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2009: Biography of a Vintage


A VIEW FROM THE SPITTOON – THREATS & OPPORTUNITIES FOR SA WINE YEARS ARE TYPICALLY summed up in the dying days of December, in the silly season when in lieu of content, newspaper editors commission laundry lists of the year’s worst movies, funniest jokes and most tragic celebrity deaths. 2009 being the end of the first decade of the naughty noughties, things were even worse than usual, as histrionic historians hauled out their crystal balls, gave them a good polishing and explained what happened since 2000. 2009, marking fifty years of commercial bottling of SA’s controversial calling card, Pinotage, plus the end of the first 3½ centuries of winemaking at the southernmost tip, make a survey of the SA wine scene especially timeous. The noughties were a difficult decade indeed in the SA spittoon. Alcohol levels and prices went through the roof and domestic consumption continued to dry up faster than the Aral Sea. South Africans now drink 295 million litres of vino, down 6% on 2008 and hugely down on the 351 million litres of 2002. Specialists in schadenfreude will take some consolation in the observation that at least wine is doing better than brandy – down a whopping 9% in a year. Exports have doubled (from 218 million litres in 2002 to 400 million litres last year), so that’s all right, isn’t it. Well no, actually. A closer look at the numbers tells a different tale. In the year to October, France shipped 770 748 litres of bottled wine from SA shores, which puts them at position 23 in the export table. No surprises there, you might think, as they have plenty of their own plonk they can’t sell. Yet in the bulk exports table, France pops up at #3 with over 8-million litres purchased – an order of magnitude more than in bottles. What is going on? Most SA wine exports to France are imported in flexitainers to be labelled, bottled and screwed in the Hexagon and invariably re-exported. It’s back to the old colonial business-as-usual model with pennies for the natives and big profits off-shore. There’s no point in anyone stamping their tiny feet, shaking their puny fists and shouting “Foul!” like they’re at a World Cup soccer match. Europeans do it to everyone – Aussies, Kiwis, Argies – it’s called Capitalism, the world’s worst economic system apart from all the others.



That SA wine is now made in France is one of the glorious curiosities of globalization. The family of Olivier Biecher has been making wine at the foot of the Haut- Koenigsbourg in the medieval village of Saint Hippolyte since 1762, but why struggle with reds that won’t ripen and Riesling you can’t sell, when you can buy excellent Merlot from Stellenbosch at R6 a litre and Shiraz/Cabernet from Australia for the same price or Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, Cabernet Sauvignon from Argentina, Rosé from Chile and Chenin Blanc from Bonnievale. Imported in 24 000 litre flexitainer by sea through Antwerp and then via canal to Strasbourg, the wine is aged in Alsace before being bottled and shipped to consumers in Denmark, Germany and Scandinavia. Labels are printed in English, Danish and German but not French as the locals don’t touch the stuff, sacre bleu! The rationale for New World wine in Old World bottles used to be exclusively economic: better service for a better price (corks, bottles and labels being cheaper in Alsace than SA) but a campaign launched by Tim Atkin in The Observer in October (shortly before his column dried up) against heavyweight glass bottles, has added a green dimension to the argument. Launching a moral crusade in the organ Nelson Mandela holds responsible for saving him from the gallows at the Rivonia treason trial, Tim blasts carbon unfriendly packaging. “It is mainly, but not exclusively, a Latin thing: the major culprits are Spain, Italy and Argentina, where anyone who makes an icon wine seems to come over all macho and purchase [sic] the thickest glass available. In an effort to arrest this runaway trend, I’ve taken the decision not to recommend anything on these pages that comes in a heavyweight bottle.” Grande


