was built on.
“It was a combination of a lot of years of frustration,” admitted Radford Dale’s Alex Dale, PIWOSA co-founder and director, when he joined me for some Chenin Blanc along with Paul Clüver of the eponymously named Elgin Valley-based Paul Clüver Wines, and Bruce Jack, from The Drift Farm in the Overberg Highlands. As Dale noted, “All of us [were] travelling around the planet — going to the shows, working with importers, doing our bit — and realizing that the reputation of South African wines, in many markets, is being driven by wines on the low end of the scale. This isn’t South Africa — especially not South Africa today.”
Keenan, when asked if there really is a misconception among Canadian consumers when it comes to South African wines, didn’t tiptoe.
“In a word, yes. The current brand lead in the category is under $10, so there may be a misconception that all South African wine is ‘cheap and cheerful,’” which is categorically not the case. South Africa’s real strength lies in the $15 to $25 price band, where it over- delivers and outperforms higher priced wines from other countries time and again in blind tastings. The challenge lies in first getting people to taste the wines and discover what has been going on in terms of quality growth over the last decade.”
People like Dale and the rest of the PIWOSA contingent realized that if this was to change, they would have to, in Dale’s words, “roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves.” With no government funding, member wineries were faced with little choice but to crack open their collective piggybanks and pool their resources. “Either we clubbed together to make a difference and make it happen by ourselves, or it wasn’t going to happen at all,” Dale emphasized.
One might wonder — okay, I wondered— how just 10 wineries, in a sea of about a thousand in South Africa, can hope to have any impact on the global market. Clüver was quick to point out that PIWOSA represents the “super-premium” tier of South African wines. In other words, the wines that fall into the price bracket noted by Keenan where the real “bang for the buck” starts to be realized. And while there are other South African winery associations in operation, none, in Clüver’s eyes, “are as committed to the process or as organized and active as we are.” That said, he is emphatic that PIWOSA member wineries aren’t the only ones producing fantastic wines at, what he says are, “ridiculously low prices.”
So, how does PIWOSA intend to wake up the collective Canadian palate to the quality and value of South Africa’s vinous treasures without bags of advertising and marketing dollars? The strategy is as simple as it is effective: education via ingestion. The only way to really get people to see the amazing quality-to-value ratio of top-quality South African wines is to get people to taste them.
“What we’ve done,” Clüver revealed, “in the UK, in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Dubai, is to invite top sommeliers from all over those geographical areas to blind taste a series of phenomenal international varietal wines, including our own, so they can get an unbiased picture of how South African wines stack up. More than stack up, in fact, beat out, some of the world’s best. It certainly knocks down preconceived ideas.” Clüver likened the exercise to a mini “Judgement of Paris.”
“Nobody took Californian wines seriously until that event,” he maintained, referencing when a California Chardonnay beat out the best from France.
I listen to this with a degree of incredulity. Are these guys telling me that the world’s “top sommeliers” are not familiar with the quality of — and even the existence of — the wines of South Africa?
“Are you guys telling me that the world’s top sommeliers are not familiar with the quality of — and even the existence of — the wines of South Africa?” I ask, incredulity dripping off the question.
“Definitely in the United States,” Clüver admitted, “where the words ‘South Africa’ and ‘wine’ sometimes seem incongruous. They have to make that leap of faith and accept that we make wine in Africa.”
“But that’s an American thing,” Dale interjected. “This is Canada. Canadians know we have trees and schools …”
“Escalators, even,” Jack, the quieter of the trio, dryly informed me.
Possibly even winemakers, methinks. The real problem, as I see it, is trying to work from the bottom up. If you get into the market at the high end, it’s fairly easy to work down (look, in no disparaging way, at what Robert Mondavi did — reportedly personally disfavourably — with the Woodbridge brand). But it’s not so easy going the other way.
“The South African entry into the major market, after 1994, was never from the premium end. It was always volume, always commodity, always the lowest common denominator. So, our collective mission — our task — is to eliminate old preconceptions and raise the bar. A lot of sommeliers are very Eurocentric with their wine lists and perceive South African wines in a way that is completely inaccurate. We want — and need — to change this, and the impact we can have as a collective is exponential to what we could do alone,” Clüver goes on to say.
EXPONENTIAL VALUE, MORE OR LESS, IS THE THEME that drives PIWOSA’s main message, which is: put head-to-head, and judged dollar-for-dollar, premium South African wines will consistently offer a better return on in-vestment than those from any other country. Personally, I tend to agree. What I find remarkable about the wines of South Africa is their ability to straddle the delicate line between Old World “funk” and New World fruit. As well, I find South African wines to be increasingly elegant.
“Sure, there are a number of South African producers that are turned on by status and that are still producing the over-extracted, showy wines that typically command high scores,” Dale admitted, adding “but that’s yesterday’s news. If you look at the guys who are really driving fine wines in South Africa today, these are people who are all about the wine, not the status.”
“I also think that what you’re seeing more and more of in South Africa is regional focus,” Jack revealed. “The question we are bombarded with is, especially in Asia, ‘What’s South Africa stand for? Should it be Pinotage?’ We hear this because if you think of, say, New Zealand, it’s Sauvignon Blanc. In Argentina, it’s Malbec. In Australia, it’s Shiraz. My retort to this is, ‘What
do you associate France with?’ The answer depends entirely on the region, and this is what’s happening in South Africa. Elgin, for example, is becoming better known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. For Swart-land, it’s southern Rhône blends.”
Keenan, for one, agrees with Jack’s read on how certain countries have, in a sense, embraced a “national grape,” and understands how the diversity of South Africa’s wines can be a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one side, it gives wine lovers an amazing selection. On the other side, well, I’ll let Keenan explain.
“I think, from a consumer point of view, South Africa can be difficult to place. Certain regions of the world have very comfortably hung their proverbial hats on a single grape. It doesn’t mean that is all they produce, but it allows the consumer an entry point where they can become familiar with something that region does very well. South Africa’s inherent variety and diversity, which is a core strength, makes for a difficult message.” Which is not at all unlike the winemaking situation right here in Canada.
Obviously, PIWOSA members — and the South African wine industry, in general — face a number of challenges. The consumer ones have been spelled out pretty clearly by Clüver, Dale, Jack and Keenan, but there are also others. PIWOSA members are obviously clearly aware that South Africa’s apartheid past is baggage they will have to carry with them, no matter where they go. (The group’s ethics policies are broad and rigourous. “We have to be squeaky clean,” Dale emphasized.) There’s also the drought disaster that’s hit the Western Cape, which is currently the worst water shortage the area has seen in more than 100 years. Both realities have required skillful management of natural and human resources; but more effective use of both has translated into better businesses and better wines.
“The human species — homo sapiens— originated in South Africa,” informed Jack as he brought our conversation to a close. “In fact, where we started thinking cognitively, it was exactly where we grow grapes. So, from my perspective, I’d like to say to Canadian wine aficionados that if soil is important — if terroir is important— then South African wines are the only ones that really taste like home.” ×
Published in Quench Mag – October 2017