Seven Take-outs from Prowein 2023

After 20 years of enjoying a peaceful week in March at home while all his PR clients jetted off to the Prowein show in Düsseldorf, Germany, it was time for Emile Joubert to join the fray. Here are his top impressions of the world’s largest wine trade fair.

  • The vastness of it all. This is truly something to behold. On paper the facts of 6 000 exhibitors from over 40 countries showing their liquid-wares to 50 000 people from all over the world does not begin to do justice to the real-life experience of three days at Prowein. The 13 halls, some inter-connected, others detached demanding a few hundred metres’ trek across a glum tarmac, are each at least twice the size of the Cape Town International Centre. Each hall is filled to the brim with stands of various sizes, colours and dimensions representing producers of wine and other beverages from all corners of the globe. From 09:00 to 18:00 the exhibition centres buzz as sections of the aforementioned 50 000 visitors move around the stands to conduct business, meet-and-greet and to pursue that shared inbred trait of satisfying curiosity. Pausing to take a breath while walking the 1 200m from Hall 14 – where the South African delegation camped-out – to my German mates in Hall 1 – I could not but philosophically reflect on how big the wine world actually seems. How small South Africa is. How challenging the prospect of, among all these vast vinous offerings, getting one’s wines into the global market-place. Wine gladiators, we salute you.
  • It’s all business. For the opening hours of the show, that is. While some cruisers who managed to score a Prowein ticket are happy to aimlessly waltz about tippling a drop of Uruguay Alvarinho or sculling a glass of golden Commanderia from Cyprus before attempting to swop phone numbers with one of the ice-queens on the Moldovia stand, most people attend Prowein for business. Importers, distributors and buyers from over 140 countries flit from one scheduled meeting to another reconnecting with familiar suppliers or filling an appointment with a new winery from a new country which has been identified as being, possibly, the next big thing. Down where the South African exhibitors were strutting their stuff it was impressive to see local wineries such as De Wetshof, Chamonix, Diemersdal, Kanonkop, Delheim and Kleine Zalze hosting back-to-back meetings with clients from all over the world. Making deals. Fielding queries on the general state of play back in South Africa. Providing updates on their respective farms and wineries and families, with which many of the international buyers appeared to be reassuringly familiar.
  • South African wine is on the map. Introducing myself and chatting down the diverse halls of collected nationalities, it was apparent that South Africa is seen as a major wine player and an inextricable part of the global wine space. From the more familiar wine countries of Germany, France and Italy to the exhibitors from Serbia, Ecuador and Macedonia, everybody knows of South Africa. Not all of them might be able to point-out the country on the map – or find the African continent, even – but an awareness of South African wine was evident among everyone I spoke to. Granted, most wine professionals – i.e. everyone attending Prowein – would have come across the name South Africa in their business reading and statistics lists, but the tone of familiarity shown about the country as a wine producer was pretty awesome to experience. Stellenbosch is recognised as a top region. South Africa’s hosting of the international Concours Mondial du Sauvignon Blanc was noted. Robertson has limestone and Chardonnay. And Kanonkop is one of the world’s best wineries. Familiarity, yes, and not the kind breeding any contempt as far as I could tell.

Maryna Calow from Wosa and Johann de Wet, CEO of De Wetshof Estate.

