Heritage: Boon or Burden? (Tim Atkin MW)
Good morning, “goeie môre” everyone, and thank you for giving up part of your Saturday to be here at Nederburg. I’d also like to thank Distell, the Auction and its talented and hard-working team, particularly Dalene Steyn, for inviting me to Paarl. And I hope you appreciate com of sunshine and rain I’ve brought from England.
The subject I have chosen for this speech is heritage and its longer-term effects, both positive and negative. I’ll also touch on the role of tradition and, inevitably, this being South Africa, on history and politics. I will then go on to talk about the present state of the Cape wine industry and finally, peering into my soothsayer’s crystal ball, about the challenges and opportunities of the future.
Obviously, these are the views of an outsider – of a rooinek, if you prefer – but I like to think of myself as a Brit who knows your country reasonably well and has been visiting it, on an annual basis, since 1990. If my calculations are correct, this is my 30th visit to the Cape. As some of you may realise, I’m also married to a South African, so I’m almost one of you, except when it comes to rugby. Ladies and gentlemen, I know what it means to be “in the dog box”.
CONSIDER THE LOBSTER
I’d like to begin this morning by asking you to consider the lobster. I’ve pinched these words from the title of a wonderful essay by the late American writer, David Foster Wallace, but the context in which I want to use them is quite specific: how individuals and societies respond to stress and to change.
Now I have to admit that, while I quite like eating them, I knew very little about lobsters until I saw a video on You Tube recently featuring a wise rabbi called Dr Abraham Twerski. In the video, Twerski uses the way lobsters grow as a metaphor. As good crayfish consumers, you’ll be aware that a crustacea’s vital organs are protected by a hard shell or carapace. What you might not know is that this shell is inelastic and that in order to grow, a lobster needs to shed it at regular intervals. Lobsters can live to 100 years old, so at various points in their existence, they molt: a process known as ecdysis. Obviously, there is an element of risk involved here – the lobster’s shell is part of its defense mechanism, after all – but eventually a new shell replaces the old one.
The lobster, says Twerski, grows “because it feels uncomfortable” within its shell. “If lobsters had doctors,” he jokes, “they wouldn’t grow. They’d take a valium.” His conclusion – and this is what I’d like to use as a subtext this morning – is that if “we use adversity properly, we can grow though adversity”. Life is not a cakewalk, and nor is history. Dealing with change requires creativity, bravery, cool heads, collaboration, compromise, endurance and an ability to learn from the past, especially from past mistakes.
A HISTORY OF CHANGE
The history of what is now South Africa has been marked by change – sometimes violent change – from the establishment of the Cape colony in 1652 to the Great Trek and the Battle of Blood River, from the Zulu War to the Anglo-Boer War to the formation of the Union of South Africa, from the promulgation of the Native Land Act to the National Party’s victory, from Nelson Mandela’s release to the first democratic elections. Even today, in the middle of what Alec Russell of the Financial Times has called South Africa’s “second struggle” against corruption, internecine bickering and misrule, you are still living through profound and sometimes alarming changes.
Over the centuries, this country has shown a remarkable capacity to adapt to its altered circumstances and, with time, to subsume races, religions, tribes, interest groups and political points of view for a greater good. Many of you will recall the bloodshed and the bombs, as well as the dire predictions that preceded the 1994 elections. “We are heading for total destruction,” thundered Eugene Terreblanche of the AWB. Well, your weren’t. As Jan Boland Coetzee told me at the time: “Come back next year, Tim. The Boers will still be here.”
Last week, I attended a Three Wine Men tasting at South Africa House in London. To welcome our guests, I stood with my fellow two wine men, Oz Clarke and Olly Smith, in the imposing doorway of a building that I’d demonstrated outside as a student in the 1980s. Alongside us was Thobile Mazibuko, South Africa’s Trade Councilor in the UK, a passionate, dynamic, welcoming symbol of all the good things about this country. Never forget where South Africa has come from; never forget, for all its on-going imperfections, what it has achieved.
JAN VAN RIEBEECK’S “VERY FRAGRANT AND TASTY” WINE
When is he going to start talking about the South African wine industry, you’re probably wondering? And the answer is now. And I’d like to begin at the beginning with Jan van Riebeeck and one of the most famous diary entries in the history of New World wine. On the 2nd of February 1659, the first commander of the Cape colony, praised God that “wine was pressed for the first time”, commenting on the “very fragrant and tasty” liquid made with “mostly Muscadel and other white, round grapes”.
