It’s About the Regions, Stupid

Being a creative endeavour, wine-producers rightfully claim and protect their independence. This is good and this is right, as a nurturing of individuality and unique character is what separates the drink of wine from other beverages. By appealing to consumers who are attracted by diversity in taste and story; culture, personality and geography.

Be this as it may, singular independence depends on team-work and solidarity. For out there in the wine market-place, which is more cluttered than the bread queues in Syria only more desperate, individual success is dependent on the collective grouping of producers in a wine region. Simply put, a producer can only be as strong as the region wherein he or she is practising the noble pursuit of vinous glory.

Proof of this is rampant in the South African wine industry. Regions which are strong brands – such as Stellenbosch, Elgin, Hemel-en-Aarde – have an image offering hugely beneficial to their respective producers. Capitalising on the reputation of the region, be it a few great wines, spunky and heartfelt generic marketing and spirited story-telling, producers can tap into the captured imagination by charging more for their wines and finding a general softer landing-space in the market.

The Swartland is probably the best recent example of the importance of a regional approach to wine marketing. A few very good wines, terrific atmospheric story-telling of gnarled old vines and a laid-back approach to wine by very engaging characters has made everything coming from the Swartland bear a “Holy Grail” label.

On the other hand, the influence of a regional-grouping is also illustrated by how tough-going regions perceived as less hip, cool and fashionable are finding ambitions of being seen as purveyors of quality wine. Areas such as the Breedekloof, Worcester, Robertson and the Klein Karoo – not to mention the West Coast Olifantsriver and the Northern Cape – have been tagged as rural, co-operative driven and thus cheap-and-cheerful.

Two reasons for this. First, the more fashionable regions have employed some very good generic marketing activities to support their producers’ viticulture and wine endeavours. And secondly, due to the eyeballs on the areas perceived to make more and better wine, the industry opinion-formers are largely ignoring the offerings outside the so called blue-blood regions.

Off the beaten track. Winelands of the Orange River.
Off the beaten track. Winelands of the Orange River.

This has led to a perception problem that has filtered down to those charmed by the opinion-formers. As a result, further-flung wine regions receive little air-time. Foreign wine-writers seldom take the trouble to drive through the Du Toitskloof tunnel to form a true opinion, preferring to use recycled views sadly often perpetuated by South African wine bodies and local commentators themselves.

Publications such as the Platter Wine Guide take no effort to position these rural areas as little more than able to offer quaffable wines of fleeting importance, in the process turning a blind-eye to the fact that the “lower” regions supply a lot of product that ends up in the bottles offered by blue-blood producers in the hipper areas.

I am frequently subjected to producers from areas such as Breedekloof, Robertson, Worcester and the Northern Cape lamenting their status as “orphans” of the South African wine region unable to foster the recognition they think they deserve as able to produce serious wines of quality. And yes, the skewed perception is unfortunate and downright unfair.

However, as with most creative endeavours, you make your own destiny in this industry of wine. Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Hemel-en-Aarde and Swartland did not just sit back and become regional powerhouses, they worked hard at it. They had a joint vision. They identified the right people to share that vision. The organised and hustled, telling and showing the country and the world who they are and what they do.

But most important, they knew who they are and what they can do. And they worked together, knowing that success for two or five producers is success for the region. This inclusive approach is not a mind-set familiar to South Africans, but without it you are only as strong as your weakest link.

Yet without it, you are one big weak link.

This inclusivity, however, needs to be embraced not only by wine regions finding themselves in the wilderness, but also by our industry as a whole. The breath-taking diversity of South Africa’s wine regions should not be positioned as a beauty show where you find the nicely curved as well as the ugly and grotty. By harnessing all regions and recognising as well as promoting their true potential, the industry as a whole will find its links stronger and the chain clinging and clanging to a brighter, more audible tune.

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