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South Africa over-delivers at entry level, but needs to work harder to push premium message

Published:  04 May, 2017

Last week Harpers gathered a room full of wine trade experts to debate the health of the South African wine industry. Participants from the on-trade, multiples and independent sectors discussed how South Africa can better promote its premium offering and what its trump cards are. 

Waitrose wine buyer Victoria Mason believes that as a category South Africa remains one of the most exciting to work in, and that Waitrose customers are very happy to take advantage of entry-level wines from the Cape that over-deliver on price and quality. 

“What’s been great for South Africa within Waitrose is the sales growth we have seen year-on-year and market share growth as a result of that,” she said. “At entry level the wines are massively over-delivering compared to other countries, so now we have that loyalty and customer base that buys into that and knows what it’s getting. The exciting thing now is how to trade them up and how to push that price point.” 

It’s a similar story in the on-trade where Martin Williams, founder and CEO of M Restaurants is keen to accentuate the positives of accessibility and value for money. He thinks that much of the attraction of South African wines stems from the energetic and anything-goes attitude portrayed by many of the Cape’s young winemakers. 

“From a winemaker perspective it seems to be much more open and dynamic than most new and old world countries,” he pointed out. “There’s a no holds barred approach.” 

Representing Wines of South Africa (WOSA) around the table was UK Market Manager Jo Wehring who had a slightly different take on why South African wine continues to cause a stir with UK consumers. “People really enjoy doing business with South Africa, particularly the UK market, and culturally we have a lot strong link, it’s very warm it’s very welcoming when you go there; all of those things come through when you’re looking at ‘brand’ South Africa and even on a basic business level,” she argued.

There was a consensus that while South Africa is well positioned in the entry-level where it punches well above its weight, trying to get consumers to trade-up to plus £10 wines is tricky. “A lot of our wines are actually small blends; we have elements of bush vines in there, elements of different parcels from different regions, which make for a really good story but the communication of that isn’t really there,” said Distell’s National Sales Manager James Harvey. 

“I think that’s the same across a lot of the bigger producers, we are not really talking about how exciting the wines are at premium level and below. As a country this is something South Africa really needs to work on - getting that message out there.” 

Jo Wehring agreed: There is a big focus on positioning South Africa as a premium wine producer and growing value, that’s very important for the industry as a whole, South Africa does offer incredible value for money when you look at the price points, but profitability in the industry is an issue. That’s not to suggest South Africa isn’t important in the supermarkets, but it’s about building that momentum with higher priced wines as well. In terms of image building for South Africa, the fact that our top wines are really accessible is really valuable in terms of building that premium image.” 

Sam Howard from Norwich-based independent HarperWells said that hand-selling wines at the premium end has become easier as winemakers have embraced the UK market and spent time telling their unique stories. “It’s all about the winemakers. We sell the winemakers and the personalities and that’s where South Africa is so strong. I’d love to see South Africa not getting bogged down in selling varieties as brands - don’t worry about varieties, worry about the people and places. I’d love customers to buy into regions rather than the grapes.” 

The discussion was concluded with tasting of signature South African varieties and blends, with the Chenin Blanc flight standing out due to its diversity and quality across the board from entry level to £20 and up.