First come, first served?

Having a problem buying wine? Walk into a wine retailer, supermarket or other liquor store and you’ll be faced with shelves of bottles, boxes and cans, so, where’s the problem? Remember the alcohol ban in 2020 and consequent unsold millions of litres; surely there can’t be a shortage.

Of those various containers lining the shelves above, there is no general shortage but when it comes to limited production wines and, especially those from a single vineyard, the situation can be very different.

Chasing popular wines is nothing new. Remember when Thelema released their sauvignon blanc on 1st July (I think it was) every year; a month or six weeks later it was all sold. Knowing the release date of course kept everyone on their toes; fewer producers have as regular a release date these days, Kanonkop Paul Sauer being an exception (1st July) with much the same result as Thelema.

Since the law was changed to allow for single vineyard wines, they have become trendy and more have come onto the market; by their nature the wines are limited, originating as they do from that one block only. Given the vagaries of nature, from drought and heat at one end of the scale to untimely rain and rot at the other, yields can vary widely in quantity and quality. Limited production is often the cautious approach taken by winemakers branching out on their own and untested in the market, if for no reason other than lack of finance. Have your maiden vintage highly rated and widely spoken about and that limited production is likely soon snapped up.

While we’re not yet in the same situation as many high-profile Californian wineries, where there’s a waiting list to get onto the mailing list and a few, precious bottles often at astronomic prices, we are already experiencing a system of allocation. Allocation can be a tricky business, no one wants to alienate customers but how to keep everyone happy? Different approaches are taken as to who receives what/how much of their wine. As the scramble for high quality, limited wines grows, the issue is going to become more pertinent.

My instinct is to honour loyalty first; those who’ve followed a winery and bought their wine regularly from the start deserve to reap the benefits of their constancy. The same with retailers who themselves receive allocations; honour customers who give you their custom beyond these scarce gems. In a less than generous vintage that can mean receiving fewer bottles than usual, a solution I don’t think anyone should complain about (that happened with Duncan Savage’s fabulous Girl Next Door Syrah last year). Rather retain loyal customers than spread the wine further afield with no guarantee of a follow up sale the next year.

Ryan Mostert’s latest release is long-awaited Terracura Trinity Syrah 2017

My personal allocation experiences recently include the long-awaited release of Ryan Mostert’s Terracura Trinity Syrah 2017, a wine I first encountered and loved at Tim Atkin’s top rated wines on his 2019 South Africa Report. With just 360 bottles produced of this single vineyard wine, equitable distribution was going to be difficult to say the least. The offer that came through this week was for a case of 12 bottles, six each of the regular Syrah 2017 (a very smart wine itself) and six Trinity. Normally, these days I buy a maximum of three bottles, (mainly as there are so many great wines I’d like to buy!) but I wasn’t going to miss out on Trinity. Luckily I found someone to share the case with me.

Sam Lambson’s Stars in the Dark 2020 & Experimental Semillon ex Elgin

Thanks to being on his mailing list, I was also offered and bought the latest vintage of Sam Lambson’s Stars in the Dark Syrah, which hit the headlines when Neal Martin, highly-respected taster, waxed lyrical about the 2019. Sam’s production is tiny, so I guess the new 2020 won’t be available long. I don’t know whether joining this mailing list requires anything more than signing up; my point is, it records an interest and, once wines have been purchased should help when the fan queue grows.

Sadie Family Wines Mev Kirsten one of Ouwingerds range

The (Eben) Sadie’s approach has been refined over the years, as demand for the wines, especially Ouwingerds range, has increased. These are all single vineyard wines, many dryland old vines growing in isolated places with low rainfall; the recent drought even forced Eben to drop all the grapes from ‘T Voetpad in order to save the vines. Skurfberg yielded 30% of its usual Chenin crop in 2019. Sharing the wines fairly has to be a nightmare and that’s just among importers and those, including retailers, on the closed mailing list. Covid prevented the usual pre-sales tasting last year, it was left to getting in one’s order pronto on the designated morning at 8am sharp (no earlier).  This method was not without stress in the Sadie office, so this year, what one purchased last year became your allocation for this year. There are a small group who buy a case of each wine every year, but I’m sure there are others like me who buy one or two cases based on which wines have particular appeal each vintage. I’ve yet to hear reaction to this revision from others whose buying approach has been like mine.

While first come, first served is possible for many and many good wines, keen wine lovers are going to have to listen closely to the grapevine and act quickly to secure the growing number of fabulous, tiny quantity gems.

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