Wine Trophy Hunting

Monday, 8 July, 2013
Jonathan Snashall
You won’t find lions roaming in Cape vineyards but you will find lion droppings and other quintessentially South African flora and fauna. The lion droppings are (carefully) harvested elsewhere and placed around far-flung vineyards to serve as a baboon deterrent. Leopard droppings are much more likely to be found in situ.
South Africa’s efforts to make better wine – and wine better – are starting to pay dividends, including in the notoriously patriotic USA where importers have been virtually ignoring Cape wine. Although with an image of elephants, the Cape will feature on the cover of the July 31st, 2013 edition of Wine Spectator.

Their readership comprises 3.1 million influential and affluent readers, 85% of whom have a valid passport and 72% of whom have travelled outside the US in the last three years. This is no doubt a significant milestone and I don’t mean the travel although this number would be far above the American national average. Cape wines are also increasingly well travelled, from around 20 countries in 1992 to 134 in 2012 - with much less reliance on the United Kingdom.

Earlier this year Vinexpo revealed research by Survey Lab, the study and trends laboratory of The study surveyed online shoppers across's network of sites in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Belgium and found among online shoppers that the most appreciated wines outside of Europe are South African (84%), Chilean (80%) and Argentinean (78%).

Despite a 350 year-old winemaking tradition, a mere 20 years ago the Cape’s wine trade was stifled by monopoly, over-regulation and trade sanctions. The Madiba magic worked too well as - in the early to mid 90s, in haste and some ignorance – too much wine was exported in bulk, with travelling and expat South Africans complaining how few brands they recognised on foreign shelves. Things have changed though, while others have come full circle.

Sympathetic wine buyers disappeared and the Madiba glow faded, reality dawned - Cape wine was not as good as some thought. Spurned by this and all manner of things - not least a national psyche desperate to be liked - the Cape of Good Hope set about a grand makeover.  Being branded cheerful is one thing, cheap is another; so too smoky and rubbery; free and regulated; fair and exploited; adaptable and inflexible; informed and ignorant.   

Winemakers (mostly younger) became much more adventurous – they took up flying (winemaking); new (and very old) wine making techniques; new (and old) wine regions.  Viticulturalists planted more red varieties, tackled leaf toll virus (in varying degrees) and implemented new (and very old) trellis systems while becoming world leaders in production integrity.

Now the Cape has leading global wine critics and commentators like Jancis Robinson, Neal Martin and Tim Atkin singing its praises and trophy cabinets and tasting room walls increasingly resplendent with international trophies, awards and accolades. Meanwhile wine exports reached 417 million litres in 2012 (22 million in ’92).

South African winemaking has progressed to the point where it competes head on with premium wines from Australia, France, California and New Zealand - offering exceptional quality at very competitive prices. However, premium South African wine remains hugely under-represented in the on and off-trade while the Cape needs more icon wines.

So the Cape is not without its problems. The only interest the government – albeit with prohibition tendencies - appears to have is raising billions in excise and duty; labour issues remain unresolved as do continued economic weakness in major export markets. Although it’s regarded as cyclical, the Cape has lost a little ground in many of the key markets like the Netherlands and Sweden.  

While environmental arguments helped spur the trend, protecting in-country margins has added to the growth in bulk exports with government figures raising the spectre of trade wars as job losses, higher costs and inflationary pressures hit home. Meanwhile there has been recent growth in packaged exports to North America, Japan, China, as well as several increasingly richer African nations.

Global warming will change some vineyard varieties, but new areas will open up along the east and west coasts, and up onto mountain slopes although less water will most likely constrain new plantings. Many of the Cape’s problems are universal but its biodiversity is unique.

Nearly all of the wine is grown in the area known as the Cape Floral Kingdom* which is the smallest yet richest plant kingdom on earth, a World Heritage Site and home to some tens of thousands of animals, insects and plant species - you may even find some rocking horse droppings.

*For every ha of vineyard, 1,3ha is dedicated to conservation.