South Africa: Safari so goodie
Tuesday 31 August
So I’ve finally made it to South Africa after eight years working in the wine industry and this being Africa, day one meant safari.
I’m not sure what I was expecting as I boarded the Big 5 Wine Safari vehicle at Warwick Estate in Stellenbosch but it wasn’t a comparison between a white rhino and Sauvignon Blanc, that’s for sure. But life is full of surprises.
Wrapped in a fuchsia pink blanket to stave off the cold spring day, our tour guide Ivan took us around the wine safari, also known as a vineyard tour.
“Cabernet Sauvignon,” he said “is like a lion. The lion is the king of the jungle. When Cabernet is young, it is aggressive on the palate; as it becomes older, the tannins calm down, just like when a lion ages.”
Hmm, a bit tenuous, but I see what you’re driving at Ivan and I’ve never heard a wine compared to a wild animal before. It’s refreshing for a wine journalist who has seen enough stainless steel tanks and barrels to last a life time.
Sauvignon Blanc…which of the Big 5 safari animals would it be? The white rhino, of course. The link was fresh green grass: the rhino eats it; the wine smells like it.
Cabernet Franc is apparently like an elephant because they both have thick skin and you can keep the wine for a very long time. Warwick does a single varietal Cab Franc, a relative rarity in South Africa, but I couldn’t see any relation to Dumbo or Nelly.
The buffalo is another safari favourite but it’s unpredictable and wild hence the comparison with Pinotage. And last but not least Merlot gets likened to a leopard – because it’s smooth. For wine connoisseurs, it might seem a bit silly but the wine industry needs a bit of fun injected into its rear end. It’s a great way to educate the consumer, link the wine trade with a successful tourism industry - and make wine seem less elitist.
Kiwis face up to challenges
Thursday 26 August
It’s good to see the New Zealand wine industry facing up to the challenges it faces rather than bury its head in the sand or, worse still, deny things aren’t smelling of roses.
So, at today’s Romeo Bragato conference in Marlborough, Stuart Smith, chair of New Zealand Winegrowers, made a balanced and wise speech.
Falling profitability, oversupply, and the strength of the NZ dollar have been the crux of the problems the industry now faces, leading to Kiwi wine companies struggling or going out of business. Winegrowers also called for another harvest of 265,000 tonnes after two record harvests of 285,000 tonnes in 2008 and 2009.
Having spent seven months in New Zealand I don’t profess to be an expert but there are things I have noticed on my way round the country’s wine regions that have surprised me. I believe there’s naivety among the smaller players of the trade. No doubt, that occurs in many other wine producing countries. Consulting for an independent wine merchant in the UK for the past seven months and looking for new wines for its portfolio, there’s a lack of awareness of what’s going on outside New Zealand. Poor branding (or lack of it), dated labels, and an unwillingness to negotiate on ex-cellar prices makes you wonder if they’ve ever been to the UK, US or Australia to look at what’s on the shelves and the competition they’re up against. Obviously, many New Zealand producers are on the ball but many smaller wineries are making wine for themselves.
Here’s some snapshots from Smith’s address, offering another insider’s insight into the industry:-
After two decades of sustained growth, we are all now experiencing the worst trading conditions since the mid-1980’s. The global recession and markets trading down combined with issues specific to our own sector have seen grape and land prices fall sharply, bulk exports lift, in-market wine prices down, the NZ dollar is high against the UK pound and the US$ … times are tough, very tough indeed.
He later added: “Falling profitability is the major issue for growers and wineries right now. It is the issue that must be addressed – but it in turn is a function of a number of different issues. Supply and demand, the value of the NZ$, tax rates, compliance costs - these are all issues affecting profitability, so we need to have a range of strategies to address these issues as far as we can.
“...So going forward we must continue to be market led, harvesting no more grapes, making no more wine than the market can profitably absorb.
In that vein, we have been asked frequently in recent weeks ‘What is the demand for New Zealand wine out of the 2011 vintage?. Our assessment at this stage based on information from our wineries and looking at market trends is that a vintage of 265,000 tonnes which is the same size as 2010, would be sufficient to meet demand for NZ branded wine in the next year.”
