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South African Wine: Cape of hope and good intentions

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Mid-April saw the arrival on the wine fair circuit of Cape Wine 2000, with 110 South African producers showing off their wares to a carefully selected audience of 200 of the drinks' world's top press and buyers.

In terms of sheer size, Cape Wine did not get within missile range, never mind spitting distance, of the likes of Vinexpo or Vinitaly, but as an illustration of a new mindset within South Africa, its genesis was significant.

Read Dave Woolley's opinion piece on the diversity of South Africa's wine industry
South Africa's wineries have, of course, been exhibiting at trade fairs abroad for a while now - indeed, at this year's London International Wine Trade Fair the Cape's producers will be the biggest New World exhibitors, with a national pavilion nearly twice the size of their Australian competitors. But this was the first time that such a large and influential group of international journalists and buyers had been invited en masse to South Africa to see the situation at first hand.

Not only could this be seen as a display of new-found confidence in the industry and the country as a whole, but for a group as traditionally suspicious of foreign appraisal - particularly the press - as that of South Africa's wine industry, the fair was something of a watershed.

Kim Green, CEO of the South African Wine and Spirit Exporters Association (SAWSEA) has gone on record as saying that she feels tastings and seminars are a more effective way of getting messages across than generic advertising. It's a point for debate, but what is undeniable is that such a philosophy stands or falls by the quality of the wines on offer - and given the patchy track record of South Africa's wines in the past, it was a brave approach to take.

So did it work? Well, emphatically yes. Not only was the event exceptionally well organized - no mean feat given this was a first attempt - but the wineries played their part to perfection. Well, almost.

The wines were uniformly acceptable, and the prices (aided by the febrile state of the Rand) were generally competitive. So why the "almost"?

Well, despite the heartening lack of bad or faulty wine, there was a general absence of stuff to make the trade sit up and take notice - and to a certain extent the "Wow!" factor is what these tastings are all about.

It looked very much as if the winemakers have learned how to produce solid, reliable, drinkable wine of the sort which adorns supermarket shelves slightly above entry-level the world over, but to make the step up to the next level of quality, most wineries simply don't seem to be getting the standard of fruit required.

To a certain extent, this can be blamed on the weather. 1998, 1999 and 2000 were all exceptionally hot vintages, and so while grapes were getting sugar-ripe, the depth of flavor is missing, particular in the whites and particularly in the Sauvignon Blancs.

"2000 was difficult on vineyards," says Kobus Deetlef of Deetlefs Estate. "In a year like this, selection of fruit is critical."

Indeed it is, and it's here that South Africa has a few problems. To put it bluntly, there simply isn't enough good fruit out there, and winemakers are largely having to do the best they can with pretty mediocre stuff. If you ever wanted living proof of the old cliché that 'You can make bad wine with good grapes, but you can't make good wine with bad grapes', then this was it.

Which is probably why moves are afoot to address the problem.

"South Africa's success depends on the ability of her viticulturalists to adapt," says Eben Archer, head of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University, citing the growing awareness of terroir in the Cape. "No other country has the soil variations we have. But utilizing these properly we can become a one-stop shop for the international wine buyer."

If South Africa is, indeed, to become a vinous WalMart, then the biggest change is going to have to be in the proportion of red vines. As recently as 20 years ago, South Africa's red/white split was 20/80 - a legacy of its huge brandy industry (which relied on high-yielding, undistinguished white varietals), and which left it with acres and acres of the wrong type of grapes when it came to still wine exports.

Even now, despite some pretty major replantings, South Africa's biggest single grape is the reasonably sex-appeal free Chenin Blanc, which accounts for a staggering 26% of overall vineyard area. Chardonnay is going in at a rate which, by Cape standards, verges on the reckless, but it still makes up only 6% of the total.

In reds, the problem is even more marked. The biggest red varietal may be the box-office darling, Cabernet Sauvignon, but it makes up only 6% of the total area under vine. That, let me reiterate, is the most numerous red varietal, and in a world crying out for red wines, it is pretty obvious that this is one commodity South Africa is not well equipped to supply.

