South African Wine Exports Tanking for a Spanking

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It is that time of the year when the wine industry’s report card for 2017 hits the mail-box. And if corporal punishment was still legal it would be just the time to dust-off the cane, roll-up the sleeve and prepare to dish-out a bit of pain. For what’s going on with the poor showing of South African wine exports?

Sure, wine exports last year rose 4.7% to 448.5m litres. But despite the increase in volume, the rand-value for exports dipped 3.1% to R8.7bn.
The reasons for this continued slide remain the same each year: increase in the exporting – actually dumping – of South African bulk wine at insipid price points that add no value. As in R7.50 per litre on average. When it comes to packaged wine, foreign markets’ thirst for cheap booze from South Africa is growing hand over fist. Exports of packaged wine at under R20 a litre grew some 50% in 2017 over the previous year.

Seeing that just about half of the country’s wine production is exported, one can’t actually play hard-ball with foreign buyers either. Don’t accept the stingy prices, and the local wine stocks becomes even more unmanageable.

But I struggle to see how it is that the South African wine industry finds itself in the continued unsustainable position as a primary exporter of cheap wine. For a couple of reasons.

Firstly, I’ll bet my bottom dollar that no other New World country gets as much positive publicity from and initiates as much discussion among international journalists and critics as what South Africa does. Influential rags like the Financial Times, Wine Spectator, New York Times and Decanter just can’t seem to find enough inspiring reasons for giving coverage to the country’s wine styles, makers, varieties and general vinous environment.

Jancis Robinson, arguably the world’s most influential wine-being, has South Africa well within her scope, and regularly so. Two other of the most prominent wine scribes, Tim Atkin and Jamie Goode, visit the country a few times per year – Atkin has even invested in publishing an annual South African report to his influential portfolio of regional and international dissertations.

And plenty more examples there are, too. As someone dabbling in the media and advertising space, I guess correctly that this positive international publicity is worth hundreds of millions of randelas each year.
And then, how can we be so low down as a value exporter when our national vineyard is but a drop in the ocean of wine? Scarcely four per cent of the world’s wine is made here – Bordeaux alone does more than the whole country.

With all the hype, positive publicity and the relative scarcity of South African wine one would think that the world would be queueing for some juice from the South – at prices producers want them to pay, and not what the foreign markets want to buy at.

As the figures above show, this is not the case. For the paying consumer, the South African proposition is cheap and ordinary. And it ain’t nice seeing this song remaining the same, year in and year out.

Just as kids tend to do when questioned about a poor report-card, excuses for the poor showing of wine exports are a dime a dozen from the industry bodies. Poor Rand against the Euro, Pound and Dollar. South Africa’s negative image due to things like Zuma and Gupta. Inability of producers to “work together”. And so on.

But this status quo is not going to change before the industry goes back to the drawing board and once and for all decides who and what it wants to be as a wine exporter. Sure, media coverage and hype abound, but what are the core messages about South African wine that the industry wishes to convey to the international audience?

There is, quite simply, a lack of focus from industry bodies in terms what South Africa’s inclusive wine culture should represent as well as the wine styles and varieties that must be seen as portraying the national identity. You just can’t try to be everything to everybody, and by attempting to be we’ve dropped the ball.

We’ve had fynbos and ecosystems representing South Africa’s wine personality, followed by the country presiding over the oldest vineyard soils in the world. Then history and heritage were month-flavours, followed by emphasising rock star wine makers strutting stuff in far-flung regions. Now black-owned wine brands are being punted as uniquely South African, while other organisations attempt to drive awareness of premium products driven by the estate legacy and pin-point terroir.
Exciting and diverse, yup, no shortage of these in our all-rounder industry. But until South Africa can find its focus points the wine industry is going to remain as confused about its own identity as what the international markets see us as being.

Until then, bend over for six of the best.

  • For Die Burger newspaper, 13 April 2018

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