Sauternes is not just for Christmas
Tuesday 24 August
Sauternes is not just for Christmas - or to drink with foie gras. That’s the message that the sweet Bordelais want to tell the world with a marketing budget under 500,000 euros each year.
The old foie gras/blue cheese and Sauternes are so deeply entrenched that it’s going to have to take one enormous effort to alter perceptions.
Thomas Dejean of Chateau Rabaud Promis, admits: “Sauternes, foie gras, Sauternes, foie gras. It’s a reflex. We have to create more moments. As an aperitif, it’s fantastic - like a Sauvignon Blanc it’s incredibly aromatic.” Yes, but it’s not dry Thomas - and that’s the issue.
There certainly are plenty of other occasions that you can drink Sauternes but it’s a bit of a push to serve it at every course. Similarly, the Champenois try and force fizz down your throat at every course too, and that gives you really bad guts and makes you yearn for a still wine.
Nevertheless, I have to admit that there were some fantastic combos thanks to ex-sommelier and consultant chef, Georges Gotrand. He works his dishes around the wines - not something every chef would do for a sweet wine but then he’s getting paid to do it.
Nevertheless Chinese-style chicken marinated in sesame oil and soya sauce with coriander was sticky and viscous and a lighter-style Cadillac worked famously with it.
Likewise curried monkfish with dried coconut and an ‘04 Sauternes both married well. The sweetness complementing the delicate spices and the viscosity of the wine working with the creaminess of the sauce.
There were plenty of surprising matches and I have to say it did change my mind but will I get a bottle of sweet Bordeaux out next time I have a coconut-based curry? I’d like to say yes but then I’d probably be lying.
Another Kiwi vineyard bites the dust
Thursday 19 August
Can we really say we’re surprised that another New Zealand vineyard has gone under owing a whopping $24 million (£10.8m)?
There’s been a slow trickle of grape-growing and wine producing companies that have gone into administration in the past year but I believe Awatere Vineyard Holdings’ demise could push the flood gates open.
Vineyard plantings have tripled since 2000, with grape prices falling as much as 50% following two consecutive bumper harvests, in 2007 and 2008. There have been a host of new entrants to the industry with romantic dreams of making their own wine or investors wanting to jump on the bandwagon and make a quick buck. If only they had done their research before making the plunge, they would have found that the soil wasn’t flecked with gold.
Central Otago producers Anthem Hodings and William Hill winery, and Marlborough’s Cape Campbell have already fallen victim to the oversupply and economic downturn and others will follow.
It’s a sad situation for those affected but the imbalances that have been created in the last three years need to be redressed. We’re likely to see the bigger companies getting bigger as they swallow up vineyard land; vineyards will be pulled out and replaced with other crops, and life will go on. Hopefully, the industry will have learned its lesson too.
Bordeaux working on its six-pack
Monday 16 August
Speaking to UK merchants about the 2009 campaign recently, I’ve noticed that they’ve been talking about a trend for buying six-bottle cases en primeur.
With higher prices and lower allocations of the top wines, the only way everyone can get a piece of the pie is through six-packs. Nick Pegna, MD at Berry Bros & Rudd Hong Kong tells me: “I think six packs are becoming more relevant. We saw them first in 1998 and 2000 when prices started rising.”
Indeed, Chateau Lynch-Bages packed 30% of their 2008s in six rather than twelve packs and it is believed that will increase this year.
Pegna adds: “In a vintage where there isn’t a lot of stock, it makes it fairer. Once everybody’s been allocated a little of what they want, you can then look at what’s left at the end of the campaign and start allocating more.”
While the wines will taste the same in six vs 12-pack cases, can investors realise the same returns with the smaller units? Pegna claims they have good resale value and lucky for us, fine wine trading site lix-ev has been hearing the same story from other merchants re six-packs - and they’ve kindly gone and done the research for us.
According to its August Market Report, six packs have, on average, traded at just 0.7% discount to 12s in the past year. Interestingly, the returns on magnum cases (6 x 150cl) and larger size formats were much lower than on the 12 x 75cl cases. The moral of this story is buy your bottles in 75cl if you’re planning on selling rather than drinking your Bordeaux jewels.