The unknown SA wine industry

Recently I was interviewed by a documentary filmmaker, Bruce Young, who’s researching the script for a possible feature-length film about the South African wine industry. At one stage of what was really more of a chat I challenged what seemed to be his perception: that there exists some largely seamless wine industry here (or in most countries, for that matter), and that it seems more or less well represented by the likes of Rustenberg, Sadie and the like. I pointed out that most of the people he’d mentioned that he’d be talking to, whether wine-producers or commenters, were involved, passionately enough, with a minuscule proportion of the industry and had, in fact (like me) remarkably little connection to the larger picture.

4thstreetWhich reminds me that, when I was driving to Ceres last month with Distell’s chief winemaker, Razvan Macici, he mentioned something about Distell’s 4th Street wines – and I confessed I’d never heard of them. He laughed, and told me that 4th Street is now the biggest brand on the domestic market. I later learnt that it’s followed by Robertson and Namaqua – of which I had at least heard – and Rusthof – a name that rang the quietest of bells. And yet I’ve written a book about South African wine, and here was this filmmaker approaching me as some sort of authority. I felt obliged to point out to him the tiny extent of my knowledge, and that unless he wanted to limit his focus to a tiny proportion of the industry (which perhaps he did) he’d have to ask elsewhere.

I could, however, at least say that there are something over 3000 winegrape farmers (most of whom allegedly drink brandy and coke rather than wine) and fewer than 600 producers of wine (plus quite a few brands), most of which I would recognise the names of, and a modest proportion of which I could make some reasonable comments on.

This ignorance is not, incidentally, something of which I am either ashamed or proud. I’ve never pretended to be interested in anything other than the top end of wine, the kind I drink myself. I’m not a wine lover – I’m a lover of good wine. I am not remotely concerned about, frankly, most wine from anywhere in the world, including here. And I don’t think I know anyone who is. I admire Michael Fridjhon as the local winewriter with by far the best sense of wine-as-business, but even his understanding is not, I think, replete with detail, and I doubt if he frequently takes gingerly sips at mass-market wines. I have tasted for Platter some of the wines from near, but not even very near, the bottom end of the market and can honestly say that if that was the only wine available to me I would vastly prefer to drink beer or water.

This all came back to me when I was looking through the latest (March) edition of WineLand, which has a fascinating statistics-rich article on trends in South Africans’ alcohol consumption. The domestic wine market grew, apparently, by 7.7% over the 12 months to October 2015 – thanks largely, it seems, to people (mainly “female consumers in urban areas”) learning to love sweet red and rosé. Perhaps you’ll shudder along with me. Perhaps you’ll invoke that dubious “ladder” argument and say that these are the future drinkers of serious little chenins, moving on in time to Alheit Magnetic North Mountain Makstok. To which I can only respond with a sigh and silence.

boxwineBut some simple classifications were what really reinforce my contention about the wine industry being something that I and my fellow wine commentators, and readers of blogs like this, are simply not interested in and therefore ignorant of. Do you know what “high-priced wine” is classified as? It’s all wine selling at more than R33 per 750ml. Medium-priced wine is from R19-R32 per 750ml (apparently that includes most boxed wine). Standard-priced wines are “five-litre boxes selling at less than R77” – that is, wine selling for about R15 per litre. When last, gentle reader, gentle wine-lover, did you drink some of that? When did you read any comments on such wine? (A dreadful thought has just struck me: my ignorance of the wine industry perhaps doesn’t extend to many wine-bloggers and perhaps some of them drink, or at least taste with relish, this sort of wine?)

But read those statistics, and realise that this “high-priced wine” – no doubt most of it closer to R33 per bottle than to the price of Columella and suchlike – constitutes just 16.5% of the market by volume (34.3% by value), and then persuade me that you, unlike me, are genuinely interested in the whole South African wine industry.

3 thoughts on “The unknown SA wine industry

  1. The picture of Boekenhouts next to Robertson is quite apt as their degree of separation is not all that great. (Talking ownership/ interest- not quality!)

  2. Glad someone is making a film. I applied for funding for something similar. Didn’t get it. I wanted to follow different winemakers through a full cycle, harvest to harvest. I wanted to contrast Chris Alheit, who had just released his first Cartology, and something huge. Hadn’t worked out who that would have been. 4th Street makes sense.

    Hard to make the first feature length doccie about the industry and be super focused about fine wine. You have to show the industry accurately, which is harder to do and keep a focused narrative.

  3. Well, Harry – I don’t think the funding for this one is lined up yet. I gather that’s the next stage! There was someone else who interviewed me and was making a similar film about 18 months back. I like your idea – a simple but very revealing structure; would be fascinating. Maybe one day….

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