The pandemic of the past year has been punctuated by plenty of pinch-yourself moments, but few have been as dispiriting as the restrictions inflicted on the South African wine industry by its own government.
With the highest number of infections on the continent, more than 44,000 deaths and a health system teetering on the brink of collapse, South Africa’s government imposed three separate blanket bans on the sale of alcohol, whose abuse it argued led to more pressure being put on already overstretched hospitals. The bans covered a cumulative total of 20 weeks and meant that, having battled economic woes and years of severe drought, South Africa’s wineries began the 2021 harvest last week facing an even graver crisis – one that threatened to become existential.
The latest prohibition was, thankfully, lifted on Monday night during an address to the nation by President Cyril Ramaphosa, who appears to have heard the desperate pleas for wine to be treated as a separate case, rather than being thrown in with beer and spirits, which are more widely blamed for society’s ills. As a result, wineries will now again be permitted to sell alcohol during their normal licensed hours.
“We’re just so relieved that we can get going again,” says Deidre Taylor, sales and marketing director at Kanonkop Estate, “especially as this gives wineries such as ours a slight advantage over general retail, which can only sell alcohol from Monday to Thursday, 10am-6pm.”
VinPro, the wine industry trade body, calculates that the restrictions – which in the initial stages of the crisis also included a ban on exports – have cost more than 8 billion rand (£383 million) in lost sales, with the vast quantity of unsold wine now posing a threat to the 2021 harvest.
“This puts a huge strain on the sustainability of the industry,” warns Rico Basson, VinPro’s Managing Director, “(which) will inevitably result in many businesses and farms closing down, along with an estimated 27,000 job losses, forcing those most vulnerable in our communities into a poverty trap.”
Around 300,000 people are directly employed in South Africa’s wine industry and it is estimated that half-a-million jobs depend upon it. VinPro has welcomed the latest relaxation in the rules, but still intends to pursue its case at the Western Cape High Court, seeking to make such restrictions regionally devolved.
“It has just been disastrous,” Taylor says. “We are fortunate that 40% of our sales are exported, but even so it has hit us really hard, and our domestic retail partners are all sitting on stock, so they have told us that they are not looking to buy any more from the last vintage.
“Across the industry, there is 300 million litres of wine sitting in tank ahead of the 2021 harvest and there are going to be casualties,” she warns.
A weak rand makes imports disproportionally expensive, meaning South African wine has been heavily reliant on its previously thriving domestic market. The pandemic has exacerbated the situation as global demand from hospitality and the cruise industry has all but dried up.
South Africa’s biggest export market is the UK, now the focus of a concerted effort to rally support, from social media influencers to independent retailers and the major supermarkets.
The #SaveSAWine social media campaign was launched last summer by the country’s WineLand magazine and has since been joined by #SpectacularSouthAfrica from WOSA (Wines of South Africa) and, most recently, #MyFavouriteSouthAfricanwines launched by Richard Bampfield MW. Inspired by a powerful cri de coeur, written by winery owner Bruce Jack for trade publication The Buyer, Bampfield has launched ‘Love Wine’, a virtual tasting on 18 February to raise funds for the communities impacted by the crisis.
“The ‘Save South Africa wine’ campaign has helped a lot,” says Taylor. “Our exports have grown significantly and our customers around the world have been fantastic, especially in the UK.”
“We’re seeing a call to action,” says David Cartwright, sales director at Seckford Agencies, Kanonkop’s importer, “which is relatively easy when you consider that the wines are absolutely market-beating at £10-£20.”
Looking for some wines with which to show your support? With its innovative use of appassimento (partially dried grapes), Darling Cellars Chocoholic Pinotage 2018 is a wine to back up Cartright’s point, its Gold medal at the IWSC belying its humble £10 shelf price. The highest-ranked South African wine in this year’s IWSC award-winners, meanwhile, Bouchard Finlayson’s sumptuous, 97-point Missionvale Chardonnay 2018, is priced at around £23; while fellow IWSC trophy-winner Quoin Rock 2015, a Bordeaux blend to rival some of Napa’s finest, costs around £40.
“What’s most exciting is the sheer diversity in South African wine,” says Cartright. “There’s some of the world’s greatest Chenin, some bonkers-good Chardonnay and I’m really excited about Roussanne at the moment. As for the reds, Cinsault is really sexy, served Beaujolais-style with a bit of a chill; cooler-climate Pinotage is fantastic; while Pinot Noir is getting more exciting as they tone down the use of oak to emphasise that wonderful fruit.”
“Although some of them have only been doing it for 10-15 years, we’re seeing so much confidence from this generation of South African winemakers.” Now they just need a market to sell to…
Scroll down for a list of UK-available, award-winning South African wines
Award-winning South African wines on the high street
Top Rated Bottles
Bouchard Finlayson, Missionvale Chardonnay 2018
Stellenrust, (Stellenbosch Manor) Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2019
Bellingham, The Bernard Series Whole Bunch Roussanne 2020
Boschendal, Elgin Chardonnay 2018
Stark-Condé, Field Blend 2019
Bouchard Finlayson, Kaaimansgat Crocodile’s Lair Chardonnay 2018
Quoin Rock, Red Blend 2015
Glen Carlou, Syrah 2018
Bartinney, Skyfall Cabernet Sauvignon 2015
Asda, Southern Point Shiraz-Merlot 2019
Darling Cellars, Chocoholic Pinotage 2018
La Vierge, Royal Nymphomane 2015
Morrisons, The Best Shiraz 2019
La Motte, Syrah 2018
Resilient South African wineries look for the silver lining
Why we should all be drinking South African right now
South African wine: does the government have a hidden agenda?
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