We have no idea what that first wine tasted like – the Dutch were brewers not winemakers, although they certainly knew a thing or two about the subject. “The wine carrying trade was central to the fortunes of the Dutch economy”, in the words of the historian Simon Schama, shipping Bordeaux to Germany, Rhine wine to Russia, Malaga to England, Burgundy to the Baltic as part of an “extensive commercial network connecting producers with consumers from Cyprus to Peru”. We also know that Van Riebeeck himself petitioned the Dutch East India Company for winemaking tips and equipment. You could regard him as South Africa’s first garagiste.
SOUTH AFRICA’S WINEMAKING HERITAGE
South Africa is enormously and rightly proud of its winemaking heritage, partly, I suspect, because it gives you bragging rights over the Australians. Governor Arthur Phillip, who was in charge of the First Fleet, picked up cuttings from the Cape on his way to establish the new penal colony in New South Wales in 1788. Even better, from a South African point of view, that first vineyard was a flop. Vines flourished more or less immediately in the Cape, but it took the Aussies much longer to get it right. It wasn’t until 1822 that the first wine was exported from Down Under. The Cape’s vineyards are less historic than those of South America, but they are way older than Australia’s.
Several of today’s best-known wine farms date back to the early days of the Cape colony, often created with the help of freehold land grants. I was visiting Tyrell Myburgh at Joostenberg earlier this year and saw a facsimile of an old map from the 1750s showing those very farms. Blaauwklippen, Groot and Klein Constantia, Meerlust, Rustenberg, Rust en Vrede, Saxenburg, Spier, Vergelegen and Zorgvliet all existed then and are still making excellent wines today.
It’s important not to overplay the Arcadian aspects of those times. This is not the place or time to dwell on the seizure of grazing lands that used by the Koikhoi, on diseases, such as smallpox, that whites inadvertently brought to the Cape, or the prostitution, the gambling and the fighting. The Cape colony was a fortress as well as trading and refueling station on the way to the East. As you know, Kirstenbosch Gardens in Cape Town still has the remnants of Van Riebeeck’s bitter-almond hedge, planted in 1660. Like bits of the Berlin Wall in Germany, it stands as a reminder of past defensiveness and a corral mentality.
With the arrival of Simon van der Stel in 1679, the fledgling wine business expanded from the confines of the Cape Peninsula to the areas around what are now Paarl and Stellenbosch. The immigration of French Huguenots in 1688 and their settlement of the Drakenstein Valley (today’s Franschhoek) also added impetus and possibly some expertise to the wine scene.
For all that, the quality of the early wines appears to have been pretty mixed – somewhere between a 75 and an 84 on today’s 100 point scale perhaps. In his excellent book, Wines of the New South Africa, the wine writer Tim James says that, following complaints from importers in Batavia and Holland, the Cape was requested to halt exports, thank you. What changed this image was the so-called “Governor’s wine” from Constantia, a forerunner of Vin de Constance. Holland and Batavia couldn’t get enough of that, just like Napoleon a century later. It was the Cape’s first icon wine. And that’s icon in one word, rather than two…
BOOM AND BUST IN THE 19TH CENTURIES
Under British rule from 1806, the Cape colony and its vineyards continued to expand, although quality remained uneven to say the list. The area under vine increased threefold between 1795 and 1825, much of it Semillon, which yielded well and was considered disease resistant. Wine was exported or sold to passing ships, but the burgeoning domestic market was more important. But then the Cape, not for the last time, entered a period of over-production and falling prices. The Brits abolished preferential tariffs in 1825, badly affecting exports to the Cape’s largest overseas market. Brexit, eat your heart out.
It was not a good time for the wine industry. As governor Richard Bourke, quoted by Tim James, put it at the time, using words that strum a resonant chord today: “The culture of the vine is not in the increase, the low price of wines in the last years having caused great discouragement.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as they say in France.
In fact, the mid 19th century was not a good time for the Cape full stop. Martin Meredith in his book, Diamonds, Gold and War: The Making of South Africa, says that in the 1860s it was afflicted by “drought, locusts, a slump in wine exports, a fall in the price of wool and a banking crisis”, as well as fear of invasion by the Zulus. The Cape and the Transvaal, he continues, were regarded as “among the most troublesome, expensive and unprofitable possessions of the British empire”.
