Southern Sauvignon Stars meet Northern Lights

Tuesday, 27 October, 2009
Pieter de Waal
Pieter de Waal of the Sauvignon Blanc Interest Group (SBIG) recently undertook a Scandinavian tour to highlight the excellence of South African Sauvignon Blanc. He gives his impressions of the tour which started in Oslo on 5 October and finished in Helsinki on 15 October.
Like most people, I am sure, I knew very little of the Scandinavian countries before I departed from Cape Town on this epic journey. The sum total of my knowledge consisted of a few facts, including:
  1. It's cold.
  2. It's expensive.
  3. Sweden builds Volvo.
  4. Finland is home to Nokia and Linus Torvalds (who is that, you may ask, but my computer-geeky brother is a fan of Linux, an alternative operating system to Microsoft).
  5. Norway is home to the Nobel Peace Prize and its most famous artist was Edvard Munch (pronounced "monk").
So with this extensive toolkit of knowledge I arrived at Oslo airport on Sunday the 4th of October and was very glad to see some familiar South African faces, including Jeanette Bruwer of Springfield, Hannes Myburgh of Meerlust, Su Birch and Dalene Steyn of WOSA - a veritable team indeed to show off the Cape's vinous capabilities.

We had sent over 16 of South Africa's top Sauvignon Blanc wines from all the major producing areas to showcase at the various tastings, being:
  • Black Oystercatcher
  • Constantia Glen
  • Diemersdal Single Vineyard
  • Durbanville Hills Rhinofields
  • Du Toitskloof
  • Fleur du Cap Unfiltered
  • Fryer's Cove
  • Graham Beck Pheasant's Run
  • Groote Post
  • Hidden Valley
  • Klein Constantia
  • Nederburg Manor House
  • Nitida
  • Oak Valley
  • Steenberg
  • Springfield Life from Stone
The most famous painting ever to come from Norway is Edvard Munch's "The Scream" which I went looking for in the National Gallery. The Scream (or "Skrik" in the original Norwegian) is a very evocative painting generally described as symbolizing modern man taken by an attack of existential angst. When sitting down to dinner at Restaurant Druen in the Aker Brygge district it suddenly dawned on me that what had most probably inspired Munch's painting was when he went for a bite to eat in an Oslo restaurant. While the wines are of outstanding quality the prices are commensurate with Paarl Hills Shiraz 2007 (produced by Boland Cellars) the lowest priced South African wine on the menu at 430 Norwegian kroner (roughly R566). We opted for one of Eben Sadie's Priorat wines, the L'Arbossar 2004 at 820 Norwegian kroner (about R1 080) which ruined the drinks budget for the rest of the tour but was a wonderful wine to go with the "lammeskank" (lamb shank) at a cool 272 kroner (approximately R358). Dinner for eight people including three bottles of wine came to 4 589 kroner (about R6 000) excluding tip. From here on McDonald's and Burger King would become a real option!

The venue for the WOSA Oslo event, Gamle Logen, was an amazing example of baroque interior with more gold foil and twirly woodwork than Marie Antoinette's Fontainebleau boudoir. The South African wine industry was there in full force and business was brisk with the the afternoon dedicated to trade and the evening for consumers. Ambassador Beryl Rose Sisulu was there to welcome the guests, with Lynne Sherriff MW doing a presentation on innovative red and white blends and Su Birch unveiling WOSA's very slick DNA SA presentation. The South African buyer for the Vinmonopolet used the opportunity to taste and discuss what was on hand and with South Africa being the Vinmonopolet's focus country for July 2010, all looks good for increased market share in Norway.

Without a doubt the biggest bargain to be had in Oslo is the train ticket to Gothenburg at 300 kroner (about R400). At the station I had a handful of coins left but not enough to even go to the toilet with (that would set you back 10 kroner, or about R13). I would later deposit these coins into a beggar's cap in Gothenburg who decided to throw them back at me with what I assumed were a few choice curse words. I only learnt later that there's not all that much love lost between the Norwegians and the Swedish but that the Finnish again feel that the Norwegians and Swedish look down on them - a very complicated social hierarchy for such developed countries.