2009: Biography of a Vintage

Marque Champagnes excluded, natch, as you don’t want to take this hairy sandal stuff too far. Our latter-day Mr. Toad then gets serious: “I will not hesitate to name and shame,” but pleads the fifth on the identity of “the three red wines that are sitting on my desk … they weigh more than a lot of dumb-bells.” Posturing and gymnastics done, Tim then hauls out the xenophobic drum and starts to beat it, advising readers to “support the UK’s 416 wineries (who don’t have to ship their wines as far),” or to “switch to wines packaged in bag-in-box, plastic, Tetra Pak or lightweight glass.” Right up la rue de M. Biecher and his three automatic bottling lines, although the contents of bottles from the UK’s 416 wineries can presumably come from Eilandia and still bust Tim’s boycott. A point conceded as Tim notes: “Another possibility is to buy wines that are shipped to the UK in bulk, something which is favoured by many large New World producers, especially those that supply cut-price own-label wines to supermarkets. There’s an element of self-interest here – it keeps costs down – but there’s no denying the environmental benefits, too. Waitrose, which is leading the way in ‘feel-good wines’, has even introduced its own Virtue line, which is shipped in flexitanks and packaged in lightweight bottles made from 60% recycled glass. I just wish they tasted a little better….” The jobs lost back in SA in the packaging, glass and printing industries are a small price to pay for that rosy glow obtained from drinking environmentally friendly wine. But at least Waitrose is making a difference through “the Waitrose Foundation, founded in South Africa in 2005, [which] ensures that a cut of profits made on foods such as mangoes and avocados is paid directly to farm workers to spend on anything from HIV projects to football coaching” as MD Mark “the chubby grocer” Price told the Financial Times in June 2010. The pundit elite has long argued that SA needs to break out of the cheap-andcheerful but far from lucrative corner of the UK supermarket shelf, something much more difficult to do if UK wine lovers follow Tim’s advice. This call to return to colonial economics is probably the most dangerous challenge to confront SA exports in a generation. Back home, SA wine is starting to feel the winds of political change rattle the vines. Vintage 2010 is shaping up as one SA wine farmers would rather forget. As Bartho Eksteen, hidden hedonist in Hermanus, told his fans in his Easter newsletter: “Seriously, we’ve a very costly harvest behind us. The wind and sun have left an expensive mark on the harvest. Storm winds actually blew whole bunches of grapes and leaves off the vines. Canopy injuries mean that in some sections the fruit was exposed to more sun than the viticulturist would have liked and grape loss due to strong winds translated to less fruit to pick. All in all, a significantly smaller harvest than we’d budgeted for.” It rained at the wrong time, unseasonal winds decapitated trellised vineyards and transformed bush vines into pumpkin patches and then a shadowy government exploration company applied for exploration licences in the heart of the Winelands, leading to mass hysteria and attacks of the vapours among anoraques



Bartho Eksteen and hairy sandals imagining headgears on the Helderberg and Boksburg mine dumps popping up on the Bottelary Hills – although some would say that mine dumps are better than the mountain of rubbish next to Asara which is the situation today. The cherry on the tartufo, however, came from parliament where Thozi Gwanya, director-general of the Department of Rural Development and Land Affairs, unveiled plans to grab “all productive land” and transform it into “a national asset” to be leased back to farmers. Plan B is to leave freehold alone and impose a ceiling on the number or size of farms owned by individuals – bad news for Paul Cluver, who owns the 2 500ha Mountain Kingdom of Wine in Elgin and Saag Jonker, the world’s largest ostrich farmer, which he does on 70 000ha of Karoo semi-desert while his son Morné grows the grapes for Retief Goosen’s The Goose wines. Foreigners, in particular,


2009: Biography of a Vintage

will come in for scrutiny with Business Day reporting: “… property rights of foreign owners could face further restrictions.” Thozi was expanding on the confused message of his minister Gugile Nkwinti, who told parliament that foreigners who own land are “a recipe for chaos. Foreigners are buying land three times more than Government in the country. That is partly why we have to look at the system in South Africa, it’s inevitable. Because at some point we will end up not having land as a country.” The honourable minister seeming to put SA in the same boat as the Maldives but instead of rising sea levels inundating low-lying land, a tsunami of foreign land purchases is threatening to make the ANC a government in situ and in exile, all at the same time. Land ownership has been an emotive issue in SA ever since Jan van Riebeeck relocated the strandlopers and the ANC’s nose is thrust in the elegant imported Riedel sommelier series glass held by a foreign hand on a daily basis. The Times reports government intends to “put the restriction of foreign land ownership in South Africa back on the table.” Restrictions on foreign ownership of land have been raised in public by ANC politicians for many years, with Thabo Mbeki even launching an investigation. As government’s own land distribution programme quietly collapses (The Times reports that over 90% of farms bought by the government for restitution or redistribution to victims of apartheid have collapsed, threatening food security and economic growth), the obvious and well-publicised success of foreign-owned wine farms coupled with painfully slow transformation of the SA wine industry, mocks the whole policy. In fact AgriSA, the farmers’ union, says that the department’s Mugabe Manifesto is precisely “a smokescreen to hide the department’s bungled implementation of land reforms.” Meanwhile wine lovers will be hoping that the message from Messrs Nkwinti and Gwanya is an April Fools’ jape as some of the finest SA wine, from Almenkerk and Buitenverwachting to Waterkloof and Whalehaven, is made by foreigners. Neil Pendock Lemoenfontein Paardeberg August 2010



