Strong historical and cultural links remain the main reason for the Netherlands being the third largest market for South African wines. René van Hoven, a Dutch wine retailer and consultant who is one of the 22 foreign judges for the Michelangelo International Wine Awards being adjudicated this week in Stellenbosch.
“As a former Dutch colony, we have always had a strong relationship with South Africa and as far as wine goes, this really took off at the end of the apartheid era,” says Van Hoven. “This has also resulted in the Dutch wine consumers being attracted to and interested in names such as Vergelegen, Meerlust and Koopmanskloof, for example. I hear these labels struggle to resonate with consumers in English-speaking countries, but for us it is no problem – we welcome it!”
The cultural link has resulted in South African wines having a classic and premium image in the Netherlands, unlike in other parts of the world where South Africa is still largely seen as cheap-and-cheerful.
“Sure, when exports to our country opened up there was a lot of entry-level, cheap South African wine coming in – but you are not the only country guilty of that,” says Van Hoven. “Your Dutch consumer is aware of the natural splendours of the Cape winelands, the wine-making traditions and history. If the quality of the wine is good, we do not have a problem paying a premium for a classy South African wine, of which there are many out there.”
As a Michelangelo judge, Van Hoven has over the past few days had the opportunity to once again taste an extensive range of South African wines and according to him it is evident local producers are placing a premium on quality.
“Sauvignon Blanc is your most widely produced wine, and I was fortunate to taste the Michelangelo entries which were brilliant,” he says. “Everybody is talking about New Zealand, and they do make a captivating style of Sauvignon Blanc. But South Africa has the complexity and depth of flavour, but with a brighter and fresher structure. With your climate and outdoor lifestyle, I am not surprised this is such a popular wine here.”
Van Hoven points to Pinotage as a wine he is increasingly intrigued by. “There are still some clumsy wines out there, but thoughtfully made Pinotage with judicious oaking from regions where the terroir marries the vine, wow, some awesome wines. Unique, original and in a class of their own.”
Cabernet Sauvignon is also deemed world-class. “Of course France is there, but the Cabernet is blended with other red varieties,” says Van Hoven. “South African Cabernets are made in an old-school style with the emphasis on lifting the multi-dimensional aspects of the grape, instead of extracting big, jammy and one-dimensional fruit like other New World countries.”
As a retailer himself, Van Hoven understands the importance of competitions such as the Michelangelo International Wine and Spirits Awards.
“The general consumer looks at labels and price, and a shiny awards-sticker adds the extra touch in making the product that much more attractive,” he says. “This is my second outing to Michelangelo and I am blown away more than I was the first time. What a great wine competition, worthy as its status as South Africa’s truly international wine event.”