The train trip from Oslo to Gothenburg was a good decision and yes, those bright red barns and rolling green hills interspersed with sea-side resorts really do exist. I managed to book a hotel at a budget saving rate which turned out to be a trucker stop and ten-pin bowling alley but as long as I didn't make eye contact I felt quite safe and the public transport links into the city were great. The venue chosen for the WOSA event was the Gothia Towers Hotel with panoramic views of the city. While the number of people attending were less than we had hoped for, the South African inspired evening at a local restaurant, Wasa Allé, proved that Cape wine can hold its own against Swedish specialities like deer and elk with the highlight of the evening being Maja Berthas explaining WOSA's Fundi project to the diners. While we didn't understand a word of what she was saying in Swedish, her impersonations of a lion, elephant and giraffe had us all in stitches, but it's probably as they say, "you just had to be there".

After this it was off to doing a side-show in Mainz, Germany for the Südafrika Weinshow. As usual, Petra Mayer managed to put together an amazing repertoire with Mario Scheuerman (who has, on occasion, been called the Parker of Germany) tweeting and blogging away about what was happening. This was undoubtedly a great show and another feather in the cap for WOSA's German satellite office.

On the way back, a quick excursion was done to the London Mega Tasting and although this may sound trivial it was here that I met up with Anders Barrén, the buyer for Sweden's Systembolaget. We tasted through 15 of the 45 Sauvignon Blancs on offer and I thought I had done a pretty good job in tasting and discussing these wines with him, but on my my return I found him tasting through the remaining 30 wines. There is undoubtedly no question that Anders is seriously interested in South African Sauvignon Blanc and his involvement in tasting for Veritas 2009 is a definite indication that he has accepted the fact that we are making world-class Sauvignon Blanc which offers a wide spectrum of flavours and tastes due to the the variety of micro-climates found at the Cape.

After London, Helsinki was calling, which would be an education of note. I had organised accommodation with the wine journalist for the Helsinki Times (whom I did not know from a bar of soap). After meeting Violetta Teetor at the airport it took about 5 minutes before I realised that she was a native South African, having emigrated to Finland about 20 years ago. Meeting someone so passionate about South African wine in a country so completely foreign to me was an inspiration that I believe will take a long time to equal. A day after the WOSA show Willem Wentzel of Cloof Estate and myself were invited to a "house-cooling party" and surprise, surprise, all the wine served were of South African origin. I asked the host about this and he stated that he bought South African wine because it offered good value for money and consistent quality, exactly what is needed in the current tough economic climate.

Although the hospitality of Helsinki was wonderful, I was by now looking forward to flying back home where a glass of ordinary red wine in a bar does not set you back R140, a beer R70 and a mug of Gloggi (Finnish mulled wine made with vodka) just under a R100. My plans for a quick escape would however be thwarted when Blue 1 (a division of SAS Airlines) announced, after we had all taken our seats already, that our plane's on-board computer was broken. So we all had to get off and wait for a new plane. This was not something the Scandinavians knew how to cope with. The passengers didn't complain when we were offered a sweet and a glass of water (yes, we still had to pay for sandwiches even though we had been delayed for more than three hours) and the airline representative announced over the broadcasting system that he was sorry for the "mess" (as he put it) and that it had never happened in the 13 years that he had worked there. No wonder they didn't realise that passengers actually have some rights if a plane is delayed for more than a certain period, including access to (free) refreshments and even telecommunications. As we took off the tongue-in-cheek lyrics of Monty Python's Finland, Finland, Finland stuck in my head:

Finland, Finland, Finland.
The country where I quite want to be,
Your mountains so lofty,
Your treetops so tall.

Finland, Finland, Finland.
The country where I want to be,
Pony trekking or camping,
Or just watching TV.

Looking back on this memorable trip I believe that Scandinavia offers good opportunities but that it is a market where you have to be "on the ground" and that it is crucial to find local partners that have good relationships with the monopolies while also being able to break into the on-consumption trade (restaurants and bars). The focus is also definitely more on good quality than low prices as the high taxes involved make it senseless to buy cheap wine. South African Sauvignon Blanc is definitely poised to make use of these opportunities and with the positive sentiment regarding the upcoming soccer world cup I predict that sales will rise significantly over the next year or two, as long as we deliver consistency and quality as we have done in the past.
Pieter de Waal at the Oslo tasting
Pieter de Waal at the Oslo tasting

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