I remember clearly Michael Fridjhon standing up at a function in Robertson quite a few years ago at a press function in Robertson. He praised Excelsior for producing their Cabernet Sauvignon of such quality considering their volumes. The trip to Robertson had been quite nervy flying in tiny planes over the ocean with a beautiful view of the Strand but with only one pilot per plane! We were all given a selection of top Robertson wines with a beautiful magnum of De Wetshof Bateleur Chardonnay 1998 drunk at one of my birthdays in 2005.
Some how Fridjhon’s comment about Excelsior’s quality stood in my mind. A certain edition of John Platter described Excelsior as “Their mission is to make abundant volumes of good- quality at reasonable prices, wanting to be the Henry Ford of the wine industry.” But I think the challenge goes much further than that. It is all very well to produce wines of volume and value but the wines have to speak of a certain place, a specific terrior, in Excelsior’s case that identity is Robertson. If you start producing wines in large volumes you run the risk of losing any sense of individuality. This problem affects both the Old world and the New.
In Beaujolais in France they had the opportunity to produce mass easy drinking reds but unfortunately much of their quality was and remains poor from the Nouveau wines to even some of their village wines. In famed villages such as Fleurie beautiful wines are still produced but even in many of the famed villages many disappointing wines are produced. This is an example of a value Old World brand tarnishing its reputation. In the New World in Australia their budget wines made a huge impact on the export market. They were and are often blended from different regions. This gave an appealing taste and consistency of quality. But now the consumer is starting to look for a sense of place, of identity and wines from Chile gave value together with individuality at affordable prices. Chile thus became an important player in the international market.
In South Africa we have established a strong tradition of value wines that combine quality, affordability and a sense of place. This puts us in a strong position both in the local and international market. We had a long tradition of mass brands that dominated the market but lacked individuality. But more and more the emphasis in South Africa is towards value plus individuality.
Firstly, we have producers that focus purely on value but give great quality. They cannot be defined as brands but rather producers that offer value plus quality and a taste unique to the producer. Then we have well known labels such as Nederburg that offer a vast range of wines across many categories from award winning wines to value wines such as their Baronne and Edelrood. Value wines that everyone swears by. Then we have quality producers that have what they call their “cash flow wines.” This is a very important category as it enables them to produce their niche wines and put money in the bank. An example is Buitenverwachting with its perennial favourite white Buiten Blanc. I remember Andre van Rensburg from Vergelegen telling me that his Sauvignon Blanc was very important to him as “it was a beautiful wine but also a cash flow wine.”
Beyers Truter, South Africa’s Pinotage king has seen an interesting career from making great wine at the famed Kanonkop where Kadette remains an excellent value wine. Moving onto his present farm Beyerskloof he makes his well known value Pinotage together with his premium Diesel Pinotage, for example.
Value wines drive the South African wine industry however important our premium wines might be. At home many people are happy to drink big brands without individuality. That is not a problem because local wine lovers interested in wine will look for more. The problem lies with volume brands in our export market that lack individuality. This can prevent foreign drinkers from tasting the unique character of South African wines and looking for more.