The most successful Cape wine area

As I cycled home today, in between being terrified of the red-light-runners, I was idly wondering about which is the most successful of the South African wine areas – but was brought up short fairly quickly. Firstly (or is it secondly?), it would be useful to comparatively crunch a lot of statistics to help the verdict, and I doubt if most of the numbers are easily available. Secondly (or firstly?) I realised that it’s not at all clear what “successful” means…. Quite apart from the fact that the regions are remarkably different in terms of size – both physical size and the volume of the annual crush.

Undoubtedly the money statistics would be important in defining success. The press release from the recent VinPro Information Day says that “the wine industry is currently in a slump, with only a third of grape producers farming at financially sustainable levels and return on income dropping below 1%”, associating this statement with VinPro MD Rico Basson. (Do they mean “return on investment”? – “return on income” seems a bizarre concept to this admitted financial idiot.)

And this industry slump at a time when the Cape’s international reputation for high-quality wines is surely at an all-time high and the best producers are doing extremely well!

But even if VinPro told us which parts of the winelands were doing best on average in terms of profitability, even that might not completely answer my question – though I guess that it would then be easier to establish the worst. On average.

Averages are not always useful, however. Take the Swartland. It includes a handful of essentially very profitable small producers in financial terms (Sadie, Mullineux, Badenhorst at the head) and a lot of grape farmers supplying the co-ops who are reportedly doing poorly. In some ways the same could be said for Stellenbosch, probably, with a few of the country’s most successful producers and others that are aching to sell before they collapse; Stellenbosch also has a surprising chunk of bottom-feeder co-op country.

What’s more, the Swartland could (on the basis of a minority of its wine production) put forward a case to be among the most successful regions: undoubtedly it is (for that minority of wines) the darling of both local wine-geeks and the international critical press. Nowhere out-prestiges the Swartland these days – for that minority. But it is a minority, and cannot claim to represent the whole region in a meaningful way.

Stellenbosch too has great prestige and, if one went by competition medals won and awards made, both local and international, you could make a claim for it as the Cape’s most successful wine area. It’s also home to most of the more-or-less outrageous aspirational price excrescences.

Prestige – measured in various ways – could, then, be one measure of success; so could an average of financial sustainability; or an average of profitability.

More abstruse factors like total contribution to GDP, or total number of employees, could lead to a claim of being most successful. Why not? If you go by macro-effects like these, the larger areas would surely emerge with the best claims. The trouble is, it’s clear how vulnerable such conclusions would be, as the “co-ops” race to the bottom with prices, dragging the international image of the industry with them. Nonetheless, such areas, the Breedekloof pre-eminent amongst them, are crucial to the “success” or otherwise of what some people like to undifferentiatedly call “the South African wine industry”, as though it were a homogeneous whole.

A combination of size (volume, contribution to employment and GDP etc) with prestige would probably lead to the prize being given to Stellenbosch – and many (including me) would agree that Stellenbosch is the Cape’s overall “greatest” wine area. But most successful?

You could perfectly reasonably limit the criteria for that claim to profitability and prestige. Then we’d go to the areas with the largest proportion of wineries (as opposed to grape growers) per producing hectare, the ones getting the highest average prices for their wines for the whole area (and not just like the Swartland for a tiny proportion of them). Stellenbosch would perforce fall away.

What we’d be left with would be the smaller, high quality areas: Elgin, Constantia, Hemel-en-Aarde above all. And I’d suggest, taking the criteria of achieved wine price, sold-out signs, prestige and profitability, that Hemel-en-Aarde would surely qualify as South Africa’s currently most successful wine area. Elgin has quite a few dodgy producers (Hemel-en-Aarde perhaps just one) and too much of its crop destined for outsider wineries. Constantia is too committed to sauvignon blanc – which simply can’t compete, frankly, with Hemel-en-Aarde’s chardonnay and pinot nor specialties.

Plus the Hemel-en-Aarde producers just seem to be getting better and better, with a disproportionately decent handful in the undoubted Cape elite. So my vote for the most successful Cape wine area would go to that valley-complex running inland from near Hermanus.

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