Five Stones Chardonnay 2009

Next Level SA Chardonnay made by an Alsation with a heart of stone


2009: Biography of a Vintage









S A M E S E RV I C E F O R G E N E R AT I O N S . AS SARKO SAYS “we have the best gastronomy in the world – at least from our point of view.” A point confirmed by the Renault Espaces full of French tourists making a bee-line for Franschhoek and the culinary delights of Le Quartier Français – 37th best restaurant in the world according to San Pellegrino, the Italian mineral water that sponsors a restaurant ranking competition. Ignoring their acclamation of El Bulli, across the Pyrenees in Catalonia, Spain, as best restaurant in the world for third year in a row, which in 2010 announced it was closing down due to huge financial losses. The French have already accepted as given the fact that they make the best wine in the world. Which makes the achievement of 29 year old Alasatian wine-grower Julien Schaal in selling the Chardonnay he makes in Paul Cluver’s winery in Elgin to the restaurants and wine bars of Paris, all the more notable. Le Figaro certainly takes him seriously. In June 2008 Julien was the youngest of the French wine-growers invited to showcase their wares at an upscale Paris hotel. The theme of the tasting was wine made outside France by French wine-growers and featured such superstars as Michel Rolland (the world’s most successful flying winemaker), Pierre Lurton (of Cheval Blanc and d’Yquem fame and consultant to Morgenster), Hubert de Boüard of Château Angelus and Anwilka on the Helderberg and the hyper-intellectual Alain Moueix from Château Fonroque in St. Émilion and Ingwe in Somerset West whose family owns the prestigious Pétrus icon. When the vineyards and winemakers of SA hibernate, Julien returns to his native Alsace, making wine for his wife’s family at Domaine Blum and his own eponymous brand, even if “some people think naming your wine after yourself is arrogant.” But then a common European perception is “a young guy cannot make good wine.” Something Julien disproves every time a bottle of his flinty Riesling is opened on an Emirates flight. The wines of Blum are value for money gems. Made from grapes grown on



Julien Schaal ancient vines in five hectares of vertiginous vineyards outside Dorlisheim, they confirm the contention of the late Jean Hugel that Alsace makes the best value whites in France. Julien is also consulting winemaker at the Traenheim Co-op which rejoices in the evocative name Cave du Roi Dagobert Dagobert. His 2002 maiden vintage grand crus from the Altenberg de Bergbieten and Engelberg de Dahlenheim vineyards are flinty wonders available in Michelin starred restaurants in Alsace. After graduating from catering school in Strasbourg and “passionated by wine” Julien switched from appreciation to production at wine school in Beaune. Then after a spell at Vieux Télégraph on the Rhône, he traveled to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon and then even further south, to Walker Bay and Bouchard Finlayson, following Bacchus and a dream of making wine on two continents. The first time we met Julien was apologizing for the volume of The Doors Gordon Newton-Johnson blasts out of the hi-fi as he punches down chunky NJ reds from


2009: Biography of a Vintage

the high density plantings of Shiraz, Mourvèdre and Pinot Noir below the winery. “I play French music when I make my wine” he admits. Although he doesn’t hold GNJ’s taste in music against him – he asked him to be his best man at his wedding. French:SA production runs at 4:1 at the moment, but a 50:50 split is the long term aim. All good news for lovers of elegant wines that have a minerality that is positively Gallic. Grapes for the 2009 vintage hail from a vineyard at Kaaimansgat, high in the mountains above Villiersdorp. A site made famous by Peter Finlayson with his Kaaimansgat Chardonnay for Bouchard Finlayson. At around R100 a bottle, to say that it is competitively priced is like saying that Albert Einstein was good at maths. It is the product of a natural ferment – wild yeasts growing in the vineyards do the business, rather than commercial critters from Anchor – a technique Julien laughingly calls “base-jumping winemaking” as the downside is a barrel full of vinegar. While Villiersdorp may be a little too rustic for base-jumping, it certainly provides their terroir for elegant wines with great balance and an invigorating freshness.

Wednesday 7 th Requiescat in Pace, Alex van Heerden

EUROPE FREEZES AS THE RUSSIAN BEAR HALTS GAS SUPPLIES THROUGH UKRAINE “DAMN YOU!” shouted neuropsychologist, Mark Solms, shaking a fist at the sky and slamming shut the front door of his 18th century Franschhoek manor house. For what had been billed as a quiet supper at the new Fyndraai restaurant on Solms-Delta had been overtaken by the road hog of fate when the farm’s musical director, Alex van Heerden, died in an accident on the N1. Even the meaning of fyndraai (the point of no return during intercourse) fell flatter than an expired Viagra prescription. Spicy chilli couscous with mussels, boiled new potatoes wrapped in bacon and rooibos tea cheesecake were still on the menu but the farm was closed and the other diners were shocked friends and mourning family still coming to terms with a black hole that has opened up in their lives and the brave social, wine, art, historical, linguistic, musical (and most recently culinary) developments taking shape on the remarkable farm. Like many others who spoke during the memorial, I met Alex only once: At the Lekkerwijn guesthouse, at breakfast after the inaugural oesfees (harvest



