In this episode, we’re turning our attention to one of the greatest wine-producing countries in the world: South Africa.
A lot has happened in the South African wine industry over the past year-plus. The first Covid-19-related restrictions there came in March 2020, with the government arguing that alcohol consumption leads to increased strain on the country’s hospitals. Since then, there have been multiple starts and stops to alcohol sale, transport and export. Figures have estimated billions of dollars of revenue lost, as well as hundreds of thousands of drinks-industry jobs.
But simultaneously, the country has maintained international relationships, improved global standing and further honed-in on its own brand and messaging, leading to improved quality overall.
Managing Editor Lauren Buzzeo catches up on the current state of affairs for South African wine with Jim Clarke, Marketing Manager for trade group Wines of South Africa USA as well as author of the book The Wines of South Africa. They discuss how there’s been a lot of change to the industry. Some is good, some bad and some yet to be fully determined. At the end of the day, however, their takeaway is that there’s truly never been a better time to drink South African wine.
To dive deeper into South African wine, check out this primer for where to find the best South African wines, or learn more about the South African wine industry’s initiatives on social responsibility and community development here. For another episode featuring South African wine, check out this one highlighting the insane appeal of the country’s Chardonnay, or read this article about why your next glass of Cab should be from South Africa.
Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.
Lauren Buzzeo 0:09
Hello and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast, your serving of drinks culture and the people who drive it. I’m Lauren Buzzeo, the managing editor at Wine Enthusiast, and in this episode, we’re turning our attention back to one of the greatest wine producing countries in the world: South Africa. A lot has happened in the South African wine industry over the past year-plus, from pandemic-related lockdowns to shifting viticultural focuses and winemaking conditions. The result: there’s never been a better time to support and enjoy South African wine. In speaking with Jim Clarke, marketing manager for Trade Group Wines of South Africa, USA, as well as author of the book The Wines of South Africa, we cover the current state of affairs for South African wine, both abroad and in the US, and how consumers can support the industry as well as which bottles and regions to seek out today. So grab a glass of your favorite Chenin, and hang tight for a candid convo. But first, a word from today’s sponsor. Total Wine & More is ready for summer. They’ve got all your pours for the great outdoors, like their top 12 wines under $15. Raise a glass to America with their star-spangled selection of sips made in the USA. Then, taste your way to a new flavor, like ready to freeze cocktail pops and fun, fizzy hard seltzers. Lime, pineapple or peach anyone? Here’s a recipe for a delicious summer evening: Take smoked ribs, good friends and just add Bordeaux. Let your imagination go grill crazy. From good old fashioned hotdogs to turkey burgers with all the toppings, you can’t go wrong with Chardonnay. And, when it comes to seafood, salmon and tuna swim nicely with fruity and fresh reds. So, no matter if you’re grilling, chilling or both, you’re sure to find cool prices on over 8,000 wines, 4,000 spirits and 2,500 beers in store or at totalwine.com.
Okay, I have the pleasure of being joined today by Jim Clarke, the marketing manager for the trade group Wines of South Africa USA, as well as author of the book The Wines of South Africa, which is out now and fantastic. So Jim, thank you so much for joining me today to talk about South African wine.
Jim Clarke 2:31
My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Lauren Buzzeo 2:33
Of course, I think you’re the right guy for the job. So we have so much that we could talk about, I’m gonna try and keep us somewhat focused, because heaven knows we can fall down so many rabbit holes talking about South African wine here. I think a guiding point is that we will consider the theme of this episode, which is why there’s never been a better time to drink South African wide. I think we can and hopefully will speak to that in a variety of ways today. But I think to start, I’d really like to offer a bit of a brief at a current update on the state of things in South Africa, as it pertains to the global pandemic and the restrictions that have resulted from it. And the impact that they’ve had on the wine industry there because I think that it is very important for us to consider when we’re talking about why there isn’t a better time and how we can support. So essentially, the South African alcohol industry has faced various obstacles since the first COVID-19 restrictions that were implemented in March 2020. The government has argued that alcohol consumption leads to increased strain on the country’s hospitals. And so since then, there’s just been multiple starts and stops, lifts, bans, to alcohol sale, transport, export. Figures have estimated billions of dollars of revenue lost and hundreds of thousands of jobs in the drinks industry. Now that’s not exclusive to wine and I say drinks because of course we know that there’s other beverage industry jobs—beer, cider—that are in the country as well. So I know that this sounds pretty heavy, but again, I think that it’s important. Jim, can you give a bit of a picture on where things are at right now for the local wine industry and how everyone is really coping and looking forward to keep on keepin’ on.