What changed all this, of course, was the discovery of diamonds in West Griqualand in 1871 and gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886, two finds that were to transform the prospects of what we now know as South Africa and effectively trigger the Anglo-Boer War. The legacy of that three-year conflict – the mistrust and lack of empathy between Boers and Brits – is still apparent at times today. And the wine industry is not immune from its effects. The contrasting memberships of the English-speaking Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa (PIWOSA) and the Cape Vintner Classification (CVC) are a case in point.
PHYLLOXERA AND THE FIRST CO-OPS
The year that gold was discovered was memorable in the wine business for another, considerably less propitious reason. Oidium had arrived in the Cape in the 1850s (largely treated successfully with sulphur), but phylloxera was something else altogether. The aphid that had come to Europe on cuttings of native North America vines in 1863, and devastated the continent’s wine regions, was identified at a vineyard in Mowbray in 1886. The effects were predictably catastrophic, although the Cape benefited from the fact that Europe, 20 years ahead in its fight against phylloxera, had already discovered a solution to the problem: not leaving a toad under each vine to draw its poison as some suggested at the time, but grafting Vitis vinifera onto American rootstocks. Today, almost all South African vines are grafted in this way.
By 1905, three years after the end of the Anglo-Boer War, the wine industry was in a lamentable state, although, even in the wake of phylloxera, supply still exceeded demand. This is another, recurring theme in the history of Cape wine: the tendency to make wine first and worry about selling it second.
The industry’s low profitability led to another innovation: pooling resources to achieve economies of scale. Wine co-operatives, already a feature of the European wine scene since the mid-19th century, were established in the Cape. The first was in Tulbagh in 1906, but far more significant was the creation of the Ko-operatieve Wijnbouwers Veriniging (KWV), whose stated aim was to “direct, control and regulate the sale and disposal by its members of their produce”.
WHAT GREW WHERE AND WHEN?
Before I move on to discuss the role of the KWV and the years of National Party rule, I’d like to pause to consider one aspect of the history of the Cape’s vineyards in greater detail, namely: which varieties were grown in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries?
The answer is that we don’t know precisely, although we can hazard an informed guess. Groendruif (green grape, or Semillon), Steen (Chenin Blanc) and Fransdruif (French grape, or Palomino) are all mentioned in contemporary documents, but ampelography didn’t exist as a serious science until the 1850s when it became an imperative in phylloxera-ravaged France. In South Africa, confusion abounded, made worse by the tendency to call the same grape by different names. Steen and Stein are only one example.
By the time we reach the early 20th century, things are considerably clearer. Sémillon was still the most planted grape, although not as dominant as it had been. And Chenin, Palomino and Muscat were still important. Cabernet Sauvignon and its parent, Sauvignon Blanc, featured on the list of varieties, as did Cinsault, known, confusingly, as Hermitage, after a French appellation that only grows Syrah. Syrah itself had also arrived in the Cape by then, making its debut at Groot Constantia in the 1890s. Pinotage was yet to be invented, of course, there was no Pinot Noir before the 1920s, and Chardonnay did not arrive until the 1980s, at first smuggled illegally from France and the United States.
As a brief historical parenthesis about Pinotage, you may not know that Professor Abraham Perold, the man who invented the grape, never got to taste a wine made from his creation. The plants, grown from four seeds in his own garden, were saved from oblivion by Dr Charles Niehaus, a young lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch, when Perold left to join the KWV in 1927. It wasn’t until 1941, the year of the latter’s death, that the first Pinotage was vinified at Elsenburg Agricultural College. By such small margins did the grape survive.
How do things look today? Well, Palomino and Semillon have experienced a precipitous decline, while other varieties have grown dramatically, too dramatically possibly. South Africa’s vineyards are dominated by a small handful of grapes: Chenin Blanc (18.2% of total plantings), Colombard (12%), Cabernet Sauvignon (11.3%), Syrah (10.5%), Sauvignon Blanc (9.4%), Pinotage (7.5%), Chardonnay (7.2%), and Merlot (6%). Between them, these eight varieties cover 82.1% of the area under vine. Of the other grapes that are grown in the Cape, only Muscat d’Alexandrie (1.9%), Semillon (1.2%), Viognier (0.9%), Ruby Cabernet (2.4%), Cinsault (1.9%), Pinot Noir (1.1%) and Cabernet France (0.9%) are statistically significant.
