What’s clear after a week in South Africa is that the country has loads to offer UK drinkers – right from entry level wines through to old vines, old vintages and both organic and biodynamic propositions.
At Cape Wine 2022 last week, the exhibition floor was peppered with UK buyers and importers, looking for exciting wines and celebrating the return of the trade fair.
But this time last year, many mentions of South African wine were in connection with Sauvignon Blanc – and using the country to plug the gaps left by New Zealand’s troublesome harvest. A move that some believe will not do South Africa many favours in the long run.
“In my opinion, part of the mistake that is being made right now is that too many producers and too many retailers are looking to South Africa for cheaper Sauvignon Blanc – cheaper than New Zealand and maybe even cheaper than Chile,” says Robin Copestick, managing director at Freixenet Copestick (FXC), which recently added South Africa’s Spier Wine Farm to its portfolio.
He says the price point at which many of these Sauvignon Blancs are being sold represents a short-term gain “and is definitely not sustainable”.
“It’s not really where the producers I have spoken to want to be trading anyway, but the ones who are doing it are just taking a short-term opportunity. And that’s fine, but let’s do something more long term and more strategic,” he says.
And the solution?
“I think producers and [trade organisation] Wines of South Africa should try and hero Chenin Blanc a lot more,” says Copestick.
He believes that championing Chenin Blanc will help consumers to understand South Africa’s quality and point of difference. He mentions hosting producer-lead Chenin tastings at events such as Pub in the Park, where “people can get to experience the different styles and quality levels of Chenin Blanc”.
Copestick says a move such as this would help to “really get consumers to believe in South Africa for a product” and then from there, he says the trade can encourage more people to try the country’s myriad grape varieties.
He adds that one of the problems the country has had in the UK market is the desire by multiple retailers to chase lower price points for South African wine. He says the sweet spot should be around £10 – and up to £15-20 for more premium wines.
And for Copestick, Chenin Blanc has the taste profile that UK consumers really enjoy. “They just don’t understand Chenin Blanc from South Africa at the moment,” he says.
Elizma Visser, winemaker at Olifantsberg in the Breedekloof district of Breede River Valley, believes South Africa’s DNA is Chenin “because it shows its place incredibly well”.
“You can go from Swartland to Breedekloof to Stellenbosch – and you’re going to get a sense of place,” she says.
She agrees with Copestick that there are more grapes coming from South Africa for consumers to get to know, such as Grenache, Roussanne and Semillon, but she says, “Chenin will always be our spearhead”.
“I almost feel like we’re only just scratching the surface in the UK with Chenin,” she adds.
Away from Chenin but concentrating on Visser’s notion of “a sense of place”, Mike Ratcliffe, who is chairperson of Stellenbosch Wine Routes, believes there has been a dramatic amount of experimentation around the interpretation of regionality in Stellenbosch.
“It’s practical experimentation,” he explains. “People making wine year after year and identifying what works in a particular terroir.”
He says Stellenbosch is a pioneer simply because it has been around the longest. He says the region is large and diverse in terms of “aspects, altitude, proximity to the ocean and also in terms of soil types”.
“What has happened is that we’ve found a common denominator of strength… Cabernet has come to the fore both in terms of quality and in terms of commercial success.”
He’s keen to add that it’s not the only thing Stellenbosch does well, but he says the region is united in Cabernet being the “thing we do best”.
For Ratcliffe, the success of Cabernet in the region has attracted young winemakers, who are now “experimenting with clones we’ve never seen before, with planting densities, with row directions, with extreme sites – people are trying everything. Success doesn’t extinguish innovation”.
He also says Stellenbosch is “the industry leader on Chardonnay” and he says that although Cabernet has, through years of experience, come to the fore, the board will still champion other grapes.
However, he warns that the biggest challenge when it comes to supplying the UK market is that “the greatest wines are made in volumes that are too small”.
“I have been on my soapbox for a number of years, and I don’t think that growing volume necessarily has to go hand in had with extinguishing innovation or creativity,” he explains. “The argument would be that Cabernet gained prominence because it’s small and sexy. But small and sexy is no good if you want to get your wines into Michelin-starred restaurants in several cities.”
He says his 10-year wish is to see a winery’s Stellenbosch Cabernet in the top 10 Michelin-starred restaurants in New York, Tokyo, London and others.
Kim Wilson, managing director at UK-based North South Wines was at Cape Wine 2022 – and she also identifies regionality as an important factor “in a country where, historically, multi-region blends have been the norm”.
She says that South Africa’s wine lands are so diverse, “we should be getting this across to the consumer”. Wilson has been working with KWV viticulturist Marco Ventrella on the concept of ‘best terroirs for best varietals’.
“The KWV Scattered Earth range is the result of this project and features wines with a strong sense of place, a departure from the broader ‘wines with a South African style’, which is very much loved by consumers as well,” she explains. “We believe there is room for both concepts on the market as they appeal to different shoppers or drinking occasions.”
She also highlights launches to come in 2022/2023 – one of which she describes as a take on the trend for Primitivo Appassimento-type styles in the UK market: Roodeberg Black, “that will appeal to a younger, less traditional consumer”.
Wilson moves on to talk about the opportunity for South Africa’s sparkling Méthode Cap Classique, which she believes offers “extraordinary value for what is essentially a luxury, traditionally crafted product”.
“As Champagne becomes increasingly out of reach for most people and has availability issues, there is definitely room for its South African cousin,” she says, highlighting the Laborie brand.
Her third tip is Bordeaux blends. “My personal belief is that South Africa excels here,” she says. “Now is definitely the time for us as an industry to champion this – the wine quality you get for the price is just exceptional.”
While South Africa will still represent value for many buyers, there’s no reason why regional diversity and top quality shouldn’t also be on the list. And maybe championing Chenin will help pave the way.