Big can be beautiful too

In 1998, as part of the Cape Wine Academy’s diploma seminar, a group of us eager beaver students did a week-long intensive immersion in the world of wine. 

It was memorable for a number of things, not the least of which was the late Theo Rudman showing his irascible side and berating a rather ‘underslept’ (ie hungover) roomful of students about their lack of attention to detail the morning after he’d demonstrated his own stamina by plying us with bottles of port and cigars!

One of the places we visited was a small, unknown operation outside Franschhoek where a young Marc Kent was harvesting. Two things remain with me: firstly, that it was the first time we saw a stringent sorting process in operation with workers diligently removing leaves, green berries and the odd snail on tables before the grapes went to tank or crusher; and secondly, he told us about the wines that didn’t make it into Boekenhoutskloof’s main range. They went into Porcupine Ridge.

It’s interesting to reflect 17 years later on how the label that got its name from the porcupines which raided Kent’s veggie patch has become a phenomenal success. Hundreds of thousands of cases are now bottled and sold annually, almost without fuss and fanfare – and they are no longer simply Boekenhoutskloof ‘leftovers’.

Part of this reflection was triggered by a colleague’s blog which contrasted Eben Sadie’s 2013 Skerpioen wine (Chenin Blanc and Palomino) with Nederburg’s 2012 Anchorman Chenin Blanc, scoring them 92 and 90 out of 100 respectively – as well as a statement made by industry commentator Michael Fridjhon. Writing on the website, The Daily Maverick, he said: “When someone lifts the game in the same catchment area, the other players are forced to come to the party.”

Fridjhon made the point that while the terroir-driven boutique producers might have had the limelight in the past two decades, it was the large producers – KWV, Distell, DGB and others – who did the heavy lifting, raising the stakes and overall quality of the hundreds of thousands of litres that consumers drank on a daily basis.

Success breeds success – and while Sadie’s Ou Wingerdreeks is highly acclaimed, with The Skerpioen retailing for R250 a bottle, Nederburg’s Anchorman – also from venerable vines in Darling and Durbanville – retails for R95 a pop.
Now, as with Robertson winery and Namaqua’s operations at Vredendal and Spruitdrift, for example, Nederburg could almost be considered a wine factory. The annual crush in Paarl is around 18 000 tons of grapes! And yet within this formidably efficient operation there is scope to produce almost boutiquey wines. Lessons learnt in the small-scale ‘winery within a winery’, both at Distell, Nederburg and at the KWV, are then applied to larger volumes of wine.

Just take the KWV’s recent success with its Mentors range – and then compare recent bottlings of Roodeberg to those of a decade ago. The average quality and sheer drinkability of these wines, made in the multiple thousands of litres, is indisputable.
It’s been said before that South Africa is gaining critical success but that the success of a few, small volume wines, cannot build an industry. A large volume, critically acclaimed standard bearer is needed to really get the message out – that the country is capable of making truly excellent wines in large quantities.

The efforts of companies such as Distell, KWV, DGB and others should be lauded for taking the country down that road.

– Fiona McDonald