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Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective launch lays down gauntlet to UK and US buyers

Published:  13 September, 2018

Be prepared to pay more or risk losing top Stellenbosch Cabernets to the Asian market was one of the messages to UK and US buyers at the launch of the Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective at Cape Wine 2018.

The initiative, designed to better position Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon as a global classic, attracting premium pricing on a par with other great Cabernet producing regions including Bordeaux, was announced to an international audience of buyers and press just ahead of the opening of Cape Wine.

Introducing a Collective of 30 leading producers, Christo Le Riche, director and winemaker at Le Riche Wines, said that the aim was to “go forth and promote Stellenbosch Cabernet internationally”, by building on long established relationships, adding that it would be “a long campaign”.

Le Riche said that “2015 is heralded as a ‘breakout vintage’ for South Africa”, with what is widely acknowledged as an outstanding year for the Cape’s producers being the ideal springboard to further raise the profile of this flagship category, especially in the China and Asia-Pacific markets.

However, it was guest speaker Christie’s Hong Kong head of wine Simon Tam who spelt out what this aim could mean for UK and US buyers in the room.

In a provocative speech that suggested Cape producers should stop focusing on diverse varieties, such as Cinsault, Pinotage and “£3-a-litre Chenin Blanc”, Tam urged the industry to push Stellenbosch Cabernet as its premium flagship – and raise prices to flag it as such.

“Where South Africa is missing [out], and the country, is this wonderful moment for Stellenbosch Cabernet, because it’s done a great job of recognising terroir and is now celebrating it,” said Tam.

His argument was that only by raising prices to levels more closely matched to those of Bordeaux and Burgundy would Stellenbosch Cabernet attract the serious attention of Hong Kong and mainland Chinese buyers.

“UK and US business look out, up your game, take care of your supply relationships, because Asia is looking [at South Africa], and when it takes off, which it will, it will take over the rest of the world,” he added.

“Chenin, Pinotage and Cinsault – did they give you what you wanted? No,” said Tam, referencing sustainable prices and returns for the industry. “You have to focus on quality, because quality drives quality.”

While there is widespread recognition that South Africa needs to command higher prices for its wines to provide a more sustainable future for its industry, UK buyers present – representing South Africa’s prime market - were sceptical about Tam’s assertions, with one prominent UK merchant suggesting that this was a little more than a move to corner the market in Stellenbosch Cabernet for Hong Kong and China.

South African producers welcomed the initiative, with Lynton Kaiser at Rust en Vrede saying: “This initiative will be good for our region and our country.”

Mike Ratcliffe of Verafonté, one of the key people behind the Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective, added his voice in calling for higher prices that reflect the quality of the top wines, later tweeting that “the time for talk is over".

At the launch attendees were invited to taste one wine each from the 30 participating wineries, all Cabernet Sauvignons from the 2015 vintage, showing the mix of finesse and generosity delivered by this exemplary year on the Cape.