The way outsiders see things is sometimes the quickest way to understand how you fit into the so-called bigger picture. Speaking just after his arrival on his first trip to South Africa, a professor from the wine business school in Dijon said he was really keen to observe how South African producers had managed the transition from a co-operative to a wine estate culture.
This seemed a most intriguing view of our wine industry. Most South African wine drinkers would date the end of the co-op era of Cape wine to no later than the second half of the 1990s. There is an entire generation of consumers who probably don’t even know it existed. They would be surprised to discover that in 1994 a few hundred small wineries processed 10% of the national crop while 60 – 80 industrial leviathans handled the rest.
It is still true that most South African grapes are not crushed on the farms where they were grown, and that 20% of the wineries process 80% of the harvest. South Africans abroad are often presented with the best selling export brands of Cape wine – and are forced to admit sheepishly that they have never heard of the product. Their confusion expresses the disconnect between two largely non-intersecting world views: the volume and the value wine industries. The co-ops may have converted to companies – but their bulk wine facilities provide a vital link between the grape growers and the brand owners.
The successful grape farmers have no illusions about the dynamics of their market (and the needs of their customers). Paid per ton of grapes delivered to the cellar, they swell production with a cavalier disregard for quality. While the average yield at a top Stellenbosch estate is in the 5 – 8 tons per hectare range, these bulk farmers manage 30 – 50 tons with ease.
They have recognised that they cannot make a living selling grapes at R4000 per ton if they are only getting 6 tons per hectare. However, at 40 tons per hectare, they are only too happy to accept R2000. Many will no doubt live happily ever after by simply applying this logic in the most cost effective way. Some may find that their customers – the major brand owners – will give up on them because the market has grown disenchanted with bland, high volume industrial-style wine. This is what happened to the KWV less than a decade ago. Once the primary vehicle of the high volume export brands, the erstwhile national cooperative was suddenly confronted with the changed expectations of the swiftly transforming market.
A few years ago it appointed Australian Richard Rowe to head its winemaking, and he in turn created a team ready to incorporate his more international vision. This involved far more than a few tweaks in the production process (though there were many of these, particularly in the field of acid and tannin management). It compelled KWV – and its suppliers – to re-engineer the way they worked together.
This is best exemplified in how the team put together the wine which won the trophy for the best Bordeaux blend at this year’s Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. To make The Mentor’s Orchestra 2009 the team sourced fruit from over 40 different growers. Each block from each vineyard was separately vinified. Barrel selection was based on what was appropriate to the specific varieties – and to the flavour profiles of the various batches. This left the team with literally hundreds of components from which to assemble the blend.
Compared with the old way of making wine in a cellar which once featured in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest in the world, a new era has clearly dawned. The Mentor’s range (which includes a superb Semillon, a fine Chardonnay and an excellent Petit Verdot) is obviously the top-of-the-range offering. However the very evident improvement in the fruit quality of the latest Roodeberg shows the transformation is more than cosmetic.
By M Fridjhon