Jim Clarke 4:34
Sure. So if we look at the past year, year and a half, the industry has lost 23 weeks of domestic sales in about 18 months. And 50% of South African wine sales are domestic sales, so it’s obviously a big part of what they do. I think what’s impressive is the attitude. they have a saying in Afrikaans, which is ‘n boer maak ‘n plan—and my Afrikaans is not good, so that’s probably not great pronunciation. But roughly translated, it means “a farmer makes a plan.” And it really just speaks to the versatility and the attitude of the industry. When faced with conflict or challenges, they rise to the occasion. So we’ve seen all sorts of different programs and innovations. In terms of getting wines to customers. The South African consumer has been fantastic about pre-ordering wine. And then when the lockdown period was over, the wineries were able to ship it out and things like that. And that’s, that’s certainly helped. But it’s really quite hard. And as of August 2020, the estimate from VinPro, which is our industry organization, kind of a sister organization of Wines in South Africa, they estimated that about 80 wineries would probably go out of business by the end of all this. And that was before we knew that we had further lockdowns around the holiday period, and then furthermore, into 2021. So there are some real worries. There’s been 8 billion rand in losses so far, and there hasn’t been any support or kind of compensation from the federal government. We’ve seen some support from the Western Cape for wine tourism workers, and for brand owners and producers. But that was measured in millions of rand compared to the billions they’ve lost. And those losses extended not just to selling bottles of wine, but wine tourism is just a huge part of what happens in the Western Cape and hosting weddings, restaurants on site at the wineries, all these things have been shut down, either 100% shut down, or in very limited capacities, depending on what level of lockdown we were talking about. Now, on the positive side, it’s been really gratifying to see how the wine consumers of the world have recognized that South Africa was going through something unique and more challenging than than everyone else. And this is a period where everyone’s dealing with with COVID but the support that the industry has received in terms of promotions, from retailers, just importers bringing in more wines, all that sort of thing has been really exciting to see. And the industry really appreciates, obviously, what the rest of the world is doing for them, and knows that they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t like the wines. So it’s not charity. It’s like I buy South African wines, but now I’m going to buy more of them right now because they really need that help.
Lauren Buzzeo 7:32
Definitely, and I love that point, because it speaks to another element as to why there’s never been a better time to drink South African wine. It’s not just about, you know, supporting an industry and a country in need, right? It’s because the quality is there. And the story might have been the impetus for people to seek out more South African wine and actually venture into tasting the category when they might not have before. But then the realization is there that ‘Oh my God, I’ve been missing out on enjoying these wines for so long. I’m gonna go and buy more. These are great.’ So I think that there’s a really nice acknowledgement of quality that’s coming about. I guess a silver lining that’s coming about as a result of this.
Jim Clarke 8:18
I definitely agree. It was very interesting to watch the numbers month by month that South African wine sales. Because obviously, there was a period where for five weeks where the government wasn’t allowing exports, so that really hurt. And then there was a huge spike in, I think, it was July of 2020 when that ended, and we saw a bunch of wines coming into the country. And then for the rest of 2020, there was a lot of support here in the US. And it started to fade at the beginning of 2021. And what we realized was actually what happened was the tariffs against European wines were dropped once the Biden administration took over. And the our fear was, are they turning their back on South African wines now that they can have the European wines again? Well, they were briefly because they had to restock their inventory. And when I say that, I mean the industry importers, things like that. But then in May in June, the numbers shot back up again. And when we look at the total numbers for the past 12 months over the previous 12 months, they’re up 20% in terms of packaged wine that’s sold here as South Africans. So that means they weren’t just fairweather friends. They really embracing the category and enjoying the wines and obviously finding places to sell them and retailers and restaurants as restaurants open back up as well.
