Thursday, 11 October 2012

South Africa: time to talk terroir

Terroir needs to be at the top of South Africa’s agenda according to one of the country’s leading Pinot Noir producers, Anthony Hamilton Russell, owner of Hamilton Russell Vineyards in Walker Bay. “South Africa needs to sort out its terroir message in order for it to be taken seriously as a fine wine producing country. It will help us promote our fine wine offering. The importance of terroir very much exists in South Africa, it just hasn’t been communicated properly yet,” Hamilton Russell told the drinks business at Cape Wine last month.

“Terroir is fundamental to the Pinots I produce. The stony, clay-rich soil in Hemel-en-Aarde helps us to get closer in style to Burgundy than any other New World country,” he said, admitting that it has been “tough” being a South African fine wine producer and trying to convince the world of the worth of the country’s top wines: “I’m proud everyone has persevered. If we were American our wines would be on allocation."

South Africa's premiere Pinot Noir region, Hemel-en-Aarde
Paul Cluver, managing director of Elgin-based Paul Cluver Wines, agrees that South Africa’s top end wines offer “outstanding” value. “You’d never find the same quality/price ratio in France or the US. We’re just suffering from a bit of an image problem. People are not willing to pay more than around £20 for South African wine at the moment. We need to shift our focus to our premium offering and market ourselves better,” Cluver said.

Hamilton Russell’s Walker Bay neighbour Peter Finlayson, owner of top Pinot producer Bouchard Finlayson, agrees that South can get closest to Burgundy in terms of tannin content. Our best Pinots are well structured, with good tannins and good extraction. There are no vacumes in the wine business. I’m seeing a lot of newcomers to Pinot Noir trying to capitalise on the favourable returns it affords,” he said.

Finlayson believes the challenge for South Africa moving forward is to look at terroir specification. “We need to streamline our efforts and focus on making wines with a sense of place. I’d like to see the terroir approach really take hold across the Cape. I’m starting to see it happen,” he said. Thys Lombard, sales and marketing manager of Tokara meanwhile, believes the key to success in the fine wine sphere lies in pricing the wines down slightly, so they remain exceptional value.

“South African fine wines are starting to enter the market at the price they are supposed to be. We got complacent, but we’ve lost our arrogance and become critical of ourselves, which is healthy. We’ve gone back to the drawing board. It’s a good thing that our best wines are not priced too highly. We’re aiming for the top of course, but I’m happy for us to be thriving in the middle at the moment.”

Wine writer Michael Fridjhon agrees that rather than trying to dominate the top tier, South African can carve out a niche at £10-£20. “I’m not sure the future of South African fine wine lies with icon wines. The £10-20 bracket is where we should be ploughing our furrows."

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