Not all premium wines are unobtainable, and not all unobtainable wines are premium products. It is is the nexus of perceived luxury and perceived rarity which determines how wines are priced in the market – assuming reasonable quality levels have been achieved. Where luxury and rarity overlap, control of price resides almost entirely with the producer. That’s why the major players in the wine business go to so much trouble to sustain the illusion that their wine is unobtainable.
For producers with deep pockets it’s an easy, though expensive, exercise: you release every year only the volume for which you have a ready market. The rest is aged in your cellars (or disposed of under another brand name for a fraction of the price). The Bordeaux trade has mastered the art of managed shortages. It’s called “En Primeur” sales and the annual circus begins in early April and runs for a few months.
The trade and influential journalists are invited to taste barrel samples which purport to be a fair representation of what will one day be available in bottle. The wines are scored and the results are hyped. Trade and private buyers with an appetite for futures trading commit to their purchases, never entirely sure how much wine will ultimately come to market.
The right to buy on this basis comes with an additional burden, namely that to enjoy a place at the Salon Privé you have to be there every year, no matter the quality of the vintage. The chateaux sell a chunk of their stock upfront and then trickle the balance into the market once prices have stabilised a few years later. They can also declassify lesser quality barrels (and some perfectly good ones, if the market is clearly saturated).
An increasing number of South African producers play the same game, but rather more discreetly, given that we don’t have a developed futures market. A vintage is released and offered for sale – often with the promise of rarity vying with its quality “credentials” to induce purchase. When the next vintage comes around, the unsold inventory from the previous year goes into the “vinoteque”, its price elevated to cover the holding cost and to support the illusion that the best time to buy is on release.
Generally, pinot noir producers have so far not had to stoop to such strategies to clear their stocks. Those in good appellations (Hemel-en-Aarde and Elgin primarily) enjoy the double brand value of the variety (believed to be expensive to produce, and therefore always more pricey than other cultivars) as well as their own names and the sex-appeal of the area of origin.
As my last article on the Pinot Celebration made clear, I’ve never been completely persuaded that South African pinot offers drinking value at any level: many of the cheaper ones lack resonance, and almost all of the wines from the recognised appellations are not priced for sissies. That said, having tasted all the 2017s from Hemel-en-Aarde, as well as several back vintages, there are wines worth tracking down.
Hamilton Russell – whose eponymous founder created the market for pinot in South Africa – remains one of the icons: the 2016 is opening up well, the 2017 shows the intense black cherry notes and ample freshness of a pinot noir built for the long haul. Kevin Grant’s Ataraxia wines continues to impress, with the 2017 full, but not overly rich, and still very much in the Burgundian style.
La Vierge’s 2017 has the balance and finesse you would expect of a fine Pinot (and evident in the 2014 tasted at the same time). The slightly candied aromas of the Newton Johnson Family Reserve 2017 deliver immediate appeal. The palate suggests it will track the sumptuous but restrained 2015 and become more complex with time. While you don’t get much change from throwing R400 at a bottle of current release Cape pinot, there’s at least a sense now that the substance is starting to match the theatre.