"You'd think everyone would be putting in reds," says Graham de Villiers of Mont Rochelle (and chairman of SAWSEA), "but it's not the case."

This is not just because of the two-year waiting list that comes with any order of red vines, but also because of the innate conservatism of your average Afrikaaner grower.

"The biggest handicap here is the mindset of the growers," says Norma Ratcliff of the high quality (and mostly red) Warwick Estate. "They're just used to doing volume. There are still people putting in Chenin, even though there's a glut of it."

Producers griping about the Luddite tendencies of growers may be a pretty common refrain throughout the wine world, but it takes on an added significance in a country that needs boldness and imagination rather than stolid plodding if it is to progress. Wineries may have recognized the importance of export markets to their long-term future, but they currently don't have the raw material that they need to carry out their plans.

Still, with supply currently outstripping demand, wineries can afford to be fairly choosy about what they buy. And if enough of them turn their backs on Colombard, Cinsaut and even Chenin, then the resistance of the growers to change will surely be weakened.

And I would say that if educational initiatives such as the Cape Wine Fair are backed up with more dynamism at grass roots level - and the signs are that they will be - then the next decade could see South Africa emerge as a truly powerful, and truly international force.

By Dave Woolley
just-drinks South African Wine Correspondant

Technicolour nation still viewing the world in black and white?
Opinion by Dave Woolley, South African Wine Correspondant

South Africa - the Rainbow Nation, home of equal opportunities for all, right? Well, frankly, no. A couple of black or colored winemakers may have appeared over the last two years, to be ushered into the full glare of the world's media, but though their presence is encouraging, it is also misleading. They remain, alas, very much the exception to the rule, and there is precious little evidence that anything significant is being done to redress the almost total dominance of whites in the industry.

It was a matter I raised repeatedly at the wine fair, and it was one to which I repeatedly failed to get even a remotely adequate response. "Why," I would ask, "were the only black or colored faces that I could see at the entire expo clearing up dirty tasting glasses or serving food? Why weren't they telling me about the wine at theirs or their employer's estate?"

"It's a question of education," was one popular reply, and one which I would have been more inclined to accept were it not for the unfortunate fact that it is complete b******s.

How many French or Italian winemakers practice their trade without an MSc and a degree in oenology? In any case, there must surely be plenty of college-educated blacks or coloreds arriving in the market place who could do a fine job in marketing, promotions or sales for which a highly technical background in wine is not essential.

"It'll happen, but it takes time," was another favorite. Of course it will take time. But Mandela was released ten years ago and the ANC was elected six years ago. Even allowing for a lengthy interview procedure, I would have thought that was enough time to employ people who were not of European ethnicity.

What it is a question of, of course, is not time, but will, and it became painfully - and infuriatingly obvious to me that rather than accepting that things have not moved forward in this matter as fast as they could or should, the South African wine industry was complacently trying to cover its ass with feeble excuses and the emptiest of platitudes.

It simply isn't enough to remove the barriers then sit back and say "well, the non-whites aren't joining the industry, that's hardly our problem. They can if they want."

White South Africans tend to be clannish, almost exclusive, by nature. They need to recognize that aspect of their character and make an effort to encourage the historically disenfranchised to feel a part of the industry in which many have worked at a menial level for generations.

A few wineries have done that, and their efforts are to be applauded. But they remain (depressingly) very much in the minority. While that is the case, the Rainbow Nation may, in theory, be a non-racialist country of equal opportunity, but in the conservative heartland of Stellenbosch, Paarl et al, it will remain as entrenched in the old ways as ever.

I don't think it's over idealized or naïve to suggest that the biggest issue affecting the Cape's wine producers at the moment is not maximizing terroir or shortage of red rootstock, but the race issue. It has not gone away with the end of apartheid, and the South African wine world needs to recognize the fact that, even if they don't give a damn whether blacks work in their industry at a meaningful level or not, to other people, this is a big issue - and will remain so until it is adequately sorted out.

To quote from the handbook of marketing-speak "If you ain't part of the solution, you're part of the problem". And not only are South Africa's wineries not doing anything like enough to address the problem, many barely seem to recognize that a problem exists at all.





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