Funeral of Alex van Heerden festival) in autumn 2008. Also at table were Nick Angel and Anna Telford, BBC 4 filmmakers documenting the amazing transformation that has taken place on Solms-Delta in record time (winemaking on the farm celebrated its third birthday in November). A case of déjà vu all over again as you can see through the glass covered restaurant floor that exposes the foundations of an 18th century cellar. Anna is still around, having been persuaded to emigrate to SA from the UK by Solms-Delta partner Richard Astor (of the fabulous Astor dynasty) – a lifestyle swap he has also made – to run a small film production company. Solms-Delta stars in the final episode of their three part series called “Wine” that will flight on the BBC in February. The title of their episode is “Wine: Wine: The Future Future” which in the case of Alex, was to be cruelly short. Like the facets of a brilliant alluvial diamond washed down from a distant pipe by the Berg River, different aspects of his life flashed in the late afternoon sun beneath the Drakenstein Mountains: heartrending Kabuki theatre from a film-maker widow arrived from Berlin painted white like a Xhosa initiate; an Atlantis (Cape Flats) Staple Singers tribute band; summer memories from Swedish collaborator, Magnus Johannson; an Antjie Krog poem on wind, read into a howling gale by a sister-in-law; reminiscences of incontinent nostalgia from Vince Colbe; a shy trumpet solo from Richard; an uproarious Kaapse Klopse exit from the Delta Optel troupe that Alex had founded. As Mark observed: “Before Alex came along, these people hadn’t even picked up a musical instrument.”


2009: Biography of a Vintage

Wednesday 14 th SurePure Chenin Challenge

POPE LEO X ISSUES A PAPAL BULL CONDEMNING SLAVERY IN 1514 WINE MAGAZINE’S Chenin Challenge is the most controversial wine competition in SA. 2009 was the one sparkling moment in which they got it right, the competition being plunged into controversy again in 2010 when it turned out the winning wine was not necessarily the same as that with the same label on the supermarket shelf just up your street. The 2009 competition carnival kicked off the same way it had ended 2008 – with lunch at Catharina’s, the sexy revamped restaurant featuring Garth Almazan at the Steenberg Hotel. The importance of Chenin Blanc (that most widely planted white grape in the national vineyard) to the SA wine industry was underlined when SA Airways announced their best red wine of 2008 (”After a rigorous tasting process by some of South Africa’s and world’s most respected wine experts,” according to the press release) was the Bellingham Maverick Chenin Blancn [sic] 2007. You could not make this material up. Named after Tom Cruise’s pocket-sized fighter ace in the 1986 Hollywood blockbuster Top Gun, the triumph of Maverick confirms once again the merits of sighted over blind tastings. For unless the judges were using ridiculous black Riedel stemware, they might have noticed that Chenin Blanc traditionally makes white wine. In any event, the SurePure pundits preferred the previous vintage, handing it the laurels for best wooded Chenin. Best value was a wooded Koelenhof, while best unwooded Chenin (and overall winner) was the Mooiplaas 2008 – a remarkable tour-de-force for the Bottelary hills as the Koelenhof and Maverick were made from grapes grown in the appellation, confirming Bottelary as the home of SA Chenin with a pronounced mineral character. Perhaps equally important is the proof that the controversial “seeded player” judging system loudly championed by WINE columnist, Michael Fridjhon (but discarded this year) is not necessary to produce a believable result. A competent panel an simple blind tasting with even vintage and wooding regime (if any) withheld from the judges, works – an important consideration given that four of the five judges are tasters for Platter, an influential sighted wine guide, that will bellybutton gaze the merits of sighted versus blind tastings at a conference on the subject, in February. Not disclosing the wooding regime (if any) could explain why Mooiplaas was only the second unwooded Chenin to scoop the laurels since the competition kicked off in 1996 – an anomaly as unwooded Chenin outsells



Roger Kebble Pinocchio styles, ten to one. Although Maverick winemaker and gentle giant, Niel Groenewald, did not win the overall prize (his wine tied with Mooiplaas leaving it to judge Christine Rudman to cast a deciding vote), his was a moral victory as it was his viticultural suggestions and success with Mooiplaas Chenin grapes in Maverick that persuaded Louis and Tielman Roos to take the plunge and produce a premium Mooiplaas bush vine Chenin of their own. Lunch at Catharina’s bright and breezy new restaurant on the Steenberg estate, was the best yet. For starters, a diabolical prawn risotto with prawn bisque sauce, bird’s eye chilli, lime, fried rocket and parsley oil; next up a chicken ballantine with Malay spice stuffing, coriander yoghurt, sweet pepper, tomato and cucumber salsa and scallop sprint roll; rounded off with macerated summer


