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Cape Wine 2012 a great success: well done WOSA

September 27, 2012 2 comments

A busy Cape Wine 2012 underway on day three of the event

Thursday 27, 2012

Well it’s official. Cape Wine 2012 is a roaring success if the comments from exhibitors are anything to go by.

Wandering around the exhibition hall at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, I’m struck by how well organised this event has been, from the surprisingly sturdy cardboard exhibition stands, to the neatly arranged overhead banners.

The floor is abuzz with people, tasting, spitting, talking and at most every table, people are sitting in huddles, clearly talking business, and for an industry that is feeling the pinch of declining consumer spend, both locally and overseas, that is truly a God-send.

Glen Carlou’s Georgie Prout pretty much summed it up when I spoke to her this morning before the doors officially opened on the final day of the exhibition. “It’s been really well organised, from the stands themselves to the delivering of wine from store for our daily use,” she said. “it’s been slick and professional.”

Wine industry guru Ross Sleet told me that this year is even better than Cape Wine 2008, and that it provided a platform for producers to showcase their products. “It’s been great. Well organised and professionally done, and Su Birch and her team at WOSA need to be congratulated.”

Norma Ratcliffe of Warwick and Vilafonte observed that the association with food and wine was far better managed this time around. “You can’t really talk about wine without food, because they go together. This Cape Wine has really done well to emphasise that link. Every event I’ve attended that’s involved food has been so well done with the food pairings working beautifully.”

And Waterford’s Kevin Arnold was equally complimentary. “I’ve looked at the numbers, and this has been a great opportunity for exhibitors to engage with both buyers and the wine media. The WOSA team have done a great job, and deserve to be complimented.”

Jeremy Borg of Painted Wolf, was full of praise when I spoke to him on Wednesday morning. “I had a busy day yesterday, and today I have a number of appointments lined up. It’s shaping up to be a great event.”

Aside from the exhibition itself, the lectures and seminars have been very well received. I arrived at the door of the Old Vines Seminar addressed by Rosa Kruger and Prof Alain Deloire yesterday, and was unable to gain access, as it was hopelessly oversubscribed.

The Soapbox enclosure next to the vibey Swartland Independent corner, built cleverly from empty wine boxes, is also immensely popular, with a tasting or discussion happening pretty much every half hour.

So it is indeed a case of hats off to Su Birch and her team, for a well-organised and productive Cape Wine 2012.

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Bulk wine exports: the elephant in the SA wine industry room

September 26, 2012 4 comments

If you look closely at the picture above, you’ll see a prime example of the unity that is so sorely missing from the South African wine industry. It’s a tiny corner of the mammoth exhibition hall at the Cape Town International Convention Centre where Cape Wine 2012 is underway, and it is the place that has the most incredible buzz.

Beyond “Gran Wine Funk” on the back wall of the stand, there’s no branding, but if you look at the bottle back labels, you’ll see a sticker which says “Swartland Independent”, which in a way is a contradiction in terms, because what you experience here is the most incredible display of unity. Chatting to Penny Hughes who is pouring Nativo’s wines, a lovely white blend and an equally lovely red blend, it becomes clear why. “If David wasn’t here,” she says, gesturing at David Sadie standing behind the table, deep in discussion with somebody about one of his wines, “one of us would pour for him.” And that’s what sets this band of innovative clear thinking wine growers apart. They understand the need for presenting a united front to the marketplace, be it local or overseas.

Sitting chatting to Antonio Amorim, president of Amorim Cork in Portugal yesterday afternoon, I ask him for an opinion about what’s missing in our approach to market development. He pauses and reflects briefly: “You lack unity as an industry,” he says, “like the unity you’ll see in Australia and in New Zealand.” And this is coming from a man whose livelihood is dependent on winegrowers using his product to close their wines, talking about two countries who have embraced the enemy so to speak: screw-cap closures for so many of their wines.

I quiz him on that score. “Of course I’d like them to use cork instead of screw-cap, but that’s not my point. Take the Kiwi’s for example. They’re known for making great Sauvignon Blanc and they all insist that screw-cap is the right closure and they all do it. That’s unity, and I respect that, even if they aren’t using cork closures,” he says with a smile. And that’s the kind of unity that is so evident in this corner of the Cape Wine 2012 hall, with a constant stream of people walking up, engaging, tasting, talking, and doing business.