What else is there? Scan the list of varieties on the South African Wine Industry Information and Systems’ (SAWIS) website and you could be forgiven for thinking that the Cape is more diverse than it is. The Cape has plantings of most things, from Albariño to Verdelho, Alicante Bouschet to Zinfandel. But that cornucopia of cultivars is misleading because most of them are planted in miniscule quantities.
The small number of widely distributed grapes is a reflection of history, but it’s also an indictment of the conservatism of the wine industry. Varieties that already do well in South Africa, and have done for a long time, such as Semillon and Cinsault are under-represented, but so are the likes of Roussanne (0.06%), Marsanne (0.02%), Tempranillo, (0.1%) and Touriga Nacional (0.11%). And what about the high-quality European grapes that aren’t in production at all, such as Aglianico, Mencia, Falanghina and Scheurebe?
Things are improving – Albariño, Assyrtiko, Grüner Veltliner and Vermentino are all comparatively recent arrivals and there are more and more varietal wines made from grapes such as Cabernet Franc, Cinsault and Semillon – but South Africa can, and should, grow all of the world’s best grapes. It has the range of climates and soil types, as well as the legislative freedom to do so. Newton Johnson’s Albariño, Stark-Condé’s Petite Sirah, Lemberg’s Hárslevelü, Diemersdal’s Grüner Veltliner and Ayama’s Vermentino are a start, but I believe the Cape needs more wineries with a similar sense of adventure. As Frank Zappa once said: “A mind is like a parachute; it tends to work best when it’s open.”
1948-1994: PROSCRIPTION, QUOTAS AND THE SKUNK OF THE WORLD
A discussion of open and closed minds brings us to the next chapter of our story, the period between 1948 and the 1994. I’m not going to spend time talking about what I regard as the gross immorality of apartheid – and yes, I realise that racism didn’t begin in 1948 and wasn’t confined to National Party voters – other than to comment on the damage it did to South Africa’s image in the rest of world. Sanctions, demonstrations and sporting boycotts left the country isolated, belligerent and more than a little defensive, a situation that was made worse by the government’s near-totalitarian control of the media. TV was outlawed until 1976, although given the quality of what appears on the box these days, you could argue that the Nats weren’t so blinkered after all.
I think that isolation also damaged South Africa’s wine culture. Travel then was not as easy or as inexpensive as it is now. But at a time when, as Gyles Webb of Thelema once put it, South Africans were the “skunks of the world”, the Cape’s winemakers were less inclined to do harvests overseas, or even to track down and taste the great wines of Europe. It’s a truism that to make outstanding wine, you need to know what outstanding wine tastes like.
Too many Cape wines of that period – and obviously, there are exceptions, including Château Libertas, Kanonkop and Zonnebloem – displayed tell-tale evidence of what Australians call a “cellar palate”, where a certain, often slightly old-fashioned style becomes engrained and accepted. Winemakers told me at the time that their wines were “between the Old and the New Worlds” in style, but they weren’t. They were recognisably South African and that wasn’t always a good thing.
The quota system administered by the KWV, a body whose main administrative function, remember, was to keep farmers in business by purchasing excess stock, was obstructive, protectionist and small-minded, making it almost impossible to establish vineyards in new regions, such as the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley until 1986. Most of you will be familiar with the battle that Tim Hamilton Russell fought to establish his brand in Hermanus. With hindsight, was it not insane that such a pioneer and marketer should be investigated and prosecuted, just for planting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay?
In those days, it was also extremely difficult to get new plant material through quarantine – some vines were marooned for as long as 20 years – and the lack of good clones, especially of the Burgundian varieties, but also of Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc held the industry back. Concern about illegal imports of virus-affected material was understandable and yet plenty of otherwise well behaved winemakers were so frustrated that they broke the law.
Were there any positives about the KWV’s period of control? The answer is not many. One silver lining was the boom in plantings of Chenin Blanc, which I regard as the Cape’s outstanding white variety. From the 1950s onwards, the KWV encouraged growers to use Chenin almost everywhere, much of it for brandy production. That’s why Chenin pops all over the Cape, and also why, almost by default, it is reasonably well represented in terms of the old vineyards that have spearheaded its renaissance in the last decade. The clones were not always the best, and not all of the regions in which it was planted were ideal, but for once the KWV came up with the right answer. Colombard, on the other hand, also planted for distillation, largely proved the opposite.