2009: Biography of a Vintage

berries, cherry parfait and Chenin Blanc jelly – all of which worked with the Chenin trinity. The high acids of the Mooiplaas and Maverick blasted the flavours out of the risotto while the wood of the Koelenhof and Maverick tamed the Malay curry spices. Ken Forrester, chairman of the Chenin Blanc Producers Association, gave the most realistic and humble speech heard from a winemaker in decades. What it lacked in pomposity, it made up for in honesty. “We’re preaching in a church filled with the converted,” he opined. “The SA public has yet to turn onto Chenin Blanc,” a situation sure to be set straight toute suite if the SurePure trinity appear in reasonable volumes. The jokes were also the best, with Roger Kebble, father of SurePure supremo Guy and murdered mining magnate Brett, keeping our table in stitches. “Celia, is this a wine exhibition or a water exhibition as my glass is empty.” “Celia, is SurePure sponsoring the wine or are the farms supplying? If it’s us, we’re in deep trouble as my glass is empty.” If nothing else, this SurePure Chenin Challenge added Roger to the list of Chenin fanatics. While the SCC winner got a well-deserved pat on the back, the problem with a competition producers have to pay to enter is highlighted by the remarkable achievement of Alex Dale’s Vinum Africa Chenin Blanc 2006 in the USA. While columnists in financial newspapers at the moment have a credibility gap deeper than the Grand Canyon, the fact that Dorothy J Gaiter and John Brecher voted

Mia Martennson and Alex Dale



the VA the Wall Street Journal’s third most thrilling wine for 2008 is remarkable. At all of $11 a bottle, it is a value for money champion when you consider the price of the other two wines on the winner’s podium: Château Latour 2005 ($1,950) and Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Millénaires 95 ($90). As Alex Dale noted: “We never enter competitions, so no, none of our four different Chenins were submitted [to the SCC]. Notwithstanding that, we are certainly Chenin specialists, with almost a third of our turnover now coming from sales of this South Africa’s most premium white grape…!” By the way, the WSJ doesn’t accept samples; their write-ups are based through the year on wines that they have physically bought in retail – or tasted in restaurants. With Dotty and John weighing in against “cynical wines” defined as “wines that are truly designed to take advantage of America’s – and the world’s – increasing interest in wine by selling marketing gimmicks and industrial plonk,” exporters interested in making progress in the US market should consider the example of Alex and his thrilling VA. What a tragedy Dotty and John would lose their column on the WSJ in December.

Sunday 18 th Golf and Wine

THE PIRATE HENRY MORGAN CAPTURES PANAMA IN 1670 IT’S LIKE AN EPISODE straight out of Monarch of the Glen or a remake of Local Hero. Playing the role of baddie is brash and boorish billionaire Donald Trump, he of the gravity defying kuif kuif. Successor to Braveheart and Robert the Bruce is the ironically named salmon fisherman and quarry worker Michael Forbes (a name with some brand recognition in financial circles) and the battlefield is a tract of wind blasted heath north of Aberdeen that Trump plans to transform into a £1 billion golf estate featuring “the world’s greatest golf course.” Trump’s master plan calls for the development of a 500-home housing estate, 36 luxury villas, a 5-star 450-bed hotel, high-rise timeshare flats and two 18-hole golf courses out in the whisky wilds. Kilted curmudgeon Forbes owns 23 acres of rusting tractors, a battered house with en suite decrepit outbuildings plus his 83-year old mom Molly’s caravan slap bang in the middle of Trump’s fittingly named Menie Estate. Auld Mike has dug in his heals and refuses to sell, telling all who will listen “everything he touches turns to rubbish” and on a more personal note, the Trump comb-over “looks like a dead squirrel.” Confirming that the environmental impact of golf is not limited to SA. It’s


2009: Biography of a Vintage

Neil and Retief ironic that the two biggest threats to the Cape fynbos biome – vineyards and golf estates – are also two of the largest employers. A handy economic reality to counter any calls by hairy sandals for an eco boycott of SA wine. Those monocultures of alien invader vines and neat fairways, greens dotted with tees and wrapped around the coastal mountains have displaced whole plant communities along with their associated niche dependencies, insects and birds. Water usage is seriously affected, pesticides have wreaked chemical havoc and touristic amenities transform the landscape. Fortunately development started three centuries before the advent of Google Earth or the Western Cape would have been overrun by jumbo loads of greenies from Kew Gardens who recently discovered the Garden of Eden around Mount Mabu in Mozambique. Golf and grapes are good partners. At the end of 2008 WOSA (Wines of SA, the exporters’ mouthpiece) dumped their budgets on a hot and cold helicopter media junket for two UK wine writers described by one cynical winemaker as a golf tour with some wine tastings thrown in. A hectic itinerary managed to squeeze in games with Johan Bestbier of Kleine Zalze, Ken Forrester of the eponymous brand, WOSA director Mike Ratcliffe from Warwick and Niels Verburg of Luddite, the latter presumably foreswearing an electric golf buggy. WOSA are so in tune with their golfing genes, they even arranged a two hour lesson at Kleine Zalze for one of the hacks. The other had a reasonable handicap, having twice been a guest of WOSA’s lavish hospitality the previous year. Golfing wine brands remain popular even if some confusion surrounds the 2008 launch of a Gary Player blend as Gary is something of a militant teetotaler and the availability or not of Goose wines from Retief Goosen – confusion pleasantly laid to rest by a fabulous freebee at Fancourt for this golf non-player.



