Identity was in the spotlight at the 2015 Adams & Adams WineLand Seminar, where four panel discussions had a resounding, common message: it’s time for the South African wine industry to back itself and stand together.

Industry confidence is at an all-time high – particularly at the higher end. This is according to Warwick and Vilafonte CEO Mike Ratcliffe, who chaired the marketing panel at the fifth Adams & Adams WineLand Seminar. The fully booked Seminar was held at Allée Bleue and comprised panel discussions about viticulture, marketing, the international trade environment and a tasting of South African wine ambassadors.

Ratcliffe urged delegates to tell their stories with confidence, adding that their wines should support these messages: “The world is showing confidence in us, but do we have confidence in ourselves?”

The theme of confidence was echoed by all the panels, with the DGB group viticulturist and viticulture panellist, Stephan Joubert, encouraging the South African wine industry to go for luxury wines in difficult times, instead of further lowering production costs. 

“I would advise producers to increase their income by getting higher prices for their wines. Our unique selling point is value for money, but this is a huge problem. We don’t receive premium prices for special sites and pockets. We have to play in the ultra-premium and icon categories (£10 and higher). And we need to sell these fine wines for fine prices,” said Joubert.

He based this optimistic approach on the belief that South African wine producers have never before understood their terroir diversity and how it influences wine styles better than they do today. “We are now, more than ever, ready to become successful. I would like to see a bigger belief in the true potential of our special vineyards. We have to enhance the South Africanness of our wines. We have to add value,” Joubert concluded.

Tell the story

Geoff Harvey, Vinimark marketing director and marketing panellist, however, emphasised that consumers will not pay a premium, unless you tell them why. He warned wineries not to confuse using social media with ‘telling the story’. He encouraged them to define their brands clearly and tell the story accordingly. Ratcliffe echoed this, emphasising that “you need to know what you are, before you can tell your stories”.

Their fellow panellist and Kleine Zalze proprietor, Kobus Basson, emphasised that it is important for wineries to know who they are telling their stories to, and that they need to know and understand their consumers. According to Basson, narrowing the scope and building relationships with consumers are key elements of successful marketing. He strongly emphasised that the wine industry needs to apply global best practice, without copying international successes. 

The panellists of the South African wine ambassadors tasting showcased examples of such wine, with both the Wine Cellar director, Roland Peens, and Platter’s associate editor, Cathy van Zyl, presenting examples of Chenin Blanc – South Africa’s most-planted grape variety.

The well-known wine writer, Michael Fridjhon, made a convincing case for Pinotage, arguing that it is a statement wine if properly produced. He urged winemakers to stop apologising for it and start promoting it with confidence.

“Our unique selling point is value for money, but this is a huge problem.”

Stronger together

Whether it relates to fighting leaf roll virus or securing free trade agreements, collaboration and communality were deemed essential for taking the industry forward.

In the viticulture panel discussion, Delheim viticulturist Etienne Terblanche commented that leaf roll virus is restricting production from older vines and the quality associated with these vineyards: “We need a game plan in order to to take action in rectifying the problems. Buy only certified plant material, remove infected vines, control the vector, monitor your vineyards regularly and remove the infected vineyards.” He urged vine growers to “value the elderly and nurture the young”.

According to Terblanche, South Africa has a firm grasp on sustainability, but has not harnessed initiatives like IPW (Integrated Production of Wine) and BWI, South Africa’s Biodiversity and Wine Initiative, sufficiently.

Fellow viticulturist Chris Keet – who is equally comfortable and respected in the vineyard and cellar – campaigned for better alignment of viticultural practices and specific wine styles, aromatic profiles and price points. “Look at your wine style, price points and USPs (unique selling points). Also at regionality, authenticity and provenance, and develop a clear marketing strategy,” he said.

On the marketing panel, Harvey used the success of the Swartland Independent grouping as an example of the value of group marketing. Responding to a question from the floor, Wines of South Africa (Wosa) CEO and marketing panellist Siobhan Thompson commented that industry groups like the Swartland Independent, Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa (Piwosa) and the Cape Vintners Classification (CVC) – which all specifically promote top-end wines – have complemented Wosa’s efforts, instead of being a threat.

The panel discussion about the international trade environment highlighted several examples of the value of communality. Adams & Adams director Suzaan Laing used the success story of the Spanish sparkling wine style, Cava, and its Geographical Indications (GI) status as an example. She explained that the generic term Méthode Champenoise was phased out in 1994 by the Spanish, and replaced by a geographical indication of distinction, Cava, which led to a significant rise in sales and a stronger identity for this wine style.

Her colleague and fellow panellist Jessica Axelson drew a comparison with our own Méthode Cap Classique (MCC), but argued that even though MCC is a unique South African product, it has limited protection and no rules, except for the production method – which means that the category could remain a ‘free for all’. To counter this, she recommended a collective mark or market GI.

Like in the case of GIs, free trade agreements (FTAs) seem to be a missed opportunity for South Africa. Distell regulatory analyst Tina Swigelaar commented that there is a notable shift from local alliances to wider strategic partnerships. Of the 250 FTAs in force, some of South Africa’s greatest competitors boast significant agreements, such as Australia’s multilateral agreements with 31 countries and bilateral agreements with 11 countries. Similarly, Chile has 14 bilateral agreements and multilateral agreements, with among others the EU and China.

South Africa’s key opportunities include extending the Africa’s Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) for another 10 years and leveraging the BRICS platform to start discussions regarding preferential trade. According to Swigelaar, government’s primary hurdle is, however, balancing the interest of all industries, while addressing the challenges of a developing economy.

Lambert Botha, practitioner of trade law at Hilton Lambert and a panellist in this session, commented that industry bodies should not underestimate their role in international trade negotiations and dealings with government. He again emphasised that the collective is more powerful than individual players.

On a less formal note, the ambassadors tasting illustrated that as a collective South Africa still certainly does not have a specific signature wine style. The wines showed varied from remarkably good value-for-money Chenin Blanc, to the new wave of fashionable Cinsault blends, as well as cool-climate Sauvignon, small-volume craft Grenache and Semillon, alongside a classic Bordeaux-style blend, made in impressive volumes.

“Value the elderly and nurture the young.”

The South African wine ambassadors tasting line-up

Roland Peens:

Leeuwenkuil Chenin Blanc 2015

Sijnn White 2013

Le Riche Richesse Reserve 2014

Alheit Cinsault Cabernet 2014


Cathy van Zyl:

Paul Cluver Sauvignon Blanc 2014

Reverie Chenin Blanc 2013

David Sadie Grenache 2014

Rupert & Rothschild Classique 2012


Michael Fridjhon:

Morgenster White 2013

Landau du Val Semillon 2013

Kanonkop Pinotage 2013

Nederburg Eminence 2007

As published in the September 2015 issue of WineLand magazine.

Go Back