Lauren Buzzeo 9:30
Right. That just really warms my heart to hear and I’m so excited thinking about all of these new consumers, or maybe not necessarily new, but you know, additional spending consumers who are really embracing the category and drinking across, you know, all of the beautiful variety and diversity that South African wines have to offer. I wonder, do you have any thoughts on if there’s a certain price tier or category of wines that might be of particular interest or particular gains at this point in time that we should keep an eye on?
Jim Clarke 10:04
There’s so many. I mean, we’re really are seeing, you know, Chenin Blanc get its recognition as the flagbearer variety for South Africa. And when I say there’s so many, I think, when you look at other industries—you look at, for example, New Zealand. Well, we think of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc first off, and that is more than 80% of what they export here to the US. Well, South Africa, because all the individual parts of South Africa is winegrowing areas, Stellenbosch, Swartland, Hemel-en-Aarde, all have different growing conditions, because the way that the terrain is carved up and all that. You really are talking about a lot of different varieties. And it just like when we talk, we don’t talk about what what’s, what’s the one French wine, we talk about the different regions. It’s a much bigger industry, but South Africa is like France, but in a microcosm where what happens in Stellenbosch and what grows well in Stellenbosch, you know, Cabernet, Chardonnay, Chenin, well go over the hill in Elgin, the neighboring area, we’re going to talk about Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, and actually also Chardonnay, in that case. But you have these really drastic changes in the growing conditions over very short areas. So this message is about South Africa doing everything well, that’s bad marketing. But talking about what Stellenbosch does great, and what Elgin does really well, and what makes Swartland so special, that makes sense. Because now you’re talking about different areas, each having their own specialty, with a few things that stretch across the borders, like Chenin Blanc. The one that I think is interesting is it’s not even an order. So I’m talking about variety wines. But if you look at sparkling wines, you know, South Africa is celebrating its traditional method wines this year is the 50th anniversary of the first traditional method wine, which was produced by Simonsig in 1971. Well, I mentioned over the past 12 months that South African wines overall were up 20%, while sparkling wines, like traditional method wines are up 44%. So obviously, I think Americans are catching on to what I think’s always been one of the greatest deals out there, which is Cap Classique. This is the official name for the category. And it’s just such a great Champagne substitute. But you know, Champagne prices have gotten really high, you can get a bottle of a Graham Beck Brut, for example, for under $20. And that’s a traditional method wine—big step up in the production methods compared to say Prosecco for Tuesday night prices.
Lauren Buzzeo 12:19
Definitely. I’m going to come back to that at some point in a little bit. But I love hearing those numbers. And there is so much opportunity for people to explore that category further. But going back first of all, yay Chenin, I had to get that a meeting. Give me a second to get it. I have to say, yay Chenin! But beyond that, I actually love your point talking about, you know, the speciality and the and the specificity that’s now being considered, promoted, better branded for each region. Because you’re right, I think there’s been a little bit of, I’ll say difficulty, I think, for some consumers to really get a grasp on South African wine and know where to dive in. When they there really is so much variety. The tagline for a long time was ‘variety is in our nature.’ There were just so many different grapes, different varieties, different regions, that there wasn’t really something specific aside for maybe Chenin, to a lesser extent, but also Pinotage, for people to really grab on to and dive in to get an understanding. It was almost too much all at once, right? But by the regions actually having a bit more of I think, a specific, a more methodical approach, perhaps, to considering what they really might promote as their flagship variety or flagship style really gives consumers a chance to understand and appreciate what South Africa really has to offer. And again, that sort of comparison to more, dare I say, classical European Old World regions. That’s something that’s sort of, again, digestible and understandable to consumers. So to offer that in the context of the South African landscape, I’m very happy that this day is here.
