BD Boutiques 16.05.2014

Almost imperceptibly the average size of Cape wineries has diminished over the past two decades, and the number of cellars has increased, almost in direct proportion. Right into the late 1990s there were fewer than 200 cellars, and they crushed a national crop of about a billion litres, harvested off just over 100000 hectares of vineyard. Today the vineyard area and yields are much the same, but there are three times the number of wineries processing the fruit.

In short, there has been a swing from high volume bulk-type co-op cellars to smaller, boutique operations. Just under 50% of all the wineries in South Africa process a crop of under 100 tons – an average yield of roughly 7000 cases. Most of the new name producers are positioned in this no-man’s land: just a little too big to sell their production to relatives, friends and close business associates, and a little too small to justify a sales force.

I’m unable to establish accurate statistics on the 259 cellars (out of a total of 582) that fall into this category. No doubt they could be further divided into the ultra tiny and the mid-size, the mid-size and the almost-at-the-100-ton-threshold. I suspect the distribution is fairly polarised. If you’re commercial, even on a small scale, you need to be at 5000 cases as a minimum – so I imagine that a significant number within this bracket are at the higher end. By the same token, the numbers of the ultra-boutique have been swelling, and there would be a concentration of producers making less than 500 cases.

In this latter segment, representing producers so small they need their day jobs simply to survive, resides much of the creativity of Cape wine. These are the cellarmasters whose passion drives them to seek out tiny blocks of old vines, or to risk their annual winemaking effort over an unlikely vineyard which has survived against all odds in Piketberg or Piekenierskloof.

The past couple of years has seen a flowering of these ultra-boutique winemakers, known as garagistes (on account of the fact that their early French counterparts were described as making their wine in their garages). Many started by producing a single barrel, learning the hard way what happens when you miscalculate sulphur additions. Over time their practical expertise has started to align to their theoretical knowledge. They’ve also formed a small association, which functions as much as a support group as a potential lobbying force.

How many of them are there today? Hard to say – there are obviously a whole bunch of home vintners making a barrel or two for domestic consumption. They are probably right off the radar screen. If you ask the more organised players, their estimate runs to somewhere between 10 and 20, with a further 10 or so who have grown too big to be called garagistes.

But here’s the thing: despite the fact that the garagiste environment has added an important dynamic to our wine industry, as a training ground/kindergarten for edgy producers, as a geiger counter helping to identify unique sites, and as a contributor to its overall profile, it has been stifled – almost to death – by red tape applied by the DA-led Western Cape government. Accordingly its numbers are shrinking

Each province generates its own regional liquor legislation. The DA – for reasons which presumably relate to the ambivalence about alcohol within key electoral groups – has systematically adopted a draconian prohibitionist position. Applying regulations around producer and business licences, the Western Cape government has decimated the ranks of the garagistes. Unlike the craft beer brewers, they cannot move to another province: they have to operate where grapes are grown.

If you want to know why the Masterchefs of the wine industry battle to match MacDonalds, for once don’t blame the ANC – or even the law of unintended consequences. The DA in the Western Cape has been told many times – sadly, the truth is it just couldn’t care.

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