Despite focussing on the drought, global short supply, the challenge of pricing and branding as well as political and policy uncertainty, I left the annual Vinpro information day inspired that we can still make wine work. But how?
Not surprisingly, the relentless drought conditions in the Winelands were central to the 2018 edition of the annual Vinpro industry information session. According to Vinpro Viticulture expert, Francois Viljoen, the South African Winelands are in unchartered waters as to the exceptionally challenging season. Below-average rainfall for three years in a row, extreme temperatures as well as earlier frost, hale and sunburn all contributed to the fact that the 2018 vintage is expected to be the smallest in a decade.
There are some positives, though. The cool early summer with some rain in October and November did create positive conditions and those who can still manage some irrigation and well-managed vineyards with proper canopies, could expect good quality grapes – especially as the dry conditions can result in better flavour concentration.
Another positive effect of the drought and the resulting smaller harvest, together with the historically small 2017 European crop, is that we might see an increase in wine pricing.
That South African wine deserves and should demand better pricing was a recurring theme of the day. Warwick’s Mike Ratcliffe shared his thoughts on how the positive international reviews of South African wine should give the industry confidence. He feels that SA wine needs focus, specialisation (but not fragmentation) as well as cooperation in order to ensure less, but bigger and more focused brands – at every price point.
And that brings me to brands. Mike’s thoughts on brands as well as Wine Intelligence’s Lulie Halstead’s, ‘sobering’ (to use her word) statistics about brand recognition made me think about the real value of a wine brand. The more I try to sell the product and the brands I love, the more I am confronted with the challenging concept of a wine brand. Yes, when you are in the super-luxury market and your brand is Pétrus, there is value in the brand, but I often think that for the consumer, the brand value lies in something other than the wine.
This sentiment was also echoed by Halstead’s research. For a brand to be recognised, some activation is needed. Activation comes in the form of the experience around the wine and experience is something the wine industry can capitalise on through wine tourism.
If there is one thing South African wine producers have managed in the last few years, it is to create a quality wine tourism experience – even if it happened almost in a generic way and without an industry body leading the way. I am very confident in the tourism offering of the Cape Winelands and since the introduction of a formal structure and continued cooperation between Vinpro and Wesgro, even more so. And in confirmation, Vinpro CEO, Rico Basson, says that wine tourism has grown with 15% in the last year.
But more than bringing together wine tourism role players, one needs to acknowledge the exceptional contribution Rico Basson makes to the wine industry. He leads with insight and is capable of getting things done. Just look at the great progress in transformation and ethical accreditation in the Winelands!
While the experts and thought-leaders addressing the 800+ audience on Thursday, were all worried about the South African economy, unemployment approaching 28% and the uncertainty with regards to policy and especially agriculture, why did I still leave feeling positive? Perhaps, after being let down by our leaders in government, the line-up at today’s conference managed to reassure me that we have capable, confident and informed leaders that can help the wine industry, but also South Africa, through our current challenges.
Filled with insightful learnings, also from Nedbank economist Isaac Matshego and political analyst, Max du Preez, the Vinpro day has left me with much food for thought and I am sure to share them with you over the next few weeks.