Jim Clarke 14:14
Yeah. Well, I think the whole industry has realized that you need to find what you do best and do it. It’s happening at the regional level. And like the Stellenbosch Cab Collective, here we are saying, Okay, this is probably the most exciting thing happened so much as Cabernet, it’s made well in all the different wards and sub regions of of Stellenbosch. Let’s make this our, plant a flag here. This is where we start. And then there’s plenty more to explore from there, but at least you’ve got a place to start the conversation. And then you see the producer level where the history leading up to the end of apartheid was very tourism based and each seller felt that if someone came to their cellar, you had to have a wine for them. So if they came to your cellar and tasted wines and said, Well, I like Sauvignon Blanc, well, you better have a Sauvignon Blanc to offer them. If they’d like Chardonnay, you better have a Chardonnay to offer them. So there was these very broad portfolios of lots of different wines. And probably a couple of them were real standouts that really did well on that property. And the others were there because they felt there was a market demand with people coming to visit the tasting room. Well, nowadays, it’s like, people go online, they know well, if I’m going to visit so and so, they’re known for their Chardonnay. So that’s why I’m, that’s why I’m going there, I’m a Chardonnay drinker. The Sauvignon Blanc drinkers might go to the property next door that does a great job with Sauvignon Blanc. So people are specializing their their portfolio. And that’s happening at the producer level, where instead of offering eight or 12 different lines, they can narrow it down, and really focus on what they’re doing and really have a clear message with what they’re doing.
Lauren Buzzeo 15:44
Right. Yeah, that makes sense. I didn’t really know about that historical context. So thank you for sharing that. But I wonder how much of this actually—well, first, I can’t help but think about how much might have been driven by the success, the branding success, both for the the individual wineries that participated, but then as it evolved the region as a whole, with the Swartland revolution, right? I feel like they were almost pioneers in this regional specific regional branding endeavor that really maybe offered a template and a framework for other areas to really latch on to and say, ‘Hey, they’re doing a really good job about getting their message across. And again, not just for their own wineries, but for the region as a whole. Should we explore and consider that methodology further for some of the other great wine growing areas in South Africa?’ So I can’t help but think back many, many moons to when that was a thing.
Jim Clarke 16:45
No, I think that’s very true. I think the marketing side is one thing. And what the Swartland revolution did was created this such excitement about about the wines. And with an understanding, especially when you pair that together with the Swartland independent producers program, which said, we’re going to focus on these varieties that we really believe in for our area. So you don’t find you know, Cabernet as part of the Swartland identity. There is a bunch of it up there, but it’s not what they’re doing. It’s about the Syrah and the Rhone varieties and the Mediterranean varieties and Chenin. And actually Pinotage too. So they’ve narrowed that down. But the other thing they did, I think, is think of the timing. This is 2007, 2008 when people like Adi Badenhorst and the Mullineuxs and watching Donovan Rall’s 2009, his first vintage, that’s what I have in my glass right now. In this period, 2007, 2008, you still had that so-called international style happening, where most red wines were big, rich, probably heavily alcoholic, and had a good layer of oak on them. And so that meant that you really couldn’t show off individual regions very much. Because a Stellenbosch cab or a swartland Syrah made in that style didn’t taste that much different from a Napa wine made and that style or an Australian wine made that style or even a Bordeaux made in that style. It really masked a lot of the sort of terroir specific qualities. So these guys started off at small volumes and they said, ‘Look, I’m finally making 3,000 cases of wine, I’m going to make the wine that I really like. And I’m sure I can find enough people to buy that.’ And that really allowed them to show off Swartland instead of saying, we’re going to make wine that the same kind of wine everyone else is making. And then see if we can market it. It really started with the wines having this distinctive identity and the rest of the world is also now pulled away from overoaking and over alcoholic wines and over extracted wine. So, I think, many, many regions across the world are benefiting from this. I mean, Chiante Classico tastes so much more interesting than it did 15 years ago when they were trying to put as much Cab as the blend would allow to make it more full and international in style.
Lauren Buzzeo 18:53
Yeah, and I think in tandem with that sort of wine shift is also the realization of the importance of actually sharing the stories of the people and the place behind the wine. Right? Beyond going what’s in the glass. And I think again, the the Swartland crew did a superb job at offering that, and with more of this regional promotion and recognition, I wonder how much over the past year or year-plus as a result of sort of the global pandemic and everyone turning a lot to virtual remote connections, whether it’s, you know, I do live videos, I know you do a series with winemakers through WOSA. How much of that has also helped to build that awareness and that sort of brand or regional development for South Africa and South African wine regions over the past year-ish?
