Grapple with the grape (from the Mail & Guardian)

The world of marketing reflects that we live in a universe that is very much concerned with image and style.With the reintroduction of South Africa to the global market, ‘Brand South Africa” has become a catchphrase that marketers are using to sell local business, culture and sports internationally.Since South Africa is one of the world’s major wine producers it is not surprising that ‘Brand South Africa” has become the mantra of the local wine industry. The question is whether South African wines do, in fact, have a unique identity worth promoting? Or is this notion simply the clever creation of endless marketing strategies? The immediate answer is yes, we do possess a wine identity worth promoting but it is an identity that is not, as yet, fully evolved.

Other current catchphrases within wine marketing are those of the ‘new world” of wine versus the ‘old world” of wine. Countries such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa represent the new world whereas old world producers are found in Europe. In terms of possessing a strong wine identity the old world producers have the advantage of tradition and specialisation. Germany is known as the land of the Riesling, albeit with its complicated wine labels. The hotter climes of Portugal and Spain are known for port and sherry respectively. France probably remains the most defined wine producer in terms of image and style. Its various regions are famed for specific styles of wine from the sparkling wines of Champagne to the red blends of Bordeaux.

Among the ‘new world” wines we have a bun fight resembling Super 12 rugby. As in the rugby scenario South Africa faces stiff opposition. Australia continues to lead the pack with commercially attractive and well-branded wines. New Zealand has since the 1980s produced pungent white wines (particularly Sauvignon Blanc) with the explosive power of a Jonah Lomu. Outside this triangle Chile, another new world contender, continues to succeed with easily drinkable, delicious and competitively priced wines.

On the South African front we are faced with a mixed case of scenarios. Although stylistic differences exist between wines from our various regions we lack the precise regional identities that France can offer. South African winemakers tend to be jacks of all trades, frequently offering a range of wines so diverse that any sense of identity is lost in the profusion — a trait that is typical of new world wines.The plus side of this is our flexibility. We seem equally adept at offering a wide range of both red and white wines. Our vast stocks of Chenin Blanc produce increasingly better examples while our Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet continue to maintain world-class standards. We also possess the uniquely South African Pinotage. Pinotage is currently at the centre of the Cape blend debate. The argument is that the inclusion of the wine will result in a red blend unique to the Cape.There is no doubt that South African wines are evolving a specific character — half way in style between the upfront wines of Australia and the more reserved wines of France.

Michael Fridjhon, a leading wine authority, says: ‘We are seeing lots more finesse in our wines [which are] veering to the more restrained European style.”He believes that we are starting to establish regional identities.Ironically, it is the commercial drive to flog our wines on the international market that may prove the biggest obstacle. Let’s hope that in the struggle for commercial success and the elusive ‘Brand South Africa” the identity of South African wine becomes strongly established rather than repressed. At present, the development of a concrete local wine identity remains very much a work in progress. An assessment with which Fridjhon ‘fully agrees”.

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