The current climate in the South African wine industry reminds me of one particular jewel of a saying uttered by the famous American base-ball coach who had a habit of fluffing his intended opinions.
-When asked if he still frequented a certain Italian restaurant in Brooklyn, Yogi answered: “Are you crazy? Ever since that joint got so popular nobody goes there anymore.”
In the story of South African wine, the busy joint is the Sauvignon Blanc category. Local consumers love the stuff, and for some years now it has been the country’s largest-selling single white variety. On the export markets, 19,6m litres of the country’s Sauvignon Blanc is exported in packaged form a year – outclassing Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay in terms of non-bulk offering.
Yet, despite the local appeal among a broad consumer base, its brisk shift in the export markets, the vast improvement in wine quality and the growing demand for the variety internationally, the Sauvignon Blanc sector is largely overlooked by both industry promotional bodes as well as self-imposed influencers and critics generally. Because like Yogi Berra supposes, it’s not deemed cool to go to places seen as popular and frequented by people giving it – horror-of-horrors – a common appeal.
Sauvignon Blanc is, thus, not trending.
In this grape’s world, there are no 87 year-old vines yielding 1,2 tons per hectare of some forgotten Mediterranean cultivar aged in antique vats sold with a cow skeleton or rusty windmill on the label. Sauvignon Blanc is about making clean wines for people who drink wine instead of talking about it or opine on the opinions of others. It is made in volumes large enough to be economically viable, sold at decent prices and thereby playing a major role in sustaining wineland communities on a socio-economic level.
With Sauvignon Blanc constituting 20% of South Africa’s white grape vineyard and commanding reasonable prices due to the fact that this is the wine millions of people like to drink – instead of drinking what the trend tells them to – the future performance of the local wine industry is going to be largely influenced by this variety and its wines. The market is ripe for further plucking being the go-to wine of the world.
Despite the so-so attitude towards Sauvignon Blanc from those responsible for giving airtime to the South African wine industry, the sector appears to be in good hands. I popped into the Sauvignon Blanc Interest Group’s (SBIG) information day last week and was impressed by the level of activity chairman Thys Louw, his board and sponsors FNB drive themselves and get out of the members.
Presentations varied from the economic outlook, building big brands, some geeky technical stuff and feedback from the International Sauvignon Blanc Celebration held in New Zealand in February and attended by SBIG representatives.
Edo Heyns from Wineland, who joined the trip to New Zealand, gave some interesting insights into the success the Kiwis have had with Sauvignon Blanc, which is nothing short of phenomenal. His summary can be read here, but the take-out, for me, is opportunity and potential. No missed opportunity of that “what if-someday”, but a concrete realisation that Sauvignon Blanc is going to make it happen.
The current South African wine buzzword is brand, and how one or two big wine brands are needed to make a noticeable entrance onto the wine stage. (Incidentally, New Zealand has at least six Sauvignon Brands producing over one million 12 bottle cases per year, commanding US prices of between $12 to $14 a bottle.)
My take on this is that a wine made from a distinct and recognisable grape variety such as Sauvignon Blanc and in the appealing tropical, fresh style of South Africa is in itself a brand. Just as Australian Shiraz, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Argentinian Malbec grabbed international appeal before any major brands, Sauvignon Blanc South Africa is quietly playing an underrated stabilising role in the local wine industry, catching the limelight and generating the talk. I hate the expression “next big thing”, but this is what I am calling it.
It’s a popular horse, but one I’m backing.
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