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How should South Africa reinvent itself?

South Africa is currently in a dilemma. Is it going to promote itself as a ‘new world’ wine producing country, or is it going to focus its marketing efforts on the unique selling point of the traditional South African grapes of Pinotage and Chenin Blanc? It’s not an easy question to answer.

One thing is clear, though: South African wine surely does need to reinvent itself. The ‘traditional’ South African wine styles need to change to win over the export markets: they haven’t gripped consumer consciousness in the way that Australian wine has, for example. In large part, people’s perception of ‘brand South Africa’ is probably to blame. The new world countries that have been most successful in the UK – most notably Australia and New Zealand – have had a positive image in the minds of consumers. There’s hope that this may yet happen for South Africa, but at the moment it just isn’t cool. And coolness is probably important in shifting large volumes of wine.

I’d argue that at the moment, going the traditional route – promoting the whole industry on the back of developing an international following for Pinotage and Chenin Blanc – is a bit of a dead end. Pinotage makes some ‘interesting’ wines, but (controversially, perhaps) I don’t think it’s capable of making many great ones. Its uniqueness means that it will probably always be a niche variety. No doubt there’s an important place for it in South Africa’s wine industry, but it would be foolish to market the whole industry with it at the forefront. Similarly, Chenin Blanc is capable of making very good wines, but possibly not great ones, and South Africa is currently doing so much better with Chardonnay that it might be wise to focus on the latter variety.

On the other hand, taking the full-on new world approach might also be a mistake. If South Africa begins to put all its eggs in the basket of the international varieties, making fruity, oaky wines with no sense of place, it might end up struggling in an already-overcrowded marketplace. Instead, a third way – attempting to straddle both the old and the new worlds – might be the way forward. Is it possible to modernize, while still retaining the soul of the product? There’s some evidence that South Africa may already be doing this. I’ve recently tasted stunning Sauvignon Blanc with the freshness and fruitiness typical of New Zealand, but also with some of the restraint of the Loire. Some of the best Cape Chardonnays are brilliantly crafted, with Burgundian refinement, nutty oak and the fruit intensity more common in the new world. There are also South African Cabernet-based wines that fuse the minerality and elegance of Bordeaux with the richness of Coonawarra. And producers like Hamilton Russell are making Pinot Noir that shows far more class than most new world efforts with this tetchy grape. There’s also promise for varieties such as Shiraz, Mourvèdre and Viognier with a distinctly South African twist.

In fact, I don’t think there’s too much wrong with the wines, and with the current weakness of the Rand, the prices are great. Instead, the big challenge that lies ahead for the South African wine industry is reinventing its image. 'Brand South Africa' needs to have the sort of cachet that has propelled Aussie wine to stardom in the UK market. And perhaps it would also help if some of those weird-looking Afrikaans names disappeared from the labels. A final thought: what matters to the wine producers isn’t necessarily the same as what matters to the consumer. The industry is desperate to shift large volumes of inexpensive, commercial wines. But does it matter to the consumer whether they are drinking £5 Chardonnay from Australia, the South of France, Chile or South Africa? It’s up to the South Africans to convince punters that £5 South African wines are better and more interesting than their peers. But for those bothered more by quality by quantity, South Africa is now making some great wines, and they are extremely good value for money, and they’re relatively easy to find.

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