The David Frost and Ernie Els brands remain nice little earners for their respective principals confirming that liquor and restaurants are some consolation when your game bombs. There is even a magazine for the 19th hole. Glossy German language Golf & Wein are media partners for Jörg Pfützner’s Under the Influence of Riesling Festival in February which showcases some of the finest Teutonic Rieslings around. “Gourmet Führer” and fish-smoker extraordinaire Ludger Pooth is assistant editor and the publication is billed as “the ultimate SA lifestyle magazine for the European market. Available in first and business class cabins of the European airlines servicing SA, G&W are clearly convinced of the synergies between grapes and golf.

Tuesday 20 th First We Take Manhattan: How To Wax The USA

BARACK OBAMA IS INAUGURATED AS THE 44 TH PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. AFRICA’S SHINING DAY HAS FINALLY COME LEST THERE BE ANY doubting Thomases in the congregation, let’s state it loud and clear: the United States is the Holy Grail for SA wine exporters. “The last time the SA wine industry stood together was on the boat to St Helena,” (referring to the deportation of bittereinders at the end of the Anglo-Boer War) and “Trail dust is thicker than blood,” from Louis L’Amour, are two popular sayings among SA winemakers. The veracity of the first was confirmed as SA wine debates the merits or not of establishing another body to encourage exports to the US on the website. The newbie will be called USAPA (USA Producer Association and not the USA Pickleball Association, as one wag pointed out) and will be funded by voluntary contributions. It will run alongside WOSA, which is funded by an export levy. It’s all a bit like COPE and the ANC trying to run SA. Help is clearly needed as SA sales are falling like the proverbial rocket stick on Guy Fawkes’ Night (down ¼ over two years in a market of rising imports). Shouting from the sidelines is a popular hobby in SA wine marketing and some of the anonymous points raised are worth repeating: – If as much time was spent selling wine in the USA as is spent talking about selling wine we’d be #1;


2009: Biography of a Vintage

We are approaching the American market in too cultured a manner, displaying our Calvinistic and polite British heritage. The inherent brazenness of the Ozzies and Americans laughs at this. So without any loud butt-kicking and an in-your-face approach, we can all get together, talk a lot and even jerk each other off, but it is not going to get us anywhere. The pampered SA wine writing industry is conspicuously absent from the debate. No wonder their publications are collapsing faster than RDP houses in KwaZulu-Natal in a cyclone.

For my 5c worth, I’m more of a Louis L’ Amour disciple and think there’s a lot to be said for trail dust and pounding the pavements, which is how Mark Solms secured landing rights for his Solms-Delta brand in Manhattan. They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom For trying to change the system from within I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin First we take Manhattan, Leonard Cohen At the risk of over-egging the barrel, SA wine was a seriously boring place before Mark arrived with his desiccated grapes and Museum van de Caab which connected SA wine to its cultural history for the first time. Sure Groot Constantia, Nederburg and Meerlust have told the white side of the story for decades, but Mark was the first to present the whole picture. Professor Solms now looks to be rewriting the wine marketing book as well, acquiring shelf space in some of Manhattan’s most prestigious retail outlets for his brand. Sherry-Lehmann on the Upper East Side is the refueling stop for the dowagers and billionaires with apartments overlooking Central Park, the owners of those poodles you see taking their chauffeurs for a walk. The Sherry selection of SA wine is idiosyncratic to say the least. The last time I was there was to load up on Excelsior Cabernet Sauvignon at $9 a bottle for casual quaffing. This was the previous vintage of the “always reliable” wine demoted from 3 to 1½ stars in the 2008 edition of Platter – a sighted assessment embarrassingly reversed when publisher, editor and a couple of assorted Platter pundits tasted the wine again at the producer’s insistence. This time, the assessment was done blind and the Excelsior was judged three stars, unlike a couple of other Cabernets that had been rated sighted at three but collapsed to two when done blind. Now we know why the 2009 edition of the guide has a red cover. Joining Excelsior on the Sherry shelf will be Mark’s Koloni and Africana under the Solms-Hegewisch brand, a desiccated white and red respectively, made by Hilko Hegewisch. Over at Rockefeller Plaza, Wall Street masters of the universe will be able to order Solms-Delta wines with their pastrami on rye at the Morrel & Co. wine bar, while the marvelously named Frankly Wines on Broadway and



