Anton Smuts from Robertson is the new chairman of VinPro, the organisation representing South Africa’s wine producers. WineGoggle went to have a drink and a chat with the new guy in the familiar old hot-seat.
Let’s not beat about the bush, it is about survival. And the only way the South African wine industry is going to survive is by once and for all finding ways to unlock value.
I’ve always dreamt of a tall, gangly blonde looking down at me and utterings words to the tune of “oh, just eat it like a mielie”. But this she did, smiling before turning around to head for the kitchen leaving me with a still heart and a deep-fried pig’s tail in my hand.
The most important cog in the wheel of wine, is that consumer-thing. This sentient being is more difficult to read than a short-term insurance contract written in Urdu and its whims, wants and tastes are about as predictable as the outcome of a debate on fee-structures on the UCT campus.
The South African wine industry is going through some tough times, but sustainable growth is on the cards. What’s needed is a clear game plan, a stronger domestic market focus, ingenious marketing and a collective drive towards higher price points.
De Wetshof Estate in Robertson welcomed a new winemaker at the beginning of the year with Danie Morkel joining the team of this premier wine farm known for its range of site-specific Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and other wines. A BSc graduate in Oenology and Viticulture from the University of Stellenbosch, Danie also holds an MBA from the same institution and has extensive wine-making experience in South Africa, France and Australia.
He has previously worked for, among others, Nederburg as assistant white wine maker as well as at Delheim and Helderberg Winery in Stellenbosch. In France Danie spent the 2003 season at Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe in the Rhône while also notching up experience at Tatachilla Winery in McLaren Vale and Cape Jaffa Wines, both in South Australia.
Danie says that the opportunity to work at De Wetshof is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “The estate’s reputation extends to all corners of the wine world, and nobody talks seriously about South African Chardonnay without mentioning De Wetshof and the De Wet family,” he says.
“I am a fervent follower of the ethos of vineyard-specific wine-making, and am extremely excited to be involved with an established team in creating De Wetshof’s range of individual terroir-driven wines.”
Hitting the ground running and getting into the 2017 harvest, Danie has had time to gain a few lasting impressions.
“The way the De Wet family work together for their brand underscores the important role family wine farms can play,” he says. “The other thing about De Wetshof is that everything on the farm has been thought through: from the way the vines are planted, trellised and wired to general cellar layout and equipment. It is a meticulous operation from vineyard to the very last steps of bottling and it is a privilege to join this team.”
When not in the cellar, Danie can be found as close to the sea as possible with surfing and fishing his two pursuits of choice.
“Now that I am close to the south Cape coast, hopefully my fishing will provide enough kabeljou or yellow-tail to complement the fantastic Chardonnays from my new employer,” he says.
There are wine brands that I grow into trusting. Others delicately instil trust through providing impressionable bits of joy and genius. Then, one or three grab me by the throat and force me to trust them through their sheer power of conviction and unbridled brilliance.
For the Lower Orange River wine region, 2017 started with a deluge of rainfall with some areas to th east of Upington experiencing extraordinary overnight showers of up to 150mm. While much of the drought-stricken Northern Cape rejoiced at the rain, these levels of precipitation are not what grape farmers want at the critical fruit-ripening stage.
According to Henning Burger, manager of viticulture services at Orange River Cellars which produces the majority of the Northern Cape’s wine, the rain began shortly after new year. It was heavy, intense and sporadic, mostly concentrated in the easterly regions.
“The Grootdrink wine region, about 75km east of Upington, experienced particularly heavy showers,” he says. “While Upington and the western areas of Keimoes and Kakamas have had some rain, it was the eastern front from Kanoneiland through Grootdrink to Groblershoop that was particularly hard hit, with 24hr figures of up to 160mm in places.”
Despite the intensity of the rainfall, the effect on Orange River Cellars 2017 harvest has been minimal. “Our harvest began this week in Kakamas where the vineyards stayed dry due to slight rain,” he said. “Concerning the waterlogged easterly regions, the wine varieties are still sitting at low sugar levels. If they had been ripe it would have been a major problem for the harvest, but now our farmers just have to manage the threat of downy mildew while the wine grapes ripen in hopefully drier conditions over the next few weeks.”
The major rain damage was in vineyards planted to varieties used for drying to sultanas and raisins which were in the final stage of ripeness or ripe when the rains hit. “From our side in the wine industry we hope not to be in the same boat as these farmers when harvest comes around in a few weeks’ time.”
While there is more than enough action on the South African wine scene in terms of things new, alternative, fresh and different, it is the tried-and-trusted, classical stuff we do best. On the red wine side, this be the royal wine that is Cabernet Sauvignon which has always delivered and will always deliver the finest local reds. And when it comes to white grape varieties, South African Chardonnay is now recognised as the best in the so-called New World with many international critics reckoning the best Chardonnays outside of Burgundy – Ground Zero for this grape – are indeed from our land down south.
With the end of another year looming, nostalgia floated in the Cape Town air along with whiffs of coconut sunscreen, freshly oiled beards and garlic arm-pit. A breeze-less afternoon, full of soft sun and summer promise, lured me to the aroma and taste of my adolescence – and all others who grew up in the days before sushi bars, noodle-shops, shared tapas plates and organic buckwheat pizza joints. For there was a time when a visit to The Spur was a culinary highlight. And I was curious to see whether a feeling of lost youth could be sparked by that Western interior design and the sweet scent of fried onions as fleet-footed waitresses and waiters scurried about bearing plates piled with burgers and fries and waffles, and all such plain good stuff.
Bright-eyed and bushy tailed, a few university graduates came by the office to talk about wine and the marketing thereof. Some were journalist graduates. Others had completed the BSc Viticulture and Oenology at Stellenbosch. Two were bearers of MBA scrolls. But they all loved wine and wished to get into the marketing side of business.