Bringing in the Foreign League

Thursday, 15 July, 2004
Melvyn Minnaar
There are supermarket wines: an enormous growth industry internationally and the challenge of export-focused producers here and where ever wine is made. Then there are fine wine shop wines: a connoisseurs' niche, battling to keep issues such as identity, individuality, rarity and terroir on the high-end screen of interest. Then there is Woolworths.

Tackling both and all ends of the wine consumer market has been Allan Mullin's near personal obsession - and obviously a wine war plan that has paid off. (Otherwise, he and his colleague, Ivan Oertle wouldn't have been in the job as long as they have been, building a remarkable reputation for Woolies, as well as a keen outlet and market for South African wine producers, big and small.)

But Mullins has been thinking globally recently, and so this winter sees the entrance of a serious range of imported wines in the ranks and on the racks from whence consumers all over South Africa fill their trolleys with anything from easy-going Zesty White (to the tune of over 100 000 cases) to plum, top-end selections at a price from the individual Signature range.

Countering the rather jingoist attitude that we should all, Proudly South African, drink local only, the Woolies move opens up a world of wine experience which can only benefit the spread of the good word about wine. It somehow places Cape wine in a broader context as well. And so consumers should be happy - given that most of the wine from France, Italy, Australia and even the USA is on offer at a fair price.

A preview of the foreigners on the Woolworth shelves soon, got the thumbs up for showing exactly how dynamic and diverse wines from different places are. It alluded to the subtle intrigue offered in 'classic' regions such as Burgundy and Tuscany, but also how the 'modern' palate can be enticed.

There are wines from Italy to demonstrate the modernist vino interpretation nicknamed 'super Tuscan' (boisterous-labelled I Pini, Il Corto and gloriously-named Erta E China from Renzo Masi and Carpineto's Dogajolo). But there is also a 'real' Chianti Classico (Isassi from Meline) as well as a big-big treat in the shape of the legendary Amarone Della Valpolicella DOC (from Santi) - a massive, vigorous red wine made from sun-dried grapes. All in all, there are 18 Italian wines, ranging from R40 to R180 a bottle.

Burgundy is where the heart of chardonnay and pinot noir lies and thanks to the negociants Roux Pêre et Fils, costumers can try a 'real' chablis, as well as two famous vineyard-specific wines: a show-stopping white Chassagne-Montrachet that needs to age and a finely-polished red Chambolle Musigny. Wow!

There are more French wines, including the famous Veuve Clicquot champagne, and selections from the Côte du Rhône and the Languedoc regions.

The cosmopolitan touch is extended with a hefty zinfandel from California and the well-known Australian Yellowtail brand of chardonnay and shiraz.

At a friendly war-room briefing, Mullins stressed that the foreign wines are to serve as local inspiration: 'By bringing in these wines from top areas of the world, Woolworths is broadening our customers' wine experience, and also setting our own wines in a global context.'