POST-1994: THE VINOUS REVOLUTION
I’ve spoken a lot about the past today, about the heritage of the Cape wine industry. And yet, in some respects, that wine industry is a recent creation reflecting the broader social, economic and political changes that have occurred since 1994. Tales of Jan van Riebeeck, the Dutch East India Company and the Lords Seventeen are all very well, but they detract attention from a more important story: what’s happening right now and how exciting it is.
For the past four years, as part of my annual South Africa Special Report, I’ve done an updated classification of the best Cape wineries, dividing them, along the lines of Bordeaux’s famous 1855 Classification into First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Growths and a large group of Crus Bourgeois. (It’s up on my website, www.timatkin.com, as a free download if you’re interested.) And I’m delighted to say that it’s promoted debate and even upset a few people.
The interesting thing about my 15 so-called First Growths is that all but three of them started making wine after 1994. Alheit, Boekenhoutskloof, Cape Point, David & Nadia, Keermont, Mullineux & Leeu, Newton Johnson, Paul Cluver, Porseleinberg, Rall, Reyneke and Sadie Family were all founded in the post-apartheid era, and Delaire Graff is unrecognisable from the old Delaire property. Truly, the speed and depth of change have been remarkable.
What explains the rapid improvement in the quality of your wines? Some of the older bottles under the hammer today are obvious exceptions, but barely a decade ago South Africa frequently didn’t stack up against the international competition. Too many of its reds were virus-affected, showing that bipolar, under-ripe/over-ripe character and the tell tale whiff of burnt rubber. The whites were better, but with very few exceptions (Hamilton Russell Chardonnay, Ken Forrester’s FMC Chenin perhaps) they weren’t world-beaters. And yet here we are in 2016 with a vinous revolution to savour.
Improved viticulture has been a key factor in South Africa’s renaissance, especially the use of superior clonal material, techniques to combat leaf roll virus, the scourge of the Cape, and better and bolder site selection. There’s a recognition among leading producers that good vineyards really are essential to make fine wine and that certain varieties are particularly well suited to certain areas: Chardonnay in Elgin, the Hemel-en-Aarde, Ceres Plateau, Overberg and Robertson, Sauvignon Blanc in Constantia, Darling and Durbanville, Chenin Blanc in Stellenbosch, the Swartland and Citrusdal Mountain, Syrah in the Swartland, Stellenbosch and Tulbagh, Pinot Noir in Elgin and the Hemel-en-Aarde, Grenache in Piekenierskloof, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc in Stellenbosch.
The second crucial factor has been the emergence of gifted winemaking talent, partly helped by South Africa’s economic travails. It’s ironic that the weak Rand and the cheap price of grapes have created a low barrier to entry for new producers. With a few thousand Rand in your pocket, anyone can buy a ton of grapes, rent some cellar space and create a brand. Many of the best new wave producers – Duncan Savage, Donovan Rall, David & Nadia Sadie, Ginny Povall, Hannes Storm, Pieter Walser and Johan “Stompie” Meyer – don’t own vineyards.
The Cape is blessed with a golden generation of winemakers, many of them still in their twenties and thirties. The key figure in all this, and an inspiration for this group, has been Eben Sadie. And it’s a neat, but telling coincidence that Eben qualified from Elsenburg Agricultural College in Stellenbosch in 1994, the year of those first democratic elections.
Unlike the previous generation, brought up under apartheid and not always welcome overseas, this one has found it easier to travel, to look and to learn. They’ve tasted some of the best and have used that experience to make something that is uniquely South African. There’s also a palpable esprit de corps about them. The youngsters don’t have everything their own way, mind you, although they do tend to garner most of the headlines. Partly spurred on the competition from their younger peers, older winemakers (not much older in some cases and still younger than I) are achieving remarkable things, too.
Historically, the South African wine industry has always been entrepreneurial and “intrepid”, to use the title that WOSA chose for its recent London tasting. I think this is truer than ever today and it is reflected in the expanding boundaries of the winelands.
South Africa’s 98,597 hectares of grapes are famously spread out, extending from Lutzville on the West Coast to Plettenberg Bay at the end of the Garden Route and even to the Highlands of the Free State. It’s not quite Chile, but it’s still a long drive from one end to the other. The majority of those plantings may be concentrated in six major areas – Stellenbosch (16.4% of plantings), Paarl (15.9%), Robertson (14.47%), the Swartland (13.5%), Breedekloof (13.21%) and Olifants River (10.41%) – but the Cape is home to dozens of different regions and sub-regions.
