The mammoth London International Wine and Spirits Fair once again drives home the point that wine marketing in the 21st century is a new ball game – a game of brand-punting, linked with regional identity, right from soil through to national culture. If your game plan is not right, you might make it in the short term, but the powerful supermarket buyers will probably grind you down in the long run.

On arrival at the huge ExCel exhibition complex in Docklands, London, huge banners in the foyer promoting Nederburg and Arniston Bay strike a warm patriotic chord. And, on sighting the colourful, exuberant South African pavilion, you feel old SA has arrived in the world of wine. Only soon to realise that, out there, there’s also a wide world of competition, dynamism and innovation.

Among the Babylonian drone of thousands of visitors to 1 200 stands from 38 countries, you encounter a prominent South African presence, with some 100 brands laid on for the 18 000 visitors over three days.

Of these, most were featured at 50 stands in the Wines of South Africa (Wosa) pavilion, with the rest mostly hovering in close proximity among other brands at their foreign agents’ stands.

It was late in May and my first visit to this Fair in four years, thus the first time at the venue which took three train journeys from central London to reach. My immediate feeling was that the intense atmosphere of wine passion and intimacy of the outgrown previous venue, the Olympia, South Kensington, has been lost. But, from a practical point of view, once you’re there, the ample space and easy grid-based numbering system to find stalls just made things so much easier.

… and more comfortable, because London’s warm May weather is much more tolerable in a modern complex with efficient air-conditioning. Many South Africans who donned jackets and ties on the opening day, arrived much more informal on day two – part of a general more informal trend which appears to be showing itself among the Brits.

Unlike other international shows, which appear to be struggling to maintain visitor numbers, Brintex, the Fair organisers report a 7% increase this year, 25% of whom were foreigners, tasting about 60 000 wines … here on ‘neutral ground’ since the UK is not much of a wine-producing country.

Here you also find a good balance between New and Old World wines, particularly significant for the South African effort.

Despite the South African participation being down on last year – down to 50 from 60 last year and 107 in 2002 – all the exhibitors spoken to appeared quite happy with their degree of success and were unanimous that you simply had to be there despite the costs and increased demands of international exposure over a wider front these days.

Escalating costs are in fact what Su Birch, Wosa’s CEO, blames for the decreased South African participation.

“Although South Africa had the same number of square metres as in 2003, we had fewer exhibitors. This can be attributed to the high cost of the event coupled with loss of Department of Trade and Industries support, as well as the fact that, as more producers successfully appoint agents, they tend to exhibit on their agent’s stand,” added Su.

Be that as it may, South Africa certainly put up a rainbow show. Perhaps the abundance of colour and variety tends to a degree of chaos and fragmentation.

The trend towards so-called ethnic brands for foreign consumption is continuing, but there was criticism from Max Maisela, chairman of the South African Wine and Brandy Company (SAWB), who spent considerable time there in the company of fellow wine industry ‘heavies’ Danie de Wet, Abrie Botha and Johan van Rooyen.

Maisela said in a statement to WineLand, “The South African diversity was unfortunately only shown in the interesting African artefacts and ethnic brand names of our wines on the Expo. We must have more black exhibitors participating in this world-class event. Too few empowerment initiatives are visible. Through our wines we must also give effect to the rich diversity of our nation.”

He was, however, full of praise for the overall South African performance.

“I am highly impressed by the occasion and how well our wines are positioned against the wines of the world. The Wosa stand was impressive. We can truly be proud of our efforts to promote ‘Brand SA’.”

Said Su Birch, “In order to demonstrate that South Africa has moved away from a value to a quality supplier, Wosa organised two very successful theme-tasting areas on the South African pavilion. They showed some of the finest Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc South Africa has to offer. The theme tables were well attended and due to the tremendous positive feedback, might become a standard item on future Wosa pavilions.

“The colourful, but classy pavilion was well noticed in the gigantic hall. We had a high number of quality visitors and very positive feedback from the South African producers, who rated this one of the most successful shows in many years.

“It’s noticeable that the New World countries are occupying more and more space. Chile had an enormous stand, which must have cost their producers a fortune. While certain parts of the exhibition hall were rather empty, the area around the South African stand was very busy for most of the time. We had people from all over the world showing interest in our wines.

“This Fair has become, after Cape Wine, the most important international wine fair for South African producers. This event helps to reinforce the energy of South Africa’s biggest export market.”

Supermarket power at play

Leading exhibitors have reported pretty stiff trading in the sense that the powerful supermarket groups are putting on the screws to force prices down, particularly of red wines.

“It’s easy to sell wine here; the problem is to make money in the process, said Sterik de Wet, KWV manager: wine and Vititec.

“The buyers are keen and happy with the general quality. But many want to buy at prices which are not profitable for us. The supermarket groups are playing South African wineries off against one another. There are so many players these days, giving the buyers more options.

“The supermarkets have an incredibly strong leverage with their own labels.

“But there’s certainly a gap in the premium wine segment at specialist wine shops. You can sell wines at prices in excess of £5,99, provided the quality is right up there.

