The great American writer Jack London said that one does not wait for inspiration to hit you: it is something you go and hunt down with a club in your hand. This is true. Except, mostly, at the beginning of a new year when inspiration lines each cloud, hope drifts in on a fresh ocean breeze and the mountains echo sounds of optimism.
This is why right now, my personal feelings for the world of South African wine are headily positive. As I lie here with the slight buzz of a hangover affected by a bottle of Creation Chardonnay preceded by two of my own handcrafted epic dry Martinis, I can’t wait to bounce up and get to grips with some professional activity. But first, a crisp early morning beer.
Reason to be cheerful number one must be, has to be, this feeling that here in the African South we seem to have kicked Covid’s yellow, slit-eyed and chopstick-chomping arse. Sure, signs are that the latest Omicron variant did have a South African origin of sorts as this little fucker led our fourth-wave of infections. But guess what, we are clearing it up. Despite a low vaccination rate among the populace – only 26% fully – and a strong infection wave in December, actual physical harm to citizens was low enough for the government to just about scrap all the measures it had deployed during its dramatically titled State of Disaster.
Normality is in sight, with the devastated hospitality sector now able to get back into full-swing, especially as international tourism is set to pick-up again. This, obviously, bodes well for the wine industry which has with the lack of international visitors to the country realised just how dependent the wine and hospitality sectors are on foreign feet. Those of us who over the past 19 months experienced the mid-week empty winery tasting-rooms in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek were perhaps not aware of how big a percentage of everyday tourism originated from overseas visitors.
Coupled to appreciating the importance of international tourists is the reality that if South African wine truly is going to grow at a premium level, it is only going to do so through exports. This position is hardly new. Local demographics are never going to allow for the domestic market to dominate the consumption of premium South African wine – 85% of all wine sold on home-turf commands R45 a liter or less. We who excitedly communicate and write about the Kanonkops, Hamilton Russells and Eben Sadies of the world are talking to a sliver of local wine enthusiasts, a minority segment who will never be able to buy or consume the volumes of local premium wine required to grow the industry. The world has be reached with the message of top-quality South African wine.
Yet, for the past two or something decades, little has been done to change South Africa’s image of an industry focused on bulk wine exports consisting of innocuous varieties. If over 40% of your total wine production constitutes two cultivars – namely Colombar and Chenin Blanc – there is relatively little room to move and change perceptions. Never mind unlocking the industry’s full potential.
But going through my little black book, notes of optimism lie between the lines. International demand for and recognition of the quality of South African Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon are growing, albeit relatively slowly. To grow global reputation and image one is going to do it firstly with quality wines and secondly through wines made from varieties with which the world is familiar and which they know, trust and enjoy. These so-called noble varieties, together with quality and distinct expressions of place, will determine the country’s wine image in international markets.
The positive attitude of foreign wine investors on South Africa’s potential is also a great sign for the future, and the attitude does not seem to be abating. Oddo Vins et Domaines from Taaibosch and Pink Valley fame are announcing a new Stellenbosch brand later this year. Chamonix, the jewel of Franschhoek, has been sold to a Norwegian investor who plans to expand the wine reputation extensively. Famous Cape brands such as Stellenzicht, Alto, Warwick, Quoin Rock, L’Avenir and La Bonheur are going from strength to strength under foreign ownership. And wannabe international wine-investors reeling at the eye-watering prices of vinous real estate in America, Europe and Australia are increasingly looking at the explosive bang that can be gotten for their buck down here in South Africa.
The world truly beckons.
And then there is the S-word: sustainability. This factor is changing everything about people, agriculture, production and life as we know it. For any wine producer, the subject of sustainable wine production should be top of mind because the trade demands it of you.
Here South Africa has a great opportunity of positioning itself as a leading wine nation in terms of sustainability. Over the past decade the farming mindset has swung to sustainability and conservation of the environment in a visible and tangible manner. From major corporates such as DGB to blue-chip estates; high-yielding farms in the Breedekloof and the Northern Cape to patches of old vines farmed by old men for hipster winemakers….the soil, the earth and the environment is loved and respected. As a nation of farmers for 370 years, South Africans realise that sustainability is in our roots. We live it and we talk it. The world is listening.
And with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) – the world’s leading name in conservation – a partner to South African wine, the Cape wine industry should be ballsily trumpeting its status as a leader in the sphere of sustainability. Great wines made from classic grape cultivars and the most magnificent wine scenery on earth will end-off the message nicely. If our time is not now, it sure as hell is close. Let’s get that club and get hunting.
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