South African wines versus the World

Monday, 7 October, 2013
Dave March, CWM
Do South African wines hold their own in world markets?  Yes, with certain provisos. Firstly, they have a narrower product demand in many world markets and where they do have them it is not a pretty story, except perhaps for a few niche wines. Generally, SA wines provide easy drinking in big red styles in most of its markets.
There are exceptions, companies like are supplying a wonderful range of SA wines to eager British buyers and there are huge quantities of wine going to Scandinavia, the UK and several others.
Some ‘top’ wines are going to important markets where discerning agents and importers believe they will justify a price way above the norm for SA wines. But the big picture remains that most exported SA wine is of commercial quality at bargain prices.  Its competition is generic Aussie critter labelled red and anything from the Languedoc. Yes, international competitions repeatedly sing the praises of many SA brands, but those entered for such competitions form a small proportion of the total.

A trip to Italy answered many of my questions.  Firstly, I couldn’t find a South African wine anywhere. Not in a wine boutique, hotel, restaurant or supermarket.  Not a huge surprise. There were very few non-Italian wines on sale. Champagne, definitely. The occasional Bordeaux, some Alsace, a German Riesling and an Australian with a label even an Australian wouldn’t recognize - little else. I’m sure top class restaurants offered a wider range but at an average of €7 (R90) for one glass of Soave Classico in a modest hotel and €4 (R52) in a roadside café, I wasn’t about to do too much research.

"Wine producing countries are always a problem”, says Sabrina Tedeschi of the family owned producers of Valpolicella. She would love to try South African wines more easily and is aware of the increasing quality and range of varietals from SA.  When a country produces its own wine it is only natural that there is a certain amount of protection for the domestic market, even if unintentional.

Silvia Allegrini of the eponymous producers known for their stunning single vineyard Amerone, says it is more than that in Italy.  “Wine drinkers here drink from their own region, it is traditional”,  it is normal to get through a bottle or two of the locally produced vino blanco or rosso,  but it would be unusual  to find someone in Valpolicella asking for a glass of Chianti for example. Quite a leap, then, to ask for a glass of Pinotage from Swartland.

Great for the local and home market, totalling some 30 litres per capita per year, but difficult for an SA exporter to crack.

“Ive only ever had one South African wine”, says PR lady Lorella at Castello Banfi in Montalcino. “Where did you buy it?” I asked. “No, a South African friend brought it over with him”.
Despite exporting to 85 countries ( it has 2,800 ha of land – not all vineyard) Banfi doesn’t export much to SA, though she says, “the cost of sending the wine isn’t the problem”.

Despite these reservations SA consumers seem open to broadening their palates; look at Frogitt and Vonkel (, Gabba International (, Winecellar ( and Reciprocal wines ( among others for SA businesses breaking the mould and bringing top Italian wines to these shores.

Lorella at Banfi, though, agrees with Sabrina; it’s those wine producing countries again.“How about having SA wines here?” I ask.  Quizzical looks followed. Of course, there aren’t many SA producers who could even supply 85 markets, I haven’t seen many wineries here with 7,500 barrels of aging wine in their cellars as at Banfi.

Jacopo Biondi Santi at the fabulous Villa Greppo also in Montalcino and home to the €380 (R4,340) Brunello di Montalcino 1997 Riservaon sale to visitors, was interested in SA as an export market, understanding the small quantity, niche position of his product. He was aware - as an international traveller - of the potential and ever increasing quality of SA wines, but I felt it fruitless to ask him about SA wines in Italy.

Alvise Lunardi, export manager for Marchesi di Barolo is also a well travelled wine buff. He loves Vergelegen and is familiar with several Stellenbosch wineries. He enjoys SA wines and feels they merit their increasing success and wider acceptance. Alvise would love to send his wines here, he wants a ‘presence’ in SA for his wines, but when I ask why no SA wines are on Italian shelves he backs up Sabrina and Silvia: ‘Drinking local’ tradition, lack of exposure, the fuss of bringing wines in from outside the EU, and even style, rear their heads again. After all, Barolo is ready at about 10 years from harvest, is essentially a food wine as is Brunello ( “No!” says Jacopo BiondiSanti, “food was designed around Brunello!” ) and can be 13% v/v of sophisticated elegance; not particularly what SA wines are known for.
 However, with SA as a popular holiday destination, it must be inevitable that foreign visitors will want to buy SA wines in their bottle shops when they return, whether it is Madrid, Paris or Rome.

My conclusion was that in an international context, SA wines hold their own in terms of quality, though I doubt many in Barolo, Brunello or Montalcino would agree with that – mind you – how many of them have done a comparison?  They definitely hold their own in terms of price. The average Brunello on my travels was around R330, Chianti Classico around R250 and Barolo around R380. That buys you a pretty decent bottle in SA and at the commercial end, simple Chianti or Barberad’ Asti fetched R100+. At this level SA is way ahead in bang for buck.

The two key areas that Italian producers felt was SA’s problem were reputation and education. As there is a large population gradually discovering wine in SA, so there is a large number of Europeans (in wine producing countries) yet to discover International wines from outside their region. They need education about SA’s wines - their styles, value for money and food matching abilities – then perhaps they might ask for them.  And the old chestnut of low quality reputation remains. This maybe a question of time, but it would help if major supermarkets in key markets would move SA wines off the bottom shelves and I can’t see how sending more quantities of wine in bulk to such markets will help improve our reputation.