Gnarly Vines in Brooklyn will offer Hiervandaan and Lekkerwijn, both guaranteed tongue-twisters for noo yawk tawkers. Less of a surprise is the listing at Astor Wines & Spirits on Lafayette Street. After all, Richard Astor is a partner and his ancestor, John Jacob Astor, just about owned Manhattan in the late 18th century, lending his name to the famous Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Stand by for a Solms-Astor listing there too. Vastrap would be most appropriate even if it’s been a long time since a mud and manure floor had to be danced flat in Mark Solms Manhattan. A letter to the editor of Wineland magazine by WOSA’s Dalene Steyn (since resigned) is something of a report back on a VinPro Information Day held at Goudini Spa. Ms Steyn reports that while Johan Bruwer’s point that there is still a lot of scope for South Africa in the USA is very valid, “we need to be cautious.” “While exploring the American market and tapping into its potential is a positive step for those producers who can afford to sustain a long-term marketing campaign and make inroads into this highly competitive market, the majority of SA producers would be better serviced by continuing to build and maintain their marketing bases in Europe. This is especially pertinent in view of the fact that California is increasing its efforts and budget to grow market share in Europe. Not being able to predict if a recession will actually happen in the States, it may well be cheaper to defend market share in Europe than open the US market.” Su Birch, WOSA CEO, agrees with Dalene. “There has been a huge consolidation of distributors in the US and the road is littered with very expensive failures. Most SA producers underestimate the resources required. There is not even an SA category in the US and we need a generic marketing campaign to generate awareness. The US is the fastest growing market and is clearly the place to be but WOSA does not have the resources required. It is a lot easier to sell wine in other parts of the world.” Reacting to Dalene’s letter and a report in Decanter that America will soon become the largest wine consumer in the world, André Shearer, CEO of Cape Classics, the largest, oldest and arguably most successful ‘SA wine merchant’ in the US begged to differ. “Who on earth would not want to be part of that. Now, if SA producers are being advised by a formal wine industry body, to avoid the US, they’d be plain stupid. If they are suggesting that you’d better have your best juice, best funds,


2009: Biography of a Vintage

Richard Astor best marketing hat and masses of long-term energy – they’d be right. The US has higher standards than our other export markets and therefore only the best survive. We should be raising our standards vigorously instead of running to the less difficult, but lower ‘barrier to entry’ markets. That being said, in a free market, go where you go, and do what you do! I would urge South African producers to continue to refine their viticultural skills, make ripe wines with finesse, and get serious about collaboration so that we can jointly raise our overall standards and not settle for grand mediocrity, which I still believe is very prevalent. We are just very, very lucky that our region produces nice wines with some effort. I do not mean that people don’t work hard, but I do think we need to work a lot smarter, to coin an American phrase. I still believe totally that the US will still ultimately define what great South African wine is.” With WOSA and André offering diverging opinions, the conflicting signals sent to producers are confusing to say the least. Perhaps Mark has a solution – do it yourself. As Mr Cohen summed it up: I’m guided by a signal in the heavens I’m guided by this birthmark on my skin I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin



Thursday 29 th Charles Back to the Future

FIRST WORK BY EDGAR ALLEN POE, THE RAVEN, IS PUBLISHED IN 1845 SOME MORE THOUGHTS ON Taking Manhattan and the future from Charles Back, pioneer of ripe, oxidative style wines from the Swartland and Mediterranean blends from all over. ABSA bank took a Kombi full of upcountry journalists on an educational tour through the Winelands. Chas was 24 hours ahead of fate when he flew from LaGuardia to Charlotte, North Carolina, on a US Airways Airbus. The same flight 1549 the next day starred in Miracle on the Hudson when it made a spectacular water landing in the Hudson River off Manhattan after colliding with a flock of Canadian geese flying in formation. Chas was in the USA selling some of the 85% of his wine production that gets exported each year. It’s a hard sell as he highlights price as the major factor retarding SA shipments to the world’s most exciting export market. “I’m competing against vibey Chilean brands like Cono Sur that shift 100,000 cases of excellent Pinot Noir for $6.99 a bottle. My Goats do Roam sells for $9.99 so we have to seriously over-deliver on quality.” On the subject of USAPA Chas makes the point: “Our problem is we always bring politics into everything. Why do we need another WOSA and all those endless meetings? You need to pound the pavements to spread the gospel. We’re starting from a low base. I remember pouring wine at the Boston Wine Fair a couple of years ago. A man came up to our stand and said he’d been to SA and had really enjoyed the pyramids.” Chas is the pioneer of “socioganic wine.” His aim is to involve everyone in the project – one of the reasons he extended his dad’s cheese operation (which for the first time overtook the wine business last month). The forty to fifty women employed are wives and children of farm workers but this is no charity case: for four years in a row his Camembert won the trophy for best Camembert in the world at a London cheese show from under the nose of smelly competition from France. Cheese and wine make a nicely holistic marketing duo and as all the sales of cheese are local, they balance wine which is mainly exported. His latest socioganic initiative is to chop up the magnificent 14m long tasting counter into several 8m circumference pods. Not only does this increase tasting capacity but also encourages an entrepreneurial spirit among workers who will be able to “own” their own pod and “pay” for the wine they serve to visitors who pay a modest tasting fee. Those with deeper pockets can get a connoisseur experience from glamorous


