Glowing Reviews on Cape Wine, yet the Slide Continues

Now that the secreting of juices is abating and those clods of dampness drying after the initial excitement with which the release of Tim Atkin’s Special Report on South African wine has been met, a calm question is deemed relevant: why is the industry unable to make meaningful inroads into world markets when international commentators, speared by the admirable support of Atkin, are more than ever bestowing words of praise on the country’s wines?

Despite the glowing reviews, words of encouragement and ecstatic commentary, the latest export figures make for worrying reading. In the year to end August 2023, total wine exports fell from 400,5m litres to 317m – a hefty 83m litres. Packaged wine dropped 146m to 122m, with bulk going from 254m litres to 195m litres. (SAWIS figures rounded off.)

There should be concern. With local consumption never really going to suck-up the bulk of South Africa’s annual wine production, the success of the industry as a whole lies in exports and the international community’s acceptance of wine bearing the names “South Africa” and “Cape”.

And just a reminder, success here is badly needed. As official industry bodies continue to state, the people and institutions responsible for the wine sector are under severe pressure. Only 12% of producers are profitable. Of which 49% are breaking even. Some 39% continue, for some or other weird reason, to operate in the production of wine and growing of grapes at a loss.

Now back to Atkin and his admittedly comprehensive and insightful report. Like other influential international commentators, Atkin does a continued great job in enthusing on the excellence of South African wine. For 11 years he has sent uplifting and flattering messages into the world via his South Africa Report. “The most exciting wine country on earth” and “making the best wines in its history”. These positive statements are backed by his ratings, a department wherein he as a taster is no slouch having through his professional career gained a reputation for being a top-notch critic. If he gives 95pts plus to a wine, the glory is real. And in Report 2023, 201 Cape wines hit that spot.

The question that needs asking is, with the consistent flattery and top ratings bestowed on South African wine from international critics over the past two decades, why has Brand Cape Wine not succeeded in converting these marketing benefits of acclaim and recognition from respected international voices into a profitable and solid export proposition?

How come, as the current declining of export volumes shows, is South African wine peddling backwards? And then we are not even talking about the industry’s inability to, after decades of generic export marketing and the producers’ impressive individual forays in the world markets, command decent wine prices.

Industry bodies have met the current slump with nothing more than a shoulder-shrug and the usual chorus of excuses. “It’s happening all over the world.” “Load-shedding”. “Shipping issues.” “Inflation in Europe”. “The war in Ukraine.”

Surely, if so, the world’s most exciting wine country producing the best wines in its history should be less susceptible to an international decline than others?

New Zealand, for example, does not appear to be feeling the so-called global slowdown. In the year to end July 2023 Kiwi exports grew 21% to R27bn with the exporting of 310m litres of wine. Average per litre price – packaged and bulk – R85 per litre, a figure that’s make a Breedekloof bulk-grower crush a brandy bottle with his forehead.

After watching this scenario play-out over 25 years without any major change in the prominence, profitability and inroads of Brand Cape Wine on the international front – despite being “the most exciting wine country on earth” – I’d hazard that a lack of innovation and exciting, practical profile-building overseas lies at the root of the status quo. Nothing to shake things up, think outside the box and rattle the cages. Or disrupt, as was the key coin phrase a few years back.

Where value grew, this is largely the fact of a plummeting local currency, as one Johann Rupert had to point out in a tweet to Vinpro a few years back.

The official wine industry bodies’ general machinations of promoting South African wine and its unique fabric internationally have been as tedious, static and predictable as the English national rugby team’s offensive strategy: Attending a few overseas shows. Showing international journalists around who can perpetuate the message of a dynamic, interesting, innovative and beautiful wine industry – without the subsequent word and articles making one iota of difference in the fortunes of Cape wine. The even-breaking producers keep breaking even. The profit-losers keep losing. The profitable ones remain in the minority.

The industry’s new arm – Wine South Africa – could do well to throw-in a creative division into its collection of units to stop this perpetuation of uninspiring thought and monotonous practices in attempting to get the industry out of the rut. Which is not current, but where it has been since the advent of the country’s democracy and the opening-up of export markets.

Going with the flow is not an option.

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