Grow or buy in?

Grape growers and the sustainability of their livelihood is currently a topic much discussed. Grape prices, especially for older, lower yielding vines, are just not keeping pace with the costs of keeping them alive, let alone in good shape. Sadly, there are many reports of such vines being uprooted either for higher yielders or other crops altogether.

Sad sight of old vines uprooted because the farmer could get better money from another crop. Photo credit Rosa Kruger
Sad sight of old vines uprooted because the farmer could get better money from another crop. Photo credit Rosa Kruger

Yet think of top producers such as Alheit, Sadie – Eben as well as David and Nadia – Mullineux, Peter-Allan Finlayson and many more: where do they source their grapes? If not all, then mostly from grape growers. For today’s young guns, owning vineyards is not only beyond their means, but not part of their journey. They prefer to find a vineyard in a propitious site, growing their variety of choice and negotiate with the farmer about looking after the vines and buying the crop.

This is so different from even 40 years ago, when there were few independent producers, the market and the vineyard, being dominated by Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery, Distillers and, of course, the majority co-operatives who provided them with grapes or wine. Producers such as Delheim, Simonsig, Kanonkop and Backsberg, to name a few, had to grow all the grapes they wanted to turn into wine (some of them also supplied the big boys) and to keep their customers happy, it was necessary to offer a wide palette of styles and varieties. I well remember the late Frans Malan, patriach of Simonsig, always being the first to try some new variety. This led to lengthy and unfocused wine ranges; today vineyard owners are more aware of the need to match variety to site.

Both owning and buying in have their pluses and minuses; who better to pass on his experience with both than Duncan Savage, who recently left Cape Point Vineyards after thirteen and a half years as this extremely successful producer’s winemaker. Since 2011, under his own Savage label, he’s already garnering similar success. The difference is that Cape Point Vineyards’ wines are from home-grown vines, established in an era when matching variety to site had become relevant, while Savage wines are bought in from various growers.

Two of Duncan Savage's own label wines
Two of Duncan Savage’s own label wines

Savage agrees with my above observation that with home grown fruit; ‘.. all too often the one stop shop approach is adopted with the whole spectrum of varieties planted,’ acknowledging on the other hand; ‘that one should be growing what’s best for the estate.’ But of more importance, he notes ‘At CPV we were able to build a brand by focusing on varieties suited to Noordhoek.’ If that has been a great help in leveraging CPV to its position today, consider little setbacks such as factors which limit yields. ‘In 2015 we were 30% down due to fires; a similar drop in yield in 2016 was due to extreme wind. If it’s a bad year for the area, there’s not much that can be done; look at hail in Burgundy for example.
None of this denies the benefits, as Savage sees them: ‘One can really get to know a place; through trial and error you get to know the subtleties of each block, the soils, just the smell and feel of the place. Having complete control of the farming process enables consistency of style and quality. For visitors there is also the invaluable experience of tasting the wines in the terroir they were grown in.’ As a lucky soul who has travelled, I can relate so well to that ultimate sentence. It gives one a whole new perspective on the wine.

‘Buying fruit is an adventure,’ Savage admits, recalling the many amazing places and incredible South Africans he’s come across over the past six years. ‘I have certain soils I like that are maritime or altitude and try to stick to these, but there’s also the possibility of finding parcels not even on my radar.’ As with so many other winemakers, Savage lauds the help of Rosa Kruger, a friend and erstwhile colleague at CPV, who he says; ‘Acts as a soundboard when buying fruit.’

The downsides to buying in fruit are pretty obvious: losing out to other producers or the vines being uprooted. ‘Farmers need to survive; we need to make it worth their while,’ Savage maintains. This was particularly true in a challenging year like 2016, when yields were ridiculously low and fruit was scarce.

The relationship with the farmer is of ultimate importance. Savage’s approach is to ‘..get involved in the farming if the relationship is right, but it’s also important to respect the person who understands the land better than the winemaker.’ Beyond that, just sitting down, chatting to the guy, having a drink; all help to build a relationship in Savage’s view.
Finally, looking into your crystal ball, Duncan, in future, will the trend be to buy in grapes or own vineyards?

‘Vines are becoming scarce, let’s hope this trend doesn’t continue. Owning vineyards means security and consistency in terms of style. That said, we never know what is going to happen politically. I can’t afford to buy a farm, thus have no choice. I love the adventure of travelling around the winelands, its epic! I think more people, if they don’t own, will be tying up blocks on a lease basis. Even if I did own, I would still buy from growers in different areas. The long and short is that the good old blocks are going to become scarce, producers will need to start investing in vineyards.’

Inspiration for this article originated from a piece in Decanter, which claims winemakers and merchants are often asked by consumers whether the grapes are estate-grown or bought in; purchased grapes apparently producing ‘almost a visible shudder in some tasters.’

Savage reckons, the question is of greater concern for the producer, most consumers have no idea.

I also tossed the question to some local wine merchants. Wine Cellar’s Roland Peens’s view is; ‘Customers are interested in the attitude and intention of the winemaker and of the quality in the bottle, not with who owns the grapes, whether the wine’s from an estate or not.’ For his colleague, James Pietersen, ‘The less knowledgeable are generally not too concerned where the wine comes from; they’d assume a label such as Fleur du Cap comes from a farm. They’d be interested rather than put off to learn the real story behind such labels.’

Both Caroline Rillema of Caroline’s Fine Wines and Mike Bampfield Duggan of Wine Concepts admit such a question from a customer is rare. ‘Our shoppers’ only concern is whether what is stated on the bottle is correct,’ Bampfield Duggan adds.

It’s all food for thought.

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One thought on “Grow or buy in?

  1. We are definitely entering a period where either wineries will have to pay way more realistic prices for grapes or lose lots more vineyards to more lucrative crops.

    For a long time wineries in Napa have paid about 100 times the cellar door price of the bottle wine produced, per ton of grapes.

    Locally it would mean that a lot of smaller producers selling their wines for R200+ per bottle would need to pay R20,000+ per ton of their favourite grapes! Some would have to pay a lot more!!

    That will keep the grape growers’ attention and keep the vineyards going. But as we all know, prices are miles below that ratio. No pay no play.

    Here is an interesting article re just how expensive the top Napa grapes have become on Jancis Robinson’s site (ignore absolute prices – they are crazy – just think about the ratios): http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/at-what-price-to-kalon

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