We’re now well into the silly season when in lieu of content, newspaper editors commission laundry lists of the year’s worst movies, funniest jokes and most tragic celebrity deaths. This being the end of a decade, things are even worse than usual as histrionic historians haul out their crystal balls, give them a good dusting and explain what happened since 2000. After a particularly parochial summation of Cape (as opposed to SA) Wine in the naughties, with everything rosy in the vineyard except for some transformation issues (like there was none, duh!) – we scored it 12.13/20 sighted – I thought I’d have a go. Numbers are always a good place to start (except in the case of assessing wines) and it’s clear that the naughties were a difficult decade indeed. Alcohol levels and prices went through the roof and domestic consumption continued to dry up faster than the Aral Sea.
South Africans are now drinking 295 million litres of vino, down 6% on last year and hugely down on the 351 million litres of 2002 (SAWIS figures stop in 2003). At least wine is doing better than brandy – down a whopping 9% in a year. But exports have doubled (from 218 million litres in 2002 to 400 million litres last year), so that’s all right, isn’t it? Well no, actually. A closer look at the numbers tells a different tale. In the year to October, France bought 770 748 litres of bottled wine, which puts it at position 23 in the export table. No surprises there, you might think, as they have plenty of their own plonk they can’t sell.
Yet in the bulk exports table they’re #3 with over 8 million litres purchased – an order of magnitude more. Wine imported in flexitainers to be labeled, bottled and screwed in the Hexagon and invariably re-exported. It’s back to the old colonial business-as-usual model with pennies for the natives and big profits offshore. But there’s no point in anyone stamping their tiny feet, shaking their puny fists and shouting “foul” like its 2010 already. The Europeans do it to everyone – Aussies, Kiwis, Argies – it’s called Capitalism, the worst economic system apart from all the others.
I had some things to say about this SA wine made in France in the Sunday Times in November – some of it bottled in Alsace.
SA Wine – Made in Alsace
The family of Olivier Biecher has been making wine at the foot of the Haut Koenigsbourg in the medieval village of Saint Hippolyte since 1762. But why struggle with reds that won’t ripen when you can buy excellent Merlot from Stellenbosch at R6 a litre and Shiraz/Cabernet from Australia for the same price? Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, Cabernet Sauvignon from Argentina, Rosé from Chile and Chenin Blanc from Bonnievale. Imported in 24 000 litre flexitainer by sea through Antwerp and then via canal to Strasbourg, the wine is aged in Alsace before being bottled and shipped to consumers in Denmark, Germany and Scandinavia. Labels are printed in English, Danish and German but not French as the locals don’t touch the stuff.
The rationale for New World wine in Old World bottles used to be exclusively economic: better service for a better price (corks, bottles and labels being cheaper in Alsace than SA). But a campaign launched by Tim Atkin in The Observer in October against heavyweight glass bottles, has added a green dimension to the argument.
Launching a moral crusade in the organ Nelson Mandela holds responsible for saving him from the gallows at the Rivonia treason trial, Atkin blasts carbon unfriendly packaging. “It is mainly, but not exclusively, a Latin thing: the major culprits are Spain, Italy and Argentina, where anyone who makes an icon wine seems to come over all macho and purchase the thickest glass available. In an effort to arrest this runaway trend, I’ve taken the decision not to recommend anything on these pages that comes in a heavyweight bottle.”
He claims “I will not hesitate to name and shame” but pleads the fifth on the identity of “the three red wines that are sitting on my desk… they weigh more than a lot of dumb-bells.” Posturing and gymnastics aside, he beats the xenophobic drum, advising readers to “support the UK’s 416 wineries (who don’t have to ship their wines as far)” or to “switch to wines packaged in bag-in-box, plastic, Tetra Pak or lightweight glass.” Right up la rue de M. Biecher and his three automatic bottling lines, although the contents of bottles from the UK’s 416 wineries can presumably come from Eilandia and still bust the Atkin boycott.
A point conceded by Atkin who notes “another possibility is to buy wines that are shipped to the UK in bulk, something which is favoured by many large New World producers, especially those that supply cut-price own-label wines to supermarkets. There’s an element of self-interest here – it keeps costs down – but there’s no denying the environmental benefits, too. Waitrose, which is leading the way in ‘feel-good wines’, has even introduced its own Virtue line, which is shipped in flexitanks and packaged in lightweight bottles made from 60% recycled glass. I just wish they tasted a little better…”
The pundit elite has long argued that SA needs to break out of the cheap-and-cheerful but far from lucrative corner of the UK supermarket shelf. Something much more difficult to do following Atkin’s advice. This call to return to colonial economics is probably the most dangerous challenge to confront SA exports in a generation.