Sniff's Silence and generating noise for the wines of South Africa (WOSA) in China

Hello again, it’s been a while. Some of you will know that I have been splitting my time between Europe and Asia, the benefits of which include the rapid accrual of air miles and an ever-increasing respect for personal space. The major disadvantages centre on the atrophying effects on my body of too many hours spent within the confines of pastel coloured cabins at 35,000 feet. Air travel does not allow for the active expenditure of calories with fidgeting proving my most dynamic of movements as I cross between continents. A sagging midriff is the disappointing but expected result of such lassitude; give me a few more months and I’ll be as ‘wide-bodied’ as the Dreamliners in which I fly.

An increase in travel however is not the major reason for Sniff’s period of deafening quiet. Again some of you may know that Michael and I have just completed writing and illustrating our first book, ‘France in 33 Glasses’ which will be published in the Spring of 2018. Writing is an enjoyable pursuit but one that often leaves me feeling devoid of further stories to tell. This is what has happened with Sniff. My focus has been directed towards completing and honouring our publishing deadline leaving little time for further wine–related ruminations on our blog. I want to say that this will now improve, it is certainly our hope, but we have already been commissioned to write our second, on Italy. Perhaps with more experience will come greater efficiency, anyway we will try to keep Sniff rolling more consistently than he has of late.

Having recently returned from China, following a week of hosting seminars promoting South African wines to consumers, sommeliers, importers and retailers; it is heartening to see the mutuality of enthusiasm shared by producer and prospective customer alike. It is also a pleasure to see the views of both being challenged and changed. Until one travels to a new region or country one’s knowledge of the culture is only ever second-hand and this can lead to misconceptions, many of which can lean towards the negative. The wine savvy nature of many of the Chinese present outstripped the level expected and demonstrated to those producers visiting China for the first time that there is a genuine passion for wine in Asia’s most populous and powerful country (all be it a passion common to an as of yet very small percentage of the general population) that bodes well for the future.

This of course works both ways with many consumers less experienced in the wines of South Africa being exposed for the first time to the incredible value proposition that South African Wine represents. As Tim Atkin MW commented in his recent ‘South Africa 2017 Special Report’, ‘by the standards of Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Napa Valley, South African wine is cheap’. The relatively inexpensive nature of South African wine (although very little wine in China is what I would call cheap due to the tax imposed on this ‘luxury’) is something, whilst exercising some caution, that producers would be wise to promote. I suggest caution simply because being ‘inexpensive’ can cause confusion amongst customers, as there is a belief that the wines cannot, therefore, be that good. In order to generate growth for South African Wine sales in China, a message that celebrates the purity and generosity of the fruit (along with the value), combined with the high line of acidity and grip that provide the best wines with both fullness and elegance, is something to shout about. Achieving volume at the expense of value only results in a situation that is undesirable due to its lack of sustainability and the long-term damage that it does to brand South Africa; nobody wants to make this a race to the bottom.

The size of the area under vine in South Africa is less than 100,000 hectares (ha) which makes it smaller than Bordeaux’s 110,000ha. The modest scale of their wine industry that naturally limits supply suggests that producers should focus on the quality and unique nature of their offerings from the many different regions that dot the Cape. Whilst I shy away from the suggestion that countries need signature varieties, most of us, initially at least, like the messages we receive as consumers to be simple. South Africa produces significant quantities of high quality Chenin Blanc and that is a variety that any country should feel proud to hang its hat on but in Asia we require something more, specifically something red. This is where it gets more complicated. Yes there is some magnificent Pinotage and some sophisticated Bordeaux blends but it is in those varieties most famously associated with the Rhone and northern Spain that I believe South Africa should be claiming as their own. Whether this is Cinsault, Grenache or perhaps most convincingly Syrah, South Africa has shown itself capable of crafting exemplary, sophisticated and thought provoking examples, wines that increasingly feature in my wine-rack at home.

Here are some of my favourites from the wines tasted at the seminars in Beijing and Chengdu:

Spier, ‘21 Gables’, Chenin Blanc
Rascallion, ‘Susurrous’, Chenin dominant blend
Cape of Good Hope, ‘Caroline’, Chenin dominant blend

Asara, ‘Cape Fusion’, Pinotage, Malbec, Shiraz
La Motte, ‘Pierneef’, Syrah
Babylon’s Peak, ‘S.M.G.’ (Shiraz dominant blend)
Bizoe, Syrah
Glenelly, ‘Lady May’, Cabernet Sauvignon dominant Bordeaux blend

Daschbosch, ‘Hanepoot’, fortified Muscat of Alexandria