In September 2009 more or less (I’m open to correction on this date) Wines of South Africa (WOSA) CEO Su Birch launched the DNA Handbook of South African Wine, a significant initiative to build a unified brand identity for the South African wine industry. Australian wine consultant James Herrick was flown out to address the launch conference in Stellenbosch, and he made some very clear points. We cannot continue to be the cheap and cheerful bottle of wine on every British table; we must pursue the premium wine segment in our chosen overseas markets; we must relate compelling, believable and true stories about those premium class wines; and above all else, we need to present a united front to the world market.

The DNA Handbook of South African Wine was supposed to be the platform for that united front, which would enable the industry to walk in lockstep into the future with that united front. Whatever it cost to put it together was wasted, including the cost of the seminar and the cost of flying James Herrick out here to talk at the conference. Why? Because it was still born. If you Google DNA Handbook of South African Wine all you’ll come up with is a reference to an article I wrote in Bolander. It’s here if you want to read it.

Here’s a quote from James Herrick out of that story. “From the sheer logistics and cost exercise of meeting the world demand for wine, and with a lot of low cost producers in the world, there is a limit to the extent to which South Africa could continue to be efficient enough to meet that demand for low cost wine.

The countries that end up occupying that market for low cost wines will be the most efficient.  South Africa – because of distance, because of its farms, because of its cost of money, and because of its geography and topography – will have a hard time competing.

For the SA wine industry to survive it would help if it could move its production slowly towards the more premium end, because that’s where the margin is, and that’s where the value for the consumer is.”

Herrick also spoke of the need to leverage the unique story that underpins South African wine, something which Antonio Amorim also feels is an essential part of the sustainability of our industry. “You need to be selling your wine where consumers pay for differentiation, for the story you tell them about South Africa, about everything that your wine represent,” says Amorim.

And Tuesday morning, we all sat in the opening seminar of Cape Wine 2012 and watched the elephant in the room which everybody conveniently ignored until Amorim pointed out that fully 57% of our current wine exports leave our shores in bulk.

“As long as you continue to allow a good portion of your industry to be driven by the likes of UK supermarket chains, you’ll have great difficulty building brand presence in the premium sector of the world wine market,” reckons Amorim, and he would be right. With increasing demand for our wine to be shipped overseas and bottled there under a label that does nothing to build Brand SA, what are the chances that we can stem the haemorrhaging?

I’m not suggesting that all bulk wine exports are an abomination. Those producers who ship in bulk and bottle overseas under their own label at least still promote Brand SA, and the likes of KWV come to mind in this regard. Granted we end up losing local jobs, but with what amounts to vertical integration, such exports end up with better profitability because it is so much cheaper to ship in bulk and bottle overseas, rather than to ship bottled wine.

If you take a look at the state of our national vineyard, and there’s a story here which does just that, you’ll see that it has been declining in size since 2006, and the way things are going that trend is set to continue.

Granted, it has been accompanied by an increase in yield per hectare, but that trend is limited by the law of diminishing returns. There will come a time when producers can no longer squeeze more grapes out of a hectare without impacting quality, and when that happens, the price they get will decline beyond the point at which it is economically viable to continue to farm the vineyard. If they’ve not been replacing the 5% of their vineyard which they should be replacing each year – and many producers cannot afford to do so because of the price per ton they’re getting – the vineyards will either lie fallow, or be replaced with another crop.

So when WOSA’s Su Birch says that in 20 years’ time, we’ll have a national vineyard 150 000ha in extent and we’ll be exporting premium quality wine all over the world, I must question where those figures come from.

We live in a water-scarce environment, and it’s getting worse. We’ll have less, not more water going forward. Just replacing what we’ve got with water-savvy clones is difficult enough as it is, never mind growing our national vineyard by 50%. If we’re lucky, we’ll end up with half that  – 80 000 odd hectares – in twenty years’ time, the way things are going.