Jim Clarke 19:51
I think it’s been really important. Things like Instagram have really been a lifeline in keeping the storytelling alive. I think it was starting to happen already, obviously Swartland, but more producers coming over here to work the market, talking to people in the trade, doing winemaker dinners, things like that. But obviously, that can’t happen right now. Things like Instagram Live, we do our own podcast for WOSA. All these things to keep the stories coming have been I’ve been really vital, there’s no question. And being able to just, you know, see someone on a screen, it’s not the same as being there by by any question or meeting people in person, but it is something.
Lauren Buzzeo 20:27
Yeah, absolutely. And especially, you know, for US consumers, South Africa is pretty far away in terms of even travel, right? Not a lot of people have the opportunity and the pleasure to be able to make that trip on a regular basis. So I think that it is important to consider those other outlets. And I’m glad, I guess, again, a silver lining would be that a lot more producers were sort of pushed to figure out those alternate ways to connect with a broader audience. And I think that hopefully they’re seeing the benefit of that in terms of again, the recognition, the sales, the appreciation, at least coming Stateside.
Jim Clarke 21:06
Yeah, no, I think it’s very true. And it’s actually been really interesting. And we’ve been trying to tell the story of our Black-owned brands for quite some time. And a lot of them didn’t have importers here in the States and that’s improved dramatically, which is very exciting. But the interest that Black Lives Matter developed in these sorts of things, starting in the middle of last year, has really opened the door for really having this conversation. And we’re talking about some really exciting wines from Black-owned winemakers in South Africa, that before were very niche and under the radar, and it was not a not a consideration for people, well for many wine drinkers, they don’t think about the color of their winemaker. And I’m very happy that the South African wine industry, which struggled with bringing Black people into its ranks for such a long time, had reached a point where it was ready for that attention. When the Black Lives Matter movement came along and started looking at these things. We have great producers like Aslina, Kumusha, Bosman, where the workers are part of the ownership thing. Those wines are here in the States, they’re great wines, they’re seriously made wines and they come from the previously disadvantaged people of South Africa.
Lauren Buzzeo 22:18
That’s such a great point. And honestly, one that I didn’t even think about prior to this conversation, in terms of the recognition and additional support that the South African wine industry has seen over the past 12 months. But there are so many great wineries, programs, initiatives to support such a wide variety and increased diversity in the wine industry. I know it’s constantly, you know, a work in progress. And there’s always improvements to be made. But I do love the idea. And I think you’re spot on that people and consumers might be giving a little bit more attention to where they’re where their dollars and where their spend is going. And you know, much like we’re talking about supporting the industry, that’s a need. This is another another factor of that, supporting producers that you believe in, for whatever reason. So I think that that’s a great point. And again, I thank you for bringing that up, Jim.
Jim Clarke 23:18
It’s so important right now, because in some surveys, the industry has done that VinPro or their sister organization has done. We spoke to small producers and to black owned producers in particular about how the lockdown was affecting them. And it looks much grimmer for them because many of them, as I mentioned before, really rely on the domestic market within South Africa. So they’ve been hit harder by the effects of the lockdowns than well established. brands that have good export network already set up and can kind of refocus their wines on on exports. So 22% of our small producers said they probably will not be able to survive, but the number for Black-owned businesses was actually much worse. It was 46%. And it’d be such a blow to lose almost half of our Black-owned businesses in the wine industry. When we go into such great lengths to try to fix the problems of the past and bring them in and they want to be there. They’re having success. They were having success. But now these lockdowns have affected them. And I really hope that the government is taking that into account when they think about what they’re doing with these lockdowns.
Lauren Buzzeo 24:22
Wow, absolutely. Those are some sobering numbers. But again, all the more reason why I think it’s important that certainly at least here we have these conversations. We share some of this information so people can make as informed decisions and using their purchasing power to to the best of their ability. So I guess maybe let’s, let’s pick it up a tiny notch to close out with, but again, I really thank you so much for bringing all of that great information and detail to this conversation. So I suggested that we record this podcast while enjoying a glass of South African wine. Because there’s nothing better than podcasting from a closet with a glass of wine. So, I happen to be circling back to something that you mentioned earlier. I happen to be sipping on a glass of Graham Beck MCC Brut, which you referenced before. You know, the MCC is the method Cap Classiques are now just more commonly Cap Classiques, but the sparkling wines from South Africa that are produced using traditional methods, traditional Champagne methods. I believe they have a minimum of 12 months aging, is that correct?
