Comment - Wine - Cape Wine 2012: Quality Starts to Match Ambition
The feeling from Cape Wine 2012 was that the wines are starting to match the industry's ambition
How best to sum up Cape Wine 2012? The three words that kept cropping up over the course of this showcasing of South Africa's wine industry were optimism, ambition and quality.
Everywhere in Cape Town’s International Convention Centre last week, there was a sense of things on the up, progress being made. This tone for the three-day, biennial, event was set at day one’s opening seminar which swung from overly ambitious sentiments - “let’s make South Africa the world’s number one for wine” - to the more realistic - “we’ve run out of vine space" (Wines of South Africa CEO Su Birch). In the middle was Accolade’s Troy Christensen who branded the ambition as a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) but did not completely dismiss it.
Key to South Africa’s wine industry getting anywhere near to this is cracking the Holy Grail markets of the US and Asia. Of the people I spoke to about the US, opinion was divided.
Mention of the region raised a wry smile among some. The main problem remains: ignorance among US consumers. Trying to get many Americans to understand that South Africa is a separate country within the continent, is not all windswept desert, and makes top quality wine, is still an issue, it appears.
However, some, like large producer DGB are seeing success in parts of the US. In particular, DGB’s The Beach House Sauvignon Blanc, with its clean, modern branding, is attracting a younger generation of drinkers. And smaller winemakers, such as Noble Hill, also talked of making a dent stateside.
Meanwhile, Asia is still very much a work in progress situation for the bigger producers, like Distell and DGB. But, strategies are being put in place to develop these potentially lucrative markets.
On a wider scale, part of the success producers are seeing internationally can be attributed to the work of Wines of South Africa (WoSA), the not-for-profit group that promotes the country’s wines abroad. Disclaimer time; I was a guest of WoSA, along with around 15 other UK journalists and many others from around the world, including two from China. But, of the winemakers I spoke to, the overall feeling was that WoSA is doing a good job, with limited funds. There was also a lot of postive feeling from producers for WoSA on Twitter, post-event.
The quality of South African wine is also heading in the right direction. Opinion among the specialist wine writers and bloggers was that the quality is matching the ambition, with a number of Sauvignon Blancs and Syrahs holding their own against other New World producers.
Domestically, however, South Africa's wine producers are finding it tough. Part of the reason for this seems to be the continued failure of wine to make a breakthrough in attracting the country’s predominantly black population, both as consumers and producers.
Sadly, it still feels like a very white industry. Walking around Cape Wine, observing visitors and exhibitors, provided clear evidence of this. DGB’s marketing director Jacques Roux admitted the issue is still “a big challenge”. However, breakthroughs are being made with lower abv wines, which are also attracting younger drinkers.
Beyond this thorny issue, the South African wine industry will, I’m sure, see a positive bounce from this year's Cape Wine. Since the country has emerged from Apartheid and the removal of trade barriers, producers have spent the last 20 years racing to catch up with the rest of the world’s wine-producing regions.
There’s still a way to go, but there’s no doubting it’s heading in the right direction. Or, as one producer, Mike Ratcliffe MD of Warwick Wine Estate and Vilafonte winery, put it on Twitter, revealing that infamous optimism: "Cape Wine 2012 may mark the moment the world realised South African wine is no longer 'developing' - but has arrived."
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