Chatting to Chris Mullineux, one of the Swartland Independent crew in that vibey corner of the hall, he points out that one of the conditions of membership is that you cannot ship more than 20% of your wine production in bulk. There are other criteria, like naturally produced wine, a varietal specification, an ageing regime specification, limitation on the use of new oak, viticulture guidelines, and bottling in specific shapes. It’s no AOC system, but it provides a set of guidelines that ensure that members of the group present a united front to the market, one that buyers and consumers can understand and tap into. And they’re not fighting with each other, cutting per ton prices to get the deal from the next guy.

Charles Banks of Terroir Capital spoke on Tuesday about his decision to buy Mulderbosch Vineyards in Stellenbosch. One of the reasons is that it was a cash-positive business producing wines that he knows will sell well into the US market – like the Steen op Hout Chenin, and the Chardonnay. If he thinks there’s a viable market for Stellenbosch wines in the US market, one which is notoriously difficult in which to establish a brand presence, then perhaps more local producers ought to take a leaf out of his book. And we’re not talking cheap and cheerful wines here. Rather, we’re talking wines that tap into the lower end of the premium segment, which is where we ought to be focussing our attention.

And as Antonio Amorim points out, we ought to be pushing for premium wine market share not only in the US, but in China, Russia and Brazil as well.

“Our vision is that South Africa will be recognised worldwide for producing premium quality distinctive wines in the world’s most biodiverse winelands, in an environmentally sensitive and ethically responsible manner,” is what Su Birch said way back when the DNA Handbook of South African wine was launched.

Three years later, how much closer are we to that dream?

Style or place: What is the future of South African Chenin?

September 25, 2012 Leave a comment

On the eve of Cape Wine 2012, September 24 to be precise, the Chenin Blanc Association (CBA) held its annual conference at The One & Only at the V&A Waterfront.

I attended with much interest, as the program promised that the results of a three year research study conducted by the Institute for Wine Biotechnology would be revealed, and indeed it was.

The pre-cursor to the research feedback, was a panel discussion by Richard Kershaw MW, Frans Smit of Spier, Bruwer Raats of Raats family wines and Neil Grunewald of DGB which debated whether or not regionality is in any way expressed in South African Chenin. Each of the four panellists gave their views on the matter, and although each presenter focussed on different  variables  – soil, climate, elevation, proximity to the ocean, clonal material, etc. – the ultimate conclusion was that it’s far too early for us to start speaking about regional expression (call it terrior if you will), because of the great differences in soil, climate, elevation and aspect, sometimes in the same ward, never mind in a given wine region. Conclusion? All things being equal, it is not unusual for a diversity of styles – from fresh and fruity to rich and ripe, more about this later – to emerge from a single region.

A compounding factor is the propensity of South African winemakers to buy in grapes from other wards and even other regions and  bottle it as their own. An example is Andy Mitchell Wines Swartland Chenin Blanc, made at the cellar in Greyton but with fruit from a Swartland vineyard.

In a number of such instances, such a wine will be an intra-varietal blend, including fruit from the likes of Darling, Stellenbosch, Durbanville and Elim for example. This practice is perfectly legal of course, and it affords the winemaker with a good degree of latitude in assembling a wine of a particular style, and it is this aspect – style – which emerged as the principal driver of Chenin Blanc expression. If this were France,  making and marketing such a wine would be illegal. The AOC system in France is far too rigid to allow such practices.

Getting back to the massive diversity with which we must contend, what did emerge was the important consideration that it is perhaps time to revisit our demarcation system, to see whether it would be possible to demarcate more granularly than the current system allows for.

The Banhoek in Stellenbosch was cited as an example, whereby it has both a south and a north facing aspect, not to mention a good deal of diversity in soil type. To what level does one consider taking demarcation to more tightly define the characteristics of a specific area? Do we get as granular as Bordeaux for example, where depending upon which side of the pathway the vineyard is situated, it either is or isn’t a Grand Cru? Do we want our equivalent of the AOC – the demarcation system under control of SAWIS – to become as restrictive? Probably not in the legislative sense.

Having said that, it’s worthwhile taking a look at what’s happening in the Swartland, where a band of like-minded producers have set about defining criteria which, if adhered to, will result in wines of a particular style emerging from the region. Love them or hate them, the Swartland is known for oxidative style wines, which helps to define many of the wines that  cone out of the area.