Jim Clarke 25:46
Yes. It was nine for quite a long time. But as of the 2021 vintage, it will be 12. And they’re hoping to keep rolling it forward to 15 eventually. But it’s been a long time on the books where the Cap Classique Association was saying 12 but the government, the wine and spirits board and not folded that into the actual rules.
Lauren Buzzeo 26:08
All right. Well, so you mentioned also that 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of the traditional method sparkling wine MCCs in South Africa, the category pioneer being Simonsig’s 1971 vintage. So I just felt like that was really a fitting sip to have on hand today. Again, I knew we were going to be talking about some, you know, some heavier stuff. I was like, let me have something a little bubbly and a little celebratory in my glass. Because I’m always wanting to celebrate and raise a glass to South African wine. So can you share what you have in your glass?
Jim Clarke 26:54
Absolutely. I mentioned the producer earlier Donovan Rall, who was part of that early group in the Swartland, he had his first vintage in 2009 and has grown since then. And he started doing a couple single single vineyard wines, a few vintages ago, the same year actually, that his daughter was born. And he just found this one site that he thought was very special, but it didn’t necessarily have a place in his blend, because the core of his portfolio was a white blend and a red blend. And so he named it after his daughter and it’s a Syrah. So it’s named Eva. And this is the 2019. And it’s just a great example of Swartland Syrah from a schist soils, schist and shale. And so you’ve got this wonderful pop of that kind of cherry juice sort of fruit. But there’s still this wonderful minerality and slatiness and almost gaminess to it as well. And it’s not heavy, it’s not overwhelming. It’s just got this great focus to it and kind of pop of freshness. Despite that, it’s 13.5 alcohol, it’s not a light wine at the same time. It’s just very nimble.
Lauren Buzzeo 28:06
So it’s a suitable read to be enjoying in New York City summer.
Jim Clarke 28:11
Yeah, I normally wouldn’t put it with a bit of chill, but if the weather requires it, I pop this in the fridge for 15 minutes before we started and it’s fantastic.
Lauren Buzzeo 28:22
Awesome. I love Donovan’s wines. labeled under Rall, R-A-L-L. His Chenin is—you know it’s coming, right? His Chenin is killer.
Jim Clarke 28:34
Oh, yes, it is. Yeah. Classic swartland combination. You know, you specialize on Chenin on the white side and then Syrah or, we’ll say, Rhone varieties on the red side.
Lauren Buzzeo 28:44
That’s right. That’s right. Going back to that regional branding and, and recognition of what works well and doing it best. But you know, I when I went sparkling, Jim, I thought it would be too cliche for me to go Chenin. I had to go outside of the box. So that’s a great pick. It’s awesome. I wish I was enjoying a glass with you. And we were doing this in person.
Jim Clarke 29:10
Lauren Buzzeo 29:12
But hopefully, hopefully we’ll be doing that again sometime soon. And in the meantime, again, I really appreciate all of your talking points, data points, conversation today. Spreading awareness and information in terms of how we can support South African wine and again, why there’s really no better time for everyone to run out and grab a bottle or three or six of South African wine to enjoy today. So Jim, thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate it.
Jim Clarke 29:46
It’s been a pleasure. It’s really good to catch up.
Lauren Buzzeo 29:51
There’s clearly been a lot of change in the South African wine industry of late, some good, some bad, some still to be determined. But at the end of the day, the takeaway remains: There’s truly never been a better time to drink South African wine. Subscribe to the Wine Enthusiast podcast on iTunes, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or wherever you find podcasts. If you’d like today’s episode, we’d love to read your review and hear what you think. And hey, why not tell your wine loving friends to check us out too? You can also drop us a line at email@example.com. Gor more wine reviews, recipes guides, deep dives and stories. Visit Wine Enthusiast online at winemag.com, and connect with us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @wineenthusiast. The Wine Enthusiast Podcast is produced by Lauren Buzzeo and Jenny Groza. Until next episode, cheers.
Last Updated: June 5, 2023