Why are our top white wines so underrated and underpriced?

If you enjoy white wine and are looking for good buys – well, you’re laughing. All the way to the bank via the bottle-store or supermarket, or vice versa. I was reminded of this while incredulously reading the results of the latest auction of smart Cape Winemakers Guild (CWG) wines, but it is a truth that applies at all levels. Because at all levels, speaking in general terms, white South African wine is superior to red, and sold at lower prices.

As a fussy drinker (a wine snob, if you wrongly insist), there are comparatively few red wines under, say, R60 that I would happily drink, but there are many eminently drinkable white wines under, say, R40. Few of them would be sauvignon blanc, incidentally, which is comparatively over-priced because of its fashionability and comes into its own at a higher price level and in blends, but most co-op chenin blancs are excellent value.

As for the CWG, looking at a price-ranked table of results,  I see that the cheapest dozen wines were all white – some of them brilliant stuff, going under the hammer for little more than R100 per bottle (VAT still to come). The top dozen were reds, some of them admittedly also excellent, but unwarrantably getting three or four times the price.

A fine dessert white from Badenhorst Family Wines did appear among them, in fact, and then a few good chardonnays made their appearance (Jordan and Paul Cluver). The interesting white blends didn’t feature at all. Some reds that I thought pretty dire got higher prices than most of them.

Livening up the pre-Auction hype this year was a fairly well-publicised general difference of opinion between a pair of high-flying American tasters (Steve Tanzer and James Molesworth) on the one hand and three South African critics (Michael Fridjhon, Christian Eedes and myself), all of whom published the notes they’d made following “blind” tastings of all the wines. The revealed disagreements largely involved red wines, with the Americans tending to be much more appreciative of wines the locals had more or less disliked for being over-oaked and over-ripe. But all were agreed, in fact, on the high standards of the white wines – which, as Tanzer remarked “more than held their own alongside the reds”.

On the whole, the CWG buyers tended to agree more with the preferences of the South African “experts” when it came to the reds – but united in dismissing our overall preference for the white wines. Indeed, one of the wines that had come in for most general praise, a classic blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon, Tullie Family Vineyards The Yair 2009, received the lowest price of all!

Those low prices for the white wines must have come as a blow to many of the producers, as they are often less than they get for their standard bottlings – and CWG wines are supposed to make a killing for them. The disappointment is true for some of the reds too, of course, but much worse for the whites. Take Steenberg’s The Magus, the third-highest-priced white wine. It got R1400 per case of six (VAT still to be added). It is a wine comparable in most ways, despite various differences, with the same producer’s Magna Carta – the only vintage of which released so far (2007) sold for double that. The two Rijk’s Private Cellar wines realised not much over R100 per bottle – far short, surely, of what that producer wants for its most prestigious white wines.

We can be pretty sure, I would think, that next year will see a much reduced number of white wines on the CWG Auction – unless there’s some reason for winemakers to hope that the punters are going to behave very differently from the way they did this year. But it’s not likely, is it?

Of course, this is not a phenomenon confined to the auction house. For example, there has probably been no modern South African wine, red or white, as critically acclaimed as Vergelegen White, nearly all vintages of which have received Trophy Wine Show gold medals and Platter 5-star ratings, as well as major international plaudits; yet, despite a pretty small production, there has never been any problem of availability at a modest price around R200 (I think, for recent vintages).

Serious wine buyers (or those who spend serious amounts of money on the stuff, anyway) seem to prefer buying red. To an extent, this might be because they ignorantly imagine that the white wine is not going to repay cellaring – but how much wine is cellared anyway? The reds on the CWG Auction mostly end up accompanying expensive slabs of dead cow within a month or two. And providing a better accompaniment, perhaps, than most white wines – which is perhaps a more significant point: look at the eating tastes of most wine buyers.

Probably, more than anything, the overall pattern of CWG results simply means that most serious winelovers prefer red wine to white. I can’t really pretend to disapprove of that, given the proportions of my own wine purchases. Just as I thank Bacchus that I’ve never seen the magic in sparkling wine (perhaps the most overpriced section of the market), I’m a little grumpy with him that I love red wine so much. I could have had some brilliant bargains at the CWG Auction this year, wines that would give profound pleasure and fascinating satisfaction.


This is an extended version of an article that appeared in the Mail & Guardian, 8-14 October 2010.

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