2009: Biography of a Vintage

Charles Back master taster Anita Streicher who presents a wine and cheese pairing experience in a private Tuscan tasting room with seriously bling glasses. Continuing the socioganic theme, Chas reports that wine tourism is a major earner for Fairview as he hosts over 250,000 visitors each year. “Our Goat Shed restaurant is one of the busiest in the Cape,” he continues, “and we do it all in-house. Our biggest resource is our people. We imported the world champion barista to train our staff and the Swedish coach of the world bread baking champions. We paid for a business class return air ticket and hired him a car and now each year he pays for himself to come back and check up on progress, he’s that proud of our bread bakers.”



SIX SOUND-BITES FROM CHAS: 1. We had a meeting to consider competitions. We decided that the Absa Top Ten Pinotage Competition was the most worthwhile. So we’ll focus on that one and ignore most of the others. 2. I don’t want to go down in history as ‘The Goat Man.’ 3. We have an export body. What’s it called? Why do we need another WOSA? Answer from a leading Stellenbosch producer: the problem with WOSA is that they spend 70% of their budget on themselves. 4. On his Spice Route 2006 Pinotage: This is made in the famous chocolate style from ripe grapes with American oak that gives much more vanilla than French. It’s too in your face for me but it’s a popular style in the USA. To get it really right, you need to increase to 4g/l residual sugar. 5. The best Pinotage terroir. Swartland with its soft tannins and Stellenbosch/ Paarl for fruit-driven expressions. 6. There’s a financial tsunami on its way. There will be financial devastation for 9 – 10 months.

Saturday 31 st Remembering Jan van Niekerk

GUY FAWKES IS EXECUTED IN 1606 CELEBRATING 350 YEARS of SA wine kicked off in the Swartland where CEO of sponsor Santam Agriculture, Dr Tobias Doyer, brought down the house with his toast to the man who made it all possible, Jan van Niekerk. His recovery was equally hilarious, quoting Aristoteles: “Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine, so that I may whet my mind and say something clever,” neatly inventing a Greek sage midway between Aristophanes and Aristotle (he who famously liked the bottle). The Org de Rac (which sounds like something Odysseus might have encountered on his travels) organic wines available for tasting were awesome. On Sunday night festivities moved to the Vineyard Hotel in Newlands and a celebration of 100 vines recently replanted in Lady Anne Barnard’s backyard. 60 Sauvignon Blanc and 40 Sémillon, the brave new plants put the biomass back into the brand. Then off to Groot Constantia on Monday for the main event where informed rumour has it that WOSA have been downgraded from VIP status among the chosen 35 red-robed bigwigs after their recent contretemps with the Department of Trade and Industry. Listing reasons why SA’s export performance in the USA (down 25% in 2008 in an expanding market) has been less than stellar, WOSA CEO Su Birch noted: “The decision by the Department of Trade and Industries (DTI) to shift its export


2009: Biography of a Vintage

focus away from developed countries because of the global credit crunch was not helping.” The DTI called Su’s charge “nonsense” with DTI agro-processing director, Tshifhiwa Madima, claiming the decision was taken well before the credit crunch came along. It was taken because the emerging markets of Brazil, China and India were growing much faster than traditional markets so it was deemed important to put more energy there to maximize opportunities presented. To confuse matters, it emerged that the DTI had contributed R2.3-million to WOSA’s biannual exhibition, Cape Wine 2008, with R700 000 spent bringing out 22 American buyers. Tobias Doyer Of course, the point made by Dana Buys that the Indian market is a hard poppadom to crack due to byzantine import regulations and swingeing import duties, while the Chinese market is great if you’re in the cheap, sweet, bulk red wine business, is still valid. As for Brazil, our near neighbour across the south Atlantic is the biggest sitting Pato the Duck of them all and it’s about time someone started BEG (Brazilian Exporters Group) and approached the DTI for surplus WOSA funding for looksee trips to Rio and Florianopolis. The first meeting of BEG could be held at the Troyeville Hotel with Touriga Naçional from Calitzdorp, prawns from Mozambique and Leaping Lizard (a waitress) singing fado, to get the ball rolling. Alas, waitress Lovely Laurencia, Mozambique’s answer to Dolly Parton, has been let go, after her Cameroonian boyfriend was suspected of scamming customer credit cards, buying diamonds in London and perfume in Paris.


MMIX: Biography of a Vintage  

One year in wine.

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