Can Newer Wine Regions Make Waves?

Breedekloof Wine Route, surrounding the village of Rawsonville, can learn a tremendous amount from newer wine regions. Although the art of growing vines and making wine is an old, intrinsic art in the valley, the wine route as a marketing entity, is relatively new. Thus, the area faces numerous challenges in making a name for itself.

Hermanus-vs-Rawsonville

I picked up the new Essential Guide to South African Wines: Terroir & Travel (authors: Elmari Swart, Izak Smit); I was excited by its fresh look, reminding me of the graphics-rich DK Travel Guides. I was left disappointed, albeit not all that surprised, when I realised the Breede River Valley appeared glaringly absent, despite it being the largest, by-volume, contributor to Cape Winelands’ production.  There it finally was, Breedekloof and Worcester, given a concise, text-based description, alongside Plettenberg Bay and Orange River towards the end of the book.

Where I picked up this book was more significant though. I was in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, one of South Africa’s southernmost regions, just to the north of picturesque, whale-famous, Hermanus. It too, is a newer wine route, with Walker Bay only afforded full wine region status in May 2004. It has its shortcomings and strengths, as does our region, the Breedekloof. What we lack, they have and conversely: They have a tourist hub town, we do not; they have no major tarred through route, we do. This will soon change, as the R320 is being sealed from the Hemel-en-Aarde valley to the N2 in Caledon.

Their uniqueness as a region is glaringly obvious. Somehow the cellars are doing something out-of-the-ordinary here, that sets this region apart, even from juggernauts like Stellenbosch and Frasnchhoek. It’s quirky, fresh, accommodating and amenity-rich, without being commercial cheese. Could this be why this dead-end road with no sealed outlet (yet), appears to be thriving? Is it the power of Hermanus over the Camphill Ridge? Or is it that one cellar struts her stuff in Parisian burlesque garb, whilst another does so in traditional Cape-Dutch attire? One cellar oozes über-contemporary chic and the other, gothic revivalist grace? Is it that some are glaringly nouveau-riche and others, historic-conservationist and traditional? The diversity in a distance of barely 10km, was so much to take in: I was happy, in awe, but exhausted.

One may say we have an uphill battle, as the village of Rawsonville could never compete with the town, that is Hermanus. This is probably true for the foreseeable future; they just have the tourism critical mass already. They have the sea and the whales and we don’t. However, we do have greater wine volumes, offer better value-for-money, taller mountains and easier access to all parts of the Cape and the rest of South Africa for that matter. All our roads are already tarred, so why the lack of attention?

Could it lie in our ability to be quirky, to redefine ourselves and create that in our cellars: setting us apart, making ourselves unique? I’m still debating how this can be enacted, but one thing is for sure, Hemel-en-Aarde is one unique little area with some weird and wonderful cellars. If our wine route’s value-for-money, wine quality and statuesque beauty is anything to go by, our region could do the same. We just need to find that thing that defines us. We need to do that, which the regional juggernauts cannot do, and do it well. If a “dead-end valley” can do it, so can we.

Away From Glass

DuToitskloof-Fairtrade 75cl TetraPak wines

I am definitely a wine traditionalist. Nobody can deny the joys of sitting in a gorgeous setting, preferably on a Cape wine estate, pulling the cork out of an elegant bottle, hearing the pop sound followed by the aroma of a stunning nose reaching for oxygen for the very first time. There is nothing like the cork and bottle combination that screams wine sophistication and I’m a sucker for the elegantly-wasted.

However, times are a-changin’ and those who do not follow trends are relegated to the trash-heap of formally glorious brand names, like a viticultural Pan Am. The latest wine-spawn of the ever forward-thinking DuToitskloof Cellar is wine-in-a-box. However, I’m not referring to those now famous three litre boxes, the ones that Constantia house-wives hide in their fridge. I’m talking about their new United Kingdom venture with Waitrose and importers, Raisin Social.

This is a 750ml bottle of wine in a Tetra Pak. You know what this packaging looks like, even though its name may be unfamiliar, the concept definitely is not. Many a trip to Pick ‘n Pay, Tesco or Publix is dominated by Tetra Pak items from milk to juice to even olive oil, so why not wine? After all, who’s 2012 Best Value for Money Cellar? Would we not expect them to find ways of saving on packaging costs to bring the consumer wine at the best prices possible?

“You wine heathen,” I can hear people scream, the vitirati would be appalled and would not be caught dead pouring out of such a low-class contraption. Is there method in DuToitskloof’s madness, is there a glimmer of genius in this blatant anti-traditionalist move?

Fairtrade in the UK is big business and DuToitskloof being as big a Fairtrade project as it is, bringing the cellar’s name and its responsible production partner together in one package, can only benefit the brand.

Glastonbury Festival and Hyde Park concerts are synonymous with this island nation. The Brits love to get out into an open field and have a party, once cloud cover is down to only seventy percent and temperatures soar to a searing 18°C. This is a market that is hostile to the bottle. No glass on the grass, please!