“The bottom line is, you’ve got to be there and make the most of it. The days are gone when you could wait for incidental passers-by. You must do your homework and make appointments with buyers beforehand.

“And your performance in the UK also plays a role elsewhere. One of the first questions a buyer in the United States or Scandinavia asks you, is how you’re doing in the UK market.

“If you get five good appointments during the Fair, it’s all worthwhile. Your relationship with the UK buyers is really critical,” said Sterik.

“Wines flush with local character …”

All over, visitors were reminded by bold banners and fiery flags about which specific territory’s specific wines they were tasting. Wines flush with local character, often boasting indigenous varieties, showcased their patriotic presence.

If there was one obvious message coming from this year’s LIWSF, it was that regional and place identity – yes, that strange, often scoffed-at concept called ‘terroir’ by the French – in all its connotations may be the strongest marketing tool for a world overflowing with wine. Where labels and ‘brand-building’ were the marketing mantras of previous years, something different is happening.

It seems that many producers – wineries where well-known and creative winemakers are faced with the challenge – are looking at punting the unusual: high-end, classy wines altogether different from the easy well-made supermarket stuff. For wine lovers there is cheerful promise of delicious surprises beyond the known and ordinary, marked by Cabernet and Chardonnay.

From Tannat of Uruguay to Chromitsa of Greece, blended Rosé from the Bekaa Valley to Arneis from Piedmont, the LIWSF 2004 was an exotic showcase of, if not a united nations of wine, but certainly one where the anthem “Local is Lekker and Sellable” was clearly sounding up.

No wonder there was such a crowd at the Wosa stand and the Pinotage pourings.

– Melvyn Minnaar, www.wine.co.za

Swinging palates to Pinotage

Peter May, chairman of the Pinotage Club in the UK, reports on their website that very positive response to this varietal was experienced when he poured during the Pinotage Day at the Wosa presentation of six different varieties.

“There was a lot of interest and the stand was busy all the time. A French party from OIV (International Office of Vine and Wine) wanted to taste Pinotage which they’d only heard about and several sommeliers and restaurateurs came looking for Pinotages to list – especially those not currently distributed in the UK, so they could have an exclusive.

“Some people came with colleagues who didn’t want to taste as they ‘didn’t like Pinotage’.” But when encouraged to take a glass they all revised their opinion. The best way to overcome negativity against Pinotage is to let people taste the wonderful wines now being made. ”

– www.pinotage.org

Towards more elegance in Oz Shiraz

A tasting of Shiraz wines from one of Australia’s leading regions for this varietal, revealed that the winemakers still favoured high alcohols, but that there’s a move towards more elegance and ‘femininity’ and away from too powerful, full-on fruity wines.

The nine wines tasted, from McLaren Vale, on the coast near Adelaide, were presented as part of the LIWSF On-trade Seminar programme, as a “2002 Seminar Masterclass”, and led by well-known UK wine writer Tim Atkin. With him were Ben Riggs (winemaker at Mr Riggs), Jack Harvey and Tony Haw, eminent viticulturists in the area.

Atkin said that Shiraz had previously been seen as blending material but came to the fore in its own in the past ten years, with lots of small wineries making specialised wines from single vineyards with some very old blocks. McLaren Vale had been one of the first to be planted to vines in South Australia.

The wines tasted, all 2002 vintage, were:

  • Mr Riggs McClaren Vale, 15% A/V, about £17 a bottle
  • Paxton Vineyadrs McLaren Vale, 14,5%A/V, £17
  • Tatatchilla Foundation, 14,5% A/V, £25
  • Wirra Warra McLaren Vale, 14,9% A/V, no price given
  • Beresford 2002 McLaren Vale, 15% A/V, £10
  • Ingoldby 2002 McLaren Vale, 15% A/V, “cheaper than the rest”
  • Ulithorne Frux Frugis, 14,7% A/V, £22
  • Oliver’s Taranga McLaren Vale, no price given (Gold medal winner Sydney Royal Wine Show 2004)
  • G A M McLaren Vale, 14,5% A/V. No price.

Riggs explained that the higher alcohols were not necessarily achieved by picking riper fruit with higher sugar, but that in recent years yeasts have become more efficient in converting sugar into higher alcohol.

Atkin added that this phenomenon enables the production of more minty, peppery Shiraz wines.

It was also noticeable during the tasting that the vintners in this area all used combinations of French and American oak, used and new, except for the Beresford, a complex and fruity, but quite tannic wine that had been in new American oak “hogsheads” for 18 months.

Incidentally, this wine comes with screwtops, which the panel said was steadily gaining ground among top-end wines in Australia.

“The screwtop is quite consumer friendly … while there appears to be an emergence of more consumer friendly styles of Shiraz,” said Harvey.

Another interesting point was that these wines derive from very old vines, in the case of the intensely flavoured Oliver’s Taranga, deriving from vines of more than 100 years old.

“There’s a move towards more elegant, more refined Shiraz wines … some expect big blockbusters, show wines, but we are aware of the ‘catwalk wine syndrome’. The wines must be consumer friendly,” said Riggs.

The Barossa Valley produces more powerful wines … we have more femininity.”

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