But where does that leave the debate about Chenin and regionality? Nowhere, other than to say once more that style, with a degree of influence conferred by the region in which it is grown, defining the Chenin that emerges from a particular producer. Frans Smit made the point, that counter-intuitively, vineyards close to the ocean, because of longer ripening and hanging times often have greater fruit concentration and purity than hotter drier inland regions. A prime example of how location influences a wine beyond the style pursued by the winemaker.

Interestingly, the research feedback presented by Dr Helene Nieuwoudt, reveals that consumers are able to identify two broad style categories – fresh and fruity on the one hand and rich and ripe on the other. Aside from the parlous level of consumer knowledge about the varietal – Chenin is named around 7th or 8th when consumers are prompted to name grape varietals they know – the finer nuances of style (wooded or unwooded, residual sugar) appear to be poorly understood.

The CBA recently defined five styles for Chenin – fresh and fruity, rich and ripe unwooded, rich and ripe wooded, rich and ripe slightly sweet, noble late harvest, but that in and of itself requires a level of discrimination which appears to escape the average consumer according to Dr Nieuwoudt.

If anything, Chenin style should be defined on a continuum from fresh and fruity to rich and ripe. If such a continuum were to be presented visually on the bottle label, then it becomes easy for a winemaker to position their wine on that spectrum.

Chatting over lunch to Dr Winnie Bowman CWM, the intriguing possibility of another dimension emerged. She feels that as an adjunct to the style continuum, something similar to denote residual sugar simply – a sweetness spectrum – would play an important role in helping consumers make informed choices about which Chenin to buy.

And if you take that one step further, something similar to denote the level of oaking of a wine, would complete the picture.

Point is, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Three simple continua on the label, standardised for all CBA members, with a simple indicator on each to define the wine style in those three dimensions. What could be simpler?

If indeed our demarcation system is to evolve over time to more granularly define specific terroirs, then working with such a multi-dimensional but simple style identification system, might well be the bridge between now and then.

Uncorked wine, liver and onions in the Franschhoek Valley

September 21, 2012 5 comments

Tucked away behind the zhoosh coffee shops and bistros on the Franschhoek main road at the intersection with Reservoir Street you’ll find Café de Arts, a delightful little eatery run by Chris Hoffman and Louise Rambert.

I had the good fortune to eat lunch (and dinner) there on the Saturday of Franschhoek Uncorked a couple of weeks ago, and was I impressed!

Chris Hoffman hard at work in his open plan kitchen at Cafe des Arts, turning out his signature dishes.

Originally the preserve of the legendary and much loved Topsi Venter, the restaurant was taken over by Chris and Louise a couple of years ago when Topsi retired. Chris, who was running Café de Arts in Kalk Bay at the time, actually trained as a chef at Topsi’s some 16 years ago, so in many ways he was coming home.

I love liver so when I saw lambs liver with chilli roast potatoes, balsamic onions and bacon (R78) on the menu my choice was simple, and what a great decision!The menu is eclectic in that it changes literally daily, depending upon what’s available fresh and local Louise tells me, and it’s short but despite its brevity, choosing a dish is tricky.

The lamb was melt in the mouth tender, the creamy sauce just richly right, with a tiny hint of chilli, and the crispy bacon slices the perfect topping. Read more…

Drizzle & Dip: Not just another cookbook

September 6, 2012 8 comments

First published in Bolander Lifestyle & Property, September 5, 2012

Preparation Time: 10 minutes Cooking Time: 35 minutes Yield: 16

The best way to review a recipe book, is to actually prepare some of the recipes in it, so when I attended the launch of Samantha Linsell’s first cookbook, published under the title of her delightful food blog, Drizzle and Dip, I resolved to do so.

A subsequent discuss ion with Samantha persuaded me to do one of her personal favourites, her paternal grandmother, Betty Linsell’s crunchy recipe.

I baked them on Sunday night, and they are heavenly, testimony to the effort that Samantha puts into her passion – the creating, testing and perfecting of recipes.

The book, available at all good book stores, is divided in three major sections: Morning, Noon and Night, with each section containing recipes that are well suited to the time of day, taking into account the amount of time available to the busy cook in the course of a day. The result is an intermingling of cooking and baking recipes which works well. Read more…

Categories: Book Review, Dining In, Food