It would be difficult, for even the most inattentive member of social media, to miss the tremendous enthusiasm for the latest South African assault on the UK wine trade.
It started with the Intrepid show organised by Wines of South Africa; the event, attended by 138 producers, drew many positive comments along lines similar to those written by Peter Dean, Drinks Editor of The Buyer, who commented: ‘South African winemaking right now seems to be like a sports team that is playing together with passion, energy and innovation, and is more than a sum of its parts.’ (NB Springboks!) ‘They’re also making some bloody good wine.
Chris Wilson, Dean’s colleague at The Buyer echoed such views: ‘.. the quality of wines on show was very high and there was real energy in the room.’ Wilson particularly singled out ‘off beat’ white varieties not usually associated with South Africa, but which he described as belters: Diemersdal Grüner Veltliner 2016, Spioenkop Riesling 2013, Eagles’ Nest Viognier 2015 and the new Age of Grace Viognier 2015 from Lismore.
Lesson one: we need to realise we can do, and very well, varieties other than the more commonly found sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and chardonnay. As Tim Atkin MW, who probably knows more about South African wines than many locals, mentioned in his Keynote Speech at this year’s Nederburg Auction: ‘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.’
We’ve moved on from random plantings; thoughts are today focused on a drier, warmer climate, what does or will grow best in my patch of soil or that of the wine grower I have an arrangement with and, probably most important, along with the above, what variety excites me. These are all pointers not only to diversification but more wines of distinction that will command better prices. Of course, there’s also a level which includes, what the market wants but that would be likely to focus more on the commercial end.
It might be pleasing to know we’re considered a country offering value for money in our wines but we should be receiving higher prices and our wines should still be considered as offering value.
Here’s how Will Lyons, wine correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, views the value issue: ‘I was recently asked which wine region offers the best bang for your buck. My questioner wasn’t talking about branded, commoditized wine …. But the fine-wine sector. I didn’t hesitate: the one country that consistently offers outstanding value is South Africa.’
Prices, especially in the restaurant trade, have been rising, somewhere about 9% if memory serves correctly, but somehow even that doesn’t correlate with the amount of enthusiasm shown for our wines and winemakers whenever a group hits, especially the UK. It wasn’t confined to the Intrepid show. A few days’ later, Roger and Sue Jones, who’ve become such good friends of and ambassadors for South Africa, hosted an equally enthusiastically-received event at their Michelin-star restaurant, The Harrow. Thereafter, many winemakers took to travelling the country with their importers; the up-beat mood continued.
In summary, we have quality, interesting wines offering sometimes ridiculous value and a group of wine producers making sure South Africa is getting embedded in journalists’ and wine buyers’ brains.
The problem is that this group represents but a tiny proportion of the number of producers out there; according to SAWIS (South African Wine Industry Statistics) around 566, comprising the former co-ops, producing wholesalers and private wine cellars. Among them you’ll find wines of similar quality and excitement that have enthralled the Brits and other Europeans recently.
So why isn’t this greater spread of our fine wines better appreciated. I go back to Tim Atkin’s observation about the conservatism of the wine industry. Are we too restrained, corporate in our approach, over-obsessed with awards and medals for instance, branding the wines but forgetting to include the people behind them.
It’s not just the quality, individuality of the wines that are the reasons for our growing success, these are backed by the enthusiasm and individuality of the winemakers, owners and all involved with each producer.
More could see our success expand much further.