Your climate is essentially Mediterranean, with some cooler pockets that are distinguished by altitude or proximity to the Atlantic or Indian Oceans, but there are still significant variations between these regions. You only have to compare, say, the sun-baked expanses of the Swartland with the cool, cloudy Elgin to appreciate that. Consumers are largely unaware of these differences, especially on overseas markets.
Since quota system was abandoned, it has been much easier to plant vineyards in new, previously unheralded or unplanted areas such as Cederberg, Elim, Elgin, Greyton, Malgaas, Montagu and the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, giving South Africa an even greater range of locations. A further source of complexity is the enormous variety of your soil types, which include shale, schist, iron, granite, sandstone and even a little limestone.
The picture is becoming more diverse by the vintage. It’s not just rediscovered areas such as Citrusdal Mountain and Piekenierskloof, both comparatively rich in old vineyards, but places like the Ceres Plateau, the Eastern Free State Highlands, Langeberg-Garcia, Oudtshoorn, Rawsonville and Slanghoek. Some of these regions are very recent, exciting creations and may well produce some of the great South African wines of the future.
In other respects, most notably transformation and Black Economic Empowerment, the pace of change has been considerably more pedestrian. The ownership structure of the South African wine industry has altered very little since 1994. Black winemakers are still rare, black winery owners rarer still. VinPro estimates that only 2.5% of South Africa’s vineyards are in black hands.
Everyone knows that these things take time. Skills and education are not acquired overnight. And there are two other mitigating factors in my view. First, the ANC government does not appear to regard the wine industry as a priority, possibly because it’s largely white-owned, but also because it’s located in the Western Cape, which is run by the Democratic Alliance. As a result, BEE has mostly been funded by producer levies.
The second factor concerns the general unprofitability of the wine industry. If I were a black entrepreneur, the idea of buying a wine farm, or creating a wine brand, with its low levels of return on investment and huge capital expenditure, might appeal to my ego, but not to my business acumen or bank balance.
And yet, there are signs of progress. I’ve seen various BEE schemes come and go over the years, some undermined by the dismal quality of their wines (many of them purchased from unscrupulous bulk wine suppliers), others by lack of funding or understanding of a complex industry. Even in businesses that were bankrolled by white producers, good will and philanthropy weren’t enough to help them survive without financial expertise or real involvement by the previously disadvantaged.
Now, things appear to be changing, with what Denise Stubbs of Thokozani Wines calls the move from “dependence to independence”. In the past, she says, too many BEE brands didn’t have a home and were regarded as “social projects” without a “real story”. Businesses like Bosman Adama, Companjiesdrift, Enaleni, Seven Sisters, Thokozani and Women in Wine seem to be on a stronger footing. Equally encouraging is the recent agreement between Solms-Delta, one of the best transformation brands, and the government’s National Empowerment Fund, which has enabled the farm’s workers to own 45% of the business. Maybe the ANC is changing its mind about the wine industry.
Social investment and training are also beginning to have an impact, whether it be through the Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) scheme, the Association for Responsible Alcohol Use (ARA), better education, housing, health care, sport and cultural activities or the mentor schemes run by the Pinotage Youth Development Academy (PYDA) or the Cape Winemakers’ Guild (CWG). And lastly, it’s also worth remembering how strong the Fairtrade movement is in South Africa. Of the 49 wine producer organisations worldwide, 28 of them are in the Cape. This represents 66% of all Fairtrade wine. But this is just a start. Transformation – true transformation – remains a work in progress.
WHERE’S THE VOLUME?
To invest in the industry and accelerate the transformation process, South Africa needs to sell more good wine at higher prices. The success of the young guns and self-styled Zoo Biscuits, a group that includes Alheit, Crystallum, Fram and Thorne & Daughters, has been enormously beneficial to the South African wine industry. And yet it’s worth remembering that most of the wines they make are small volume affairs that contribute disproportionately to the image of the country, but do less for its bottom line.
Cheap prices are very damaging to South Africa, which remains marooned close to the bottom of the list of the world’s exporters when it comes to profitability. Only Spain, a country that receives R6bn in annual subsidies from the EU and its government, has a lower per-litre price (at €1.09) than South Africa’s €1.3.
