By: Tod Stewart
Challenging perceptions – and righting misconceptions – typically isn’t an easy thing to do. This is especially true when attempting to raise the stature of something generally not held in particularly high esteem. Until fairly recently, the wines of South Africa tended to be passed over by all but the most knowledgeable wine types – at least here in Canada (but I suspect in other parts of the world as well). Thankfully, this situation has changed considerably – largely due to the quality of the wines themselves and the efforts of dedicated winemakers continuously looking to improve things. I dub these folk “Cape Crusaders,” among them, the members of the Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa (PIWOSA for short) are some of the most heroic.
Though these guys and gals are superheroes of the wine world, they were wearing jeans rather than spandex (as was I, so let’s get that cleared up right away) when I met up with a few of them in a Toronto bar a while back. Their mission isn’t ridding the world of crime but rather ridding it of ignorance, preconception and overt cluelessness. All in the name of South African wine. Gesundheit to that!
The group came together via a shared vision of how the wines of South Africa – and the industry itself – should look.
“It was a combination of a lot of years of frustration,” admitted Alex Dale from Rutherford Dale (and also the PIOWSA co-founder and director), who shared a glass or two with me along with Paul Clüver of the eponymously named Elgin Valley-based Paul Clüver Wines and Bruce Jack, from the Drift Farm in the Overberg Highlands. “Of all of us traveling around the planet, going to the shows, working with importers, doing our bit, we realized that the reputation of South African wines, in many markets, was being driven by wines on the low end of the scale. This isn’t South Africa – especially not South Africa today.”
Of course, guiding consumers to the best wines South Africa has to offer assumes, to a degree, that they even know much about the country’s wine industry. It could be a bit of a shaky assumption, at least as far as the market for South African wines in Canada goes.
“South Africa remains a largely unknown winemaking country in Canada. It is geographically very far away, so quite fairly, many people have not visited; therefore, their frame of reference is limited,” suggests Laurel Keenan, the manager of Wines of South Africa (WOSA), Canada. “That in and of itself can be a big obstacle. The second is the amount of shelf space we are generally afforded in retail stores, which is quite small and sometimes hard to locate. For a long time, the selection was also not reflective of the best wines produced there, but that is slowly changing.” It’s also worth remembering that sales of South African wines and spirits were impacted by global anti-apartheid sanctions imposed in the mid-1980s that were not lifted until 1994, meaning that once they were lifted, the industry required a huge “re-education” effort.
People like Dale and the rest of the PIWOSA contingent realized that if a change were to be accelerated, they would have to, in Dale’s words, “roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves.” With no government funding, the member wineries had little choice but to crack their collective piggybanks and pool their resources. “Either we clubbed together to make a difference and make it happen by ourselves, or it wasn’t going to happen at all,” Dale emphasized.
One might wonder (okay, I wondered) how this “club” of 10 wineries (today 12 as a couple of new member wineries have since jumped aboard) in a sea of about a thousand in South Africa can hope to have any impact on the global market. Clüver is quick to point out that PIWOSA represents the “super-premium” tier of South African wines. In other words, the wines that fall into the price bracket noted by Keenan are where the real “bang for the buck” starts to be realized. And while there are other South African winery associations in operation, none, in Clüver’s eyes, “are as committed to the process or as organized and active as we are.” However, he is emphatic that PIWOSA member wineries aren’t the only ones producing fantastic wines at what he says are “ridiculously low prices.”
Ridiculously low prices can be a bit of a double-edged sword. Though I would be the first to agree that its top-tier wines are largely undervalued, the “cheap and cheerful” image of South African wines may have created a misconception among consumers that this was all the county’s winemakers had to offer. And trying to work from the “bottom up” is no cakewalk. If you get into the market on the high end, it’s fairly easy to work down (look, in no disparaging way, at what Robert Mondavi did – reportedly personally disfavourably – with the Woodbridge brand). It’s not so easy going the other way.
“The South African entry into the major market, after 1994, was never from the premium end. It was always volume, always commodity, always the lowest common denominator. So our collective mission, our task, is to eliminate old preconceptions and raise the bar. A lot of sommeliers are very Euro-centric with their wine lists and perceive South African wines in a way that is completely inaccurate. We want – and need – to change this, and the impact we can have as a collective is exponential to what we could do alone.”
I touched base with Dale recently to get an update on PIWOSA and where things currently stand vis-a-vis the quality and perception of South African wines. What he told me was refreshingly positive.
“In many places, it is day and night compared to 10 years ago,” he enthused. “Gone are the days when you needed to hear references to burnt rubber and critter labels at every turn. We are welcomed today just about everywhere, taken seriously and listened to. Sure, it’s not like selling Burgundy, but we have made enormous strides, and PIWOSA has been very much at the forefront of this, notably in the UK, Canada and across Asia.”
Of course, the industry today faces challenges that were likely unexpected when PIWOSA was initially established. Climate change and prolonged drought are two major impacts on South African winegrowers.
“The change in climate coupled with the sustained drought we experienced in 2016, 2017 and 2018 along with the ongoing lack of a reliable supply of electricity got many of us thinking – and some acting! Many wineries have implemented significant water efficiencies as well as energy- generating initiatives, whether emergency-type fixes with generators or much more sustainable, long-term shifts in introducing solar. There has been a realization that in agriculture, we can’t just carry on as before. Although not yet widespread, some of us are converting or have converted to organic production (Radford Dale included, as our Estate in Elgin is one of only and handful in South Africa to be fully organically-certified).”
When asked if there have been any trends in winemaking styles, Dale stated, “There has been a generational shift away from the sorry era of Parkersied wines and the big/powerful-is-beautiful thinking. Interestingly, this transition plays directly into the handbook of PIWOSA, where we have always advocated balance and greater authenticity in our wines. Also, we’ve seen the emergence of a young and diverse generation of very aware, passionate and capable winemakers, and this is possibly the most exciting development in the South African wine industry. We really have a hotbed of talent and energy here right now.”
PIWOSA’s commitment to excellence goes well beyond the crafting of top-quality tipples.
“Our ethics charter was pioneering in the industry. It committed each member to the highest levels of integrity, employee-welfare, ecological best-practises and so forth, long before these subjects came under the spotlight and global scrutiny, as they have in recent years. There is certainly more attention to these matters in the industry now, generally, which has got to be a very positive development. Lastly, I think the resilience we have demonstrated as an industry, over the COVID era, has shown just how strong we can be. Not only did our government try to put us all out of business and fail (with multiple bans on the sale or transport of wine, initially in both export and domestic markets), not only did we receive zero financial support, grants, tax-relief, employee support or any other COVID-related funding, but we ended-up selling significantly more premium South African wine internationally, as consumers around the world rallied to help us in the face of what was plainly an unjust targeting of our industry, for political reasons, with no connection to the pandemic whatsoever. As Nietzsche said, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ It certainly has!”
As a winegrower, you know that the best quality fruit usually comes from vines that are resilient, adaptable and, well, pretty stressed. Considering what the vignerons of South Africa have gone through over the years, perhaps these factors result in top-quality winemakers as well.