An interesting article by Edo Heyns in the latest edition of Wineland, the industry magazine he edits, got me thinking again about the unity of the South African wine industry – more particularly about whether it doesn’t make more sense to think in terms of two industries: a larger bulk-oriented one founded in the cooperatives and former co-operatives, and a smaller but more quality-ambitious one based on the private producers – with merchants like Distell, DGB and KWV having significant roles in both, of course. This is a position which I tend to find analytically useful, though I’m open to argument and can see some problems with it.
Edo doesn’t make the distinction – and in his editorial (available here), which takes up points made in his article, he even implicitly denies it (I’ll come back to that). The article gives facts and figures which show, rather worryingly, that the recent pattern of uprootings and plantings in the Cape (including varietal choice and rootstocks) indicate that “the industry” is set on a high-yield, lower-quality future. “This is highlighted”, Edo’s editorial points out, “by the 2013 and 2014 bumper crops, produced from fewer and decreasing vineyards.”
It’s hard not to agree with the overall conclusion, of course. I hear this sort of depressing news all over – when viticulturist Rosa Kruger tells me, for example, of more and more low-yielding, high-quality old vines being ripped up, and of decent vineyards being abandoned. Basically, in the current set-up it’s not as easy for a grape farmer to make money out of fewer excellent grapes as it is out of plentiful mediocre ones, unfortunately, hence the trend that Edo analyses.
Incidentally, it’s worth pointing out the sad truth that the South African wine industry as a whole has just about always been content to aim for the bottom. It goes back to the nineteenth century, and even earlier. The whole period of KWV rule in the 20th century was about expanding vineyards in the hot, irrigated interior (Northern Cape, Olifants River valley, Breede River valley) and also encouraging high yields through clonal choice and other matters, and paying insufficient attention to virus. Meanwhile Tim Hamilton-Russell had to battle mightily to be allowed to market his finer wines from the Hemel-en-Aarde.
So, nothing new in the grapefarmers’ belief that high yields rather than high quality is the way to go.
But the essence of the last two decades of the South African wine revolution has been quality. In the eyes of the world it hasn’t been about the bulk industry – though undoubtedly the big wine producers have been obliged to raise their game in response to international demand. If, however, there’s been a change in national reputation – and there most unquestionably has – it hasn’t been so much because the wines on the lowest shelves of British and German supermarkets have improved, or that Sweden can now find vast amounts of pleasant, cheap rosé here. Those things are true, but that’s not where the critical weight has been. It’s been Sadie and Badenhorst and Kanonkop and Cluver, etc, etc, and a host of exciting tiny labels, that have made the international press and the international market, to an extent, look at something called South African wine with new and shining eyes.
And this “industry” that is pulling up low-yielding vines and planting new, easier-to-sell varieties on more productive rootstock? Let’s not forget that the Mullineux are also planting, with a very different outcome in mind; that there are a numerous tiny cellars committed to making great wine from low-yielding vines, and that some important estates are tuning up their viticultural standards.
These are not producers to be ignored by losing them them within “the industry”, just because those with lower expectations constitute the majority – and also the majority of VinPro clients and the readers of the wine magazine they publish, WineLand.
Edo Heyns tries to umbilically connect the two parts of the industry in his editorial: “While I’m certainly not contending that South Africa is not capable of producing either world class, top-end wines or easy-drinking quaffers,” he writes, “it is difficult to marry these two sustainably as the signature characteristics of an industry that accounts for only 4% of the world’s total wine production.”
That’s debatable, unless somehow that “4%” is very significant for a reason I can’t see. Italy and Spain, for example, I think I’m right in saying, get a lower average price for their wines in the UK than does New Zealand, yet their top, highly reputed wines get astronomical prices. Basically, these countries produce mostly cheap and/or low-quality wines, which doesn’t seem to affect their ability to also have a high reputation for some areas and for some producers.
I can’t see why the eternal desire of most Cape winegrape-growers to resort to the lowest levels of ambition must always drag down the others. Let’s hope they come right, but meanwhile, just because high-yield Cape chenin blanc will sell in boxes on the bottom shelves of European supermarkets as “dry white”, that doesn’t mean that Alheit magnetic North Mountain Makstok is not going to become an international, expensive success.
South Africa is surely destined to be known as the producer of both good value cheap and easy wine and brilliant, respected, sought after stuff. Certainly, the task of the bulk producers is made easier by the success of the ambitious, and the achievements of the latter will be diminished by the grim, penny-pinching attitude of the others. But they are compatible. Call it one industry if you will, but at least admit that there are at least two radically distinct parts to it that, up to a point, can operate independently, with totally different worldviews and ambitions. They’re doing so now.