What should South Africa do about this? Building more large volume,
mid-market brands, as opposed to concentrating on bulk-shipped entry point supermarket own-labels, is certainly part of the solution. The Cape already has a number of these – Kanonkop Kadette, Rupert & Rothschild Classique, La Motte Sauvignon Blanc, Warwick First Lady, Durbanville Hills Sauvignon Blanc and Boekenhoutskloof’s Chocolate Block – all of which sell more than 750,000 bottles a year. But it needs more of them. It has the grapes, the expertise and the wine quality to create them. So why the delay?
South Africa also lacks what Australia, Argentina and Chile have in large companies like Penfolds, Catena and Conch y Toro: namely, ladder-brands that cover all the bases (or rungs), from commercial to world class wines. Coincidentally, the closest South Africa comes to this is probably Nederburg, where we are today, but Distell has yet to create a Grange, a Nicolás Catena Zapata or an Almaviva. Over to you, Razvan Macici.
Another area of concern, linked to the low price of Cape wines, is the threat to your old vines. These are a precious and dwindling resource that should be protected by the industry in my view. The work of Rosa Kruger, whose website www.iamold.co.za contains a list of all the vineyards in the Cape that are known to be over 35 years old, has focused global attention on South Africa’s heritage, so perhaps they will be in due course.
And yet two things are worth remembering her. First, South Africa’s plantings of old vines are comparatively small, partly because of virus. Yes, there are seven vineyards on Kruger’s list that were established before 1905, but overall there are only 3,538 hectares that count as “old”, and 1,376 hectares of those are sultanas. Also, thirty-five years old wouldn’t be regarded as ancient, or even middle-aged, in some parts of France, Spain and Italy. It’s just that in the Cape, many producers believe in renewing their vineyards after a quarter of a century.
The second thing is arguably more worrying. By definition, old vines tend to yield lower crops, especially in drought years like 2016. This is appealing to winemakers, but not necessarily to growers. If producers (and ultimately consumers) aren’t prepared to pay a premium for the fruit, then farmers won’t be able to afford to keep it in the ground. Charles Back of Fairview underlined this point to me recently: “The price ceiling and the cheap, bulk wine image of South Africa,” he said, “is preventing us from protecting our heritage.”
Or as Christa von la Chevallerie, who grows some of the best and most sought-after Chenin Blanc in the Swartland, puts it: “I need to charge R25,000 a ton for old vine fruit, or I will have to pull it out. Below that, I simply can’t make a living.” No wonder more and more growers are looking to make their own wines. For Willie de Waal of Scali “growing grapes and selling them just doesn’t make sense at the yields we get”. Something, as they say, has got to give.
I’m often asked what the solution is to this grave problem. Should the price of grapes just be left to the market, to the occasionally brutal laws of supply and demand? I think there’s an argument for intervention. It may smack of KWV-style protectionism, but why doesn’t the industry agree, at the very least, on a minimum price for old vine fruit? And, while we’re about it, how about regular discussions between representatives of the growers, producers and co-operatives to discuss a joint strategy to make South African wine profitable and respond to issues such as drought, climate change and pricing. Stop behaving as if you are competitors or adversaries and work together for a greater good. It is time for the farmers to make a plan, or “’n boer maak ’n plan”, as you say in Afrikaans.
PROFITABILITY: THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
I don’t want to go on about this too much, but lack of profitability in the wine industry is the large African elephant in this room. Everyone is familiar with the adage that “to make a small fortune out of wine, you need to start with a large one”, but the problem appears to be particularly acute in South Africa right now.
The figures really are alarming. According to VinPro, only 15% of the country’s wine producers are truly profitable. The low price of wine farms reflects this state of affairs. An established 80-hectare property in the Swartland (with 40 hectares of mostly Chenin Blanc and Pinotage and some access to water for irrigation) recently sold for R5.5m: the price of a modest one-bedroom London flat. No wonder farmers are turning to other crops when they can. Growing apples is currently around five times more profitable than growing grapes. It’s significant that the email address of Rita and Basie van Lill, two of the best grape growers in the Cape, is the tea-related firstname.lastname@example.org.