We are British, so also do it green, please. Unlike China, Europe and the UK actually realises that earth’s resources are finite and they actually sign climate accords. Tetra Pak constitutes only four percent of the net product weight, versus forty percent for glass. It’s fully recyclable, can be easily compacted when disposed of, transports more efficiently and takes up less storage space. It ticks all the right tree-hugger boxes, but fails in the, “May I open that for you, monsieur,” department. Not to mention the responsible producer guarantee that comes with the Fairtrade stamp. Unlike China, Fairtrade labour is… well, you get the point!

However, when it’s somewhat sunny, does the UK huddle up indoors or at restaurants? Or does the isle spend time outdoors, sucking up the northern summer for what little it provides. This is the lifestyle DuToitskloof-Fairtrade 75cl Tetra Pak aims to become part of. Bringing wine to the wine drinker where bottle openers, glass and heavy weight is a liability; think a picnic overlooking a glorious sunset with a Cabernet-Merlot or drinking a chilled Chenin-Sauvignon styled white under a waterfall. Now, that’s living life and enjoying life is what the wine lifestyle is all about. So, maybe DuToitskloof is not so insane after all.

The SAA of the Wine Industry

Our national carrier has been the subject of great scrutiny by the Competition Commission for a number of years now and often, on the receiving end of massive anti-competitive fines. This is due to the abuse of its hegemony over the local skies, offering travel agents illegal incentives and subsequently dissuading potential customers from using South Africa’s other carriers, like Kulula, BA-Comair and others. So, what do our skies have to do with our wines? More than one would think.

A similar trend is emerging in the wine industry. In fact, this problem has been a few years in coming. It has recently become worse however. Collusion and anti-competitive practices are almost endemic in South African industries; take the construction sector for example. Many companies over-inflated prices during the World Cup construction boom period and almost all of them, except Power Construction, were issued with hefty fines.

Walk into South African restaurants, particularly the chain establishments. What do you notice? Have you realised that wine lists often look mysteriously similar. Some are almost so alike, it appears like a copy-paste exercise, yet the restaurants in question do not have the same owner. This is by no means an accident.

You may ask: so what is the big deal? Simply, the restaurant patron is being duped and robbed of the best the Winelands has to offer. Rather than the owner of that restaurant in question going through a portfolio of various wines on offer from various companies and choosing the best for their wine list, they’re being bought out.  The restaurant patron is not getting the best wine list they can, they are not getting variety, they are not getting value-for-money and are not getting the opportunity to choose something out-of-the-ordinary. The patron is bombarded by the same wines over and over again, without consideration, by the establishment, if those wines truly add value to their restaurant.

You can walk into a grocery or liquor store on any given day and buy from a range of mass-produced wines. However, when you go out dining, what do you want to see? Most of us like two things; firstly value-for-money options where quality wines are on offer at affordable prices and two, a selection of boutique wines not readily available in the retail sector, for those special nights out when one wants exclusivity and estate-level quality. Establishments who put themselves up “for sale” rob you, the patron, of this need.

Restaurants exist that do not give in to the large wine marketing companies who throw cash, equipment, incentives and unlimited resources around. These establishments stand their ground, only choosing wines they want on their wine lists and house wines that offer value-for-money, not plonk foisted upon them by the merchant. Too often, these establishments are the stand-alone, owner-operated restaurants with a sommelier or manager with a fine palate that simply won’t settle for being a cultivar-sell-out.

However, there are many more establishments that wear an invisible For Sale sign. This is when the wine merchants and marketing companies with industry hegemony swoop in, dangling every form of a carrot in front of the owner or manager and effectively hijack the wine list. Can the restaurant be blamed for this? In the current economic climate, not completely; some establishments are struggling to make ends meet and in the winter off-season, many jump at the opportunity of a carrot that will pay for expenses and/or equipment they would otherwise deem unaffordable.

Who should know better? The wine company in question, dangling the carrot, should know better. Like SAA and their abuse of the skies, so these companies use monetary clout to rob the customer of real choice, real quality and real diversity. Using anti-competitive practices and frankly, borderline restaurant bribery, they force you to drink what they want you to. Should you be able to choose whichever carrier you wish to fly to Johannesburg, or should some large company decide for you? You would be pretty vexed if you were forced to fly a certain carrier at a lesser level of service for a higher price, so why tolerate establishments foisting this philosophy upon your dining experience.

There are two ways to get what you want; one, to demand better from the establishment, make your voice heard and say, “I want more choice and don’t accept this copy-paste wine list, or I’ll stop eating here.” Or two: wine producers can take the suspected parties to the Competition Commission. The latter option incurs large legal costs, costs most likely passed onto the consumer. The former option is free and is the simple expression of one’s right to the wine of your choice. Choose the latter and help us keep freedom of choice in restaurants. An establishment with happy patrons who habitually frequent them will be more successful and those corrupt carrots will become less enticing.