The world of fine Cape wine is divided between the newly fashionable and the well-established. The former are generally also “recently discovered” – which means that the very fact of newness sometimes counts for more than the usual attributes of value such as track record, older vintages, aged wine stocks. Where novelty is the primary consideration, brands generally have a very short shelf-life. The wines need to be made, “discovered,” sold and consumed almost instantaneously. This means – for the producer (usually a rock-star winemaker with a market lifespan as bright and short-lived as a celestial supernova) – very few hard assets: no vineyards, often not even a cellar, no route to market other than momentary incandescence.
Occasionally those who triumph on this side of the spectrum are able to migrate to the more formal sector. This can only happen when their innovation is something of real substance, not a trick but rather a repeatable process or strategy. Their challenge is to transform their message from trendy innovation to a more structured engagement with a less fashion-driven consumer.
However, with longevity comes overheads. While many manage to avoid vineyard ownership (usually by entering into long-term contracts with growers), they still require funding for stock, infrastructure, management, and market interface. In the past two decades there have been no more than five such success stories out of at least fifty vinous ephemera.
The market’s obsession with trendiness gives the novelty half of the industry disproportionate visibility at the expense of those whose investments range from tangible assets to a lifetime of experience. Two recent events made be acutely aware of this discrepancy: one was a Dalla Cia range tasting, the other a presentation of the wines of the Cape Vintners’ Classification (CVC).
Giorgio Dalla Cia trained in Italy and came to South Africa in the 1970s. From 1978 until 2003 he was the cellarmaster at Meerlust, playing a key role in establishing its reputation. When he retired he set up a boutique operation, making a range of wines and continuing his long-standing involvement in grappa production. Fifteen years later he’s still at it, offering several varietal wines and a couple of elegant red blends.
His is a small, low profile premium business, sourcing fruit from growers, vinifying in one location and distilling at another. Neither the fresh, delicately handled 2018 Sauvignon Blanc nor the finely delineated 2018 Chardonnay are made for instant drinking. The energetically tensioned Pinot Noir is currently from the 2015 vintage, the Cabernet is 2016, the Giorgio Bordeaux blend 2015 and the ultra-premium Teano (Bordeaux varieties plus sangiovese – in the manner of a Supertuscan) 2017: that’s a lot of stock to carry, a huge financial commitment in ageing: there’s nothing fly-by-night about Dalla Cia’s operation.
The same point struck home even more forcefully at the Johannesburg launch event of the CVC. This is an organisation whose avowed purpose is to increase the visibility of site-specific wines while working within very stringent ethical and ecologically sustainable guidelines.
Its members are subject to rigorous, independently managed audits covering farming and labour practices and the site specificity of their fruit sources. For their wines to be certified, five vintages must pass a blind tasting panel which judges both quality and consistency in terms of expression of site. (I chaired one of the panels and I can vouch for the rigour of the methodology). CVC members include many big name producers – Alto, Anthonij Rupert, Delaire-Graff, DeMorgenzon, Dewetshof, Kanonkop, Lourensford, Simonsig, Tokara, Waterford and Vergelegen – as well as smaller, equally dedicated fine wine estates such as Almenkerk in Elgin. What they all share in common is a considerable investment in wine production – vineyards, farming, vinification, cellar-door sales (and therefore wine tourism).
In short, they are indispensable to the quality side of the Cape wine industry. They cannot afford to follow the now fashionable trend of “moth-balling” expensive-to-maintain Stellenbosch vineyards and buying bulk fruit from the Orange River irrigation vineyards. The old adage explaining the difference between “involved” and “committed” (it’s the relationship between bacon and eggs: the chicken is involved, the pig is committed) defines the difference between the novelty brands and them.
These distinctions assume greater importance now that Strauss & Company is resurrecting fine wine auctions in Johannesburg. The first sale – on 8th June – has a carefully curated collection intended to build a market in investment wines. While this may not appear a noble objective to people who prefer to see wine as an enjoyable beverage rather than an alternative currency, it could contribute future value to a wine industry battling to break even. But before potential investors throw themselves enthusiastically into a stock exchange burdened with not-insignificant brokerage fees, they might usefully apply the “asset versus bubble” distinction to their selection.