You make too much drinkable wine too cheaply for your own good. Roughly 60% of your exports are shipped in bulk rather than bottle, although some of the former makes its way into brands that broadly reflect well on the country. Everyone knows that this state of affairs cannot last. South Africa is competing with Spain, Italy and France in the bulk market (three countries that receive the equivalent of R5bn in export subsidies) and it’s a competition it cannot win, even with a weak Rand to help. With only 4.1% of the world’s production, you simply cannot play the volume game.
To reduce this oversupply you may have to pull out as much as 15% of South Africa’s vineyards – similar to the drastic measures that Australia took between 2011 and 2015 when it uprooted 35,000 hectares. The only danger here is that farmers may be tempted to do away with their lowest yielding blocks, which could include their oldest and (in quality terms) best vines. This is a process that needs to be managed carefully and may require subsidies to ease the transition.
Another, surely preferable answer is to increase the price of South African wine. There’s a handful of pretty expensive brands in the market – De Toren’s Book XVII and Red Lion, Delaire Graff’s Laurence Graff Reserve, 4G, Vilafonté Series C, Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage, The Jem, Mev Kirsten, Magna Carta and Dirty Little Secret – but even these aren’t outrageously pricey compared with what you’d pay for top wines from California or Australia, let alone France or Italy.
Let’s be honest with ourselves here. You have an image problem. As May-Eliane de Lencquesaing, owner of Glenelly and the former proprietor of Château Pichon-Lalande in Pauillac, puts it: “The world still doesn’t recognise the quality of South Africa. In the world’s mind, the Cape doesn’t make great wine.”
Everyone who knows that this isn’t the case – wine writers, importers, retailers, sommeliers and consumers – has a duty to persuade the world otherwise, because the future health of South African wine depends upon it. And yet too many of you still suffer from what Australian call “cultural cringe” – the belief that if something is South African it can’t really be any good. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, you still don’t want to belong to a club – the fine wine club, if you like – that would have you as a member.
“Wine and politics don’t mix” was a line that was often used in pre-democratic South Africa, especially when it came to the issue of sanctions. It made no sense to me then and still doesn’t today. Like any agricultural product, wine is subject to the shifting political landscape, and not only in South Africa. That has always been so, as I hope this speech has demonstrated.
Your next general elections are still three years away, but the recent local elections strongly suggested that voters want change. For now, things don’t look good. The economy has flat lined, unemployment sits at 25% (and much higher than that in some parts of the country), the Rand remains weak and the government is mired in scandal.
What about the wine industry? Well, glancing at the latest bottled and bulk shipments from South Africa, it’s tempting to see another parallel with the export slumps of the past. With the exception of Canada, growth in the Cape’s major overseas markets appears to have stalled or worse. But those figures only tell part of the story. Not before time, South Africa is starting to sacrifice volume to increase the value of its wines overseas, something that is vital to its future. The UK market, for instance, is down 9% by volume, but up 2% by value.
The domestic market is also showing dramatic growth, partly thanks to the expansion of the black middle class. Wine sales in South Africa have increased by 54 million litres in the last two years. The majority of that is bag-in-box, but it’s a considerable boon to an industry that’s again in oversupply.
There are further grounds for vinous optimism. Amidst the political and economic gloom, the South African wine industry remains one of the most exciting and positive things about the country. It’s not just that wine contributes R36bn to your GDP and employs 290,000 South Africans (putting food on the table for three or four times that number). It’s also that it conveys an upbeat and positive image of the Cape and its beautiful wine lands.
I’ve never felt more positive about the quality of South African wine. The 2015 vintage is part of the reason why, but so are the improvements I’ve seen first hand in the vineyards and cellars of the Cape over the last 26 years. There has never been so much great South African wine available. And increasingly, these are wines with a true sense of terroir.
For the time being, these wines are dramatically under-priced. In fact, it’s hard to think of another country, anywhere in the world, that delivers such spectacular value for money. So, if you’re a buyer sitting in this room and preparing to wave a paddle, put some of these wines in your cellar or wine rack now. They will surely increase in price as South Africa is recognised globally for what, at its best, it already is: a source of remarkable and unique wines that combine a sense of heritage with a dynamic, vibrant present.
The even more exciting thing is that the best is still to come. In fact, to continue to improve at the same rate is your next challenge, a challenge that will inevitably entail disappointments as well as triumphs. But that’s all part of the process. As the Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett, once wrote: “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.” A degree of danger – a slight loss of control perhaps – is vital for growth and improvement. Just ask a lobster.