  • South Africa has a sellable varietal mix. Moseying around the South African hall and eavesdropping in on the conversations and hustling, it is clear that the selection of Cape wine is appealing in its uncomplicated yet interesting spread. Unlike countries offering wine varieties such as Tamjanika (Serbia), Mavrud (Romania) and Malagousia (Greece), the South Africa selection represents a smorgasbord of want and familiarity: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot do not have to be explained, not even to wine-buyers from Kazakhstan or Albania. As exotics, Chenin Blanc and Pinotage have built-up an identifiable international presence with just the correct degree of curiosity-inducing edginess to round-off a undaunting, yet exciting palette of wine offerings. To this must be added the fact that Cape wines are deemed generally well-made, structurally sound and delicious, with accurate displays of varietal character. This is something the buyers at Prowein want. As one representative from a Belgian supermarket chain told me, “I am here to buy wine for my paying customers, not for impressing wine critics”.
  • We are a Vibe. As a collective of producers and marketers representing their country’s brand, South Africans are a discernibly effervescent, vivacious and spirited lot. Traipsing the Prowein halls I was on a daily basis exposed to restrained yet polite Germans, surly Eastern European wine reps who eyed you as if you owed them something, vacuously smiling Spaniards and over made-up Californians more intent on showing their dental-work than the wines before them. The South African contingent, however, greeted known and unknown visitors with hearty guffaws, spirited smiles and that “I am genuinely glad to see you” look. A shared spirit prevailed, one of warmth and confidence and genuine pride in what the gaggle of Cape wine producers have to offer.
  • It’s tough out there. To quote the great Steely Dan song – “The world that we used to know, people tell me it don’t turn not more.” Speaking to wine marketers, from those representing small producers in Alicante to French behemoths it is clear that the current global wine market is a tough one. Energy crisis in Europe. Rampant inflation. Cost-of-living. Long-term effects of Ukraine-Russia….belts are tightened and the European supermarket space is about as friendly to a wine producer as a Macedonian bouncer is to a late-night post Prowein reveller in downtown Düsseldorf’s Altstadt. Average wine prices per bottle in Europe remain shy of 2.5 euro per bottle amidst an environment where beer, ciders and non-alcohols are aggressively invading shelf-space. South African exports of packaged wine for February 2023 are 40% down on the same month’s reportage for last year, an indication of the current international environment. Suffice to say that this global market uncertainty, which is set to hang around for a while yet, is not conducive for a major overhauling of the Cape wine industry in terms of investing in the large-scale replanting of vineyards from Chenin Blanc and Colombard to more profitable varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
  • Trendspotting among this gargantuan display of drinks offerings was about as challenging as trying to find a vegan curry-wurst, but with keen foresight and an accurate fashion sense a few focus points of attention were identified. Fizz is going great guns, for one. Champagne houses are not meeting the incredible demand for the real stuff. Prosecco is going ballistic, Spanish Cava is on the rise and even German producers of carbonated sparkling wine can’t find enough order-books to fill. Rosé is huge, with the French putting themselves forward as the only makers of pink wine worth indulging in. And brace yourselves, inky black sweet wines made from Primitivo are continuing to take European markets by storm. Wine nations stepping to the fore appear to be Portugal and Greece, both taking-up huge Prowein space with EU subsidised stalls. Although as far as the New World goes, it must be said that South Africa has an edge in terms of grabbing the imagination. Opportunity beckons, awaiting to be unleashed.

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Franschhoek’s Polished Pedigree

With Franschhoek having the finest sales-point for Cuban cigars in the winelands, time there is usually well-spent. It is just wonderful waltzing across to the town’s main monument. The unmissable one honouring my French Huguenot forebears. Here, it is quite moving, standing with an aromatic Partagas No.4 cigar in hand and looking at the family name etched on the monument’s face. A tribute to those brave folk who fled France to avoid being burnt at the stake and settling at the Cape in 1688.

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Sweet Success of The Chocolate Block

Having recently flown half-way around the world – literally – it was astounding to see the presence of one specific South African wine label at every stop. From Cape Town International, the frenetic bazaar-like space of Dubai Airport all the way to Auckland, New Zealand a bottle bearing a white label with the words The Chocolate Block was encountered in nearly every wine  store.

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Bright Whites, Big Celebration

You are not the kind of guy who normally finds himself drinking four glasses of Chardonnay at 10.30 on a week-day morning. But here you are, seated in a crowd of people who, like you, have made the journey to De Wetshof in Robertson to partake in a collection of the Burgundian Jesus Juice.

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Joy of Taj Trophy Wines Masks French Disasters

Despite having the blood of La Grande Nation coursing through my robust veins, the French can really get on my pods of pectoral muscle, commonly known as tits. Take the current form of Les Bleus in the Rugby Six Nations. Not only are they playing with the listlessness of an unbaked baguette, but their tight five – traditionally the mainstay of French rugby – appear to be sponsored by Weigh-Less and the Peace Brigade. And as far as passion goes, they apparently left their spines in the Montmartre whorehouse where their mothers worked.

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Charm and the Heartbreak Grape

I had always struggled to nail my precise feeling towards Pinot Noir when Danie de Wet did it for me. “You find three kinds of wine: red wine… white wine,” the Sage from De Wetshof said, “and then you have Pinot Noir.” This was over a decade ago when De Wet had been busy at playing pioneer again – not Chardonnay, but by making the first Pinot Noir in the Robertson Valley.

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The deceptively simple and seemingly innocuous description stuck, and the more Pinots I drink the more on-the-button Danie’s words appear.

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