Cape Wine 2015 kicked off in Cape Town today

Cape Wine 2015 kicked off in Cape Town today

Trade show opening speeches are rarely roof-raisers and today's at the Cape Wine 2015 exhibition and conference in South Africa was true to form. However, Siobhan Thompson's welcome address did contain one particular point of interest.

The Wines of South Africa CEO said it is now 21 years since South Africa emerged from its apartheid past and became a democracy. For individuals, that's an age when many cultures consider you and adult. Thompson hoped that for South African wine, it meant the industry is past its growing pains and can now mature into a thriving industry.

One issue with that idea is that South Africa's wine industry is far older than 21. Yesterday, I was in the Constantia wine region, which loudly and proudly dates its heritage back to the late 1500s, when vines were first planted there. That makes South Africa the oldest of all the New World producers.

But, in the sense that the wine industry in the apartheid and post-apartheid eras are different, Thompson is right. In 1992, the country produced 22m litres of wine. That figure is now 422m. Meanwhile, the number of wineries has jumped in the same period from 200 to 600.

However, the legacy of those pre-1990s low-quality wines - mainly caused by the KWV quota system, which limited the number of vines farmers could grow, and international sanctions, which meant growers were unable to obtain new vines - remains. South Africa may export half of its wine production, but half of those exports are in the form of bulk wine bottled on arrival by - in the case of the UK - supermarkets looking to extract higher margins from discount labels.

It is a cheap-and-cheerful legacy that South Africa's producers are eager to overthrow. They've seen it happen in other countries, and now they feel it is their turn.

“Why are we always at the bottom?” asks Jacques Jordaan, marketing manager for Stellenbosch winery Simonsig. “The costs of doing business here are just the same as in other countries - Stellenbosch is prime real estate. There's no reason that we can't do the same as New Zealand, where their Sauvignon Blanc sells like hotcakes.”

According to Jordaan, the industry needs to work together to ensure higher prices at the premium end, although he acknowledges that will take time. “We need to focus,” he says.

That is also Emile Joubert's prescription, but the veteran South African wine marketer takes a different approach. He says wine making skills have improved enormously since the advent of democracy (“nothing like an inferiority complex to get your arse in gear”) but the industry lags in creating a unified, simple message that it can use to sell to the rest of the world.

“We have to discover the power of brands,” says Joubert for whom the most important brand is South Africa itself.

“If you ask people ten things about South Africa, wine will not feature at all,” he says. “That would be unthinkable if you did the same with France or Italy. For France, the image of the man on his bicycle with his baguette and bottle of wine is clear to everyone. We don't have that in South Africa.”

Why that is so is a complicated question. Wine makers here freely refer to the days of apartheid and the effect that image still has on the country today.

But, steps are being taken. Launched this year is the Cape Vintner Classification (CVC), a system of accreditation that is trying to raise the profile of South African premium wines as a group. Nineteen wineries, including Graham Beck, Simonsig and Waterford Estate are already on board, and organisers hope that as many as 50 will eventually be included.

Entrants must meet a number of qualifications - they must be an estate wine, have more than five vintages and be accredited for ethical and social responsibility.

“We're very fragmented as an industry,” explains CVC chairperson Francis Bayly, one of South Africa's first Masters of Wine and a former board member at Distill. “We are trying all kinds of things and we're hoping this seed that we plant will bring the industry closer together. We can raise the whole image of the industry - and the quality.”

The CVC is also trying to ensure that producers sell their wine for what it is worth, and wants them to sell their premium wine in, for example, the UK for no less than GBP10 (US$15.40) a bottle. “But, now wine is selling for GBP4,” says Bayly. “Where's that going to get you? We don't want to be in the cheap-and-cheerful market.”

Bayly says South Africa's problem is that it has a product as good as any in the world, but few consumers are willing to pay premium prices for it. He likens it to Skoda, Volkswagen and Audi - the cars are all made by the same company, and use the same basic structure, but the Audi sells for twice the price of the Skoda.

“I think we as an industry are coming closer together and working closer together, for the benefit of everybody in the industry, for the thousands of people that we employ,” Bayly says. “If we don't work together there is no future for us.”

Despite, this however, Bayly believes there is still a future for South Africa's bulk wine, but as a commodity so that its volume is a value and not a hindrance. “We can't drink all the stuff ourselves,” Bayly says. “I tried, but it was bloody difficult.”

For a full round-up of just-drinks' coverage of Cape Wine 2015, click here.