Opinionista Michael Fridjhon 19 February 2014

Coming right up: One pricing tsunami, ‘met eish’

Imported wine drinkers in South Africa have little idea of the impending pricing tsunami which is about to strike. While the market is small and hard to quantify accurately - figures from the French trade commission (based on statistics supplied by French customs) bear no resemblance to the actual numbers revealed by some of the importers – for those who have been happy to dabble in the world of super-premium exotics, an era is about to draw to a close.

The reasons are more complex than the obvious factor of the dramatically reduced purchasing power of the Rand, though this alone is adding 30%+ to the price of goods landing now, compared with the same time last year, and more than 50% if you go back a further twelve months. Freight costs have also gone up as handling and shipping are affected by the weaker currency. Higher FOB prices have also forced importers to reduce the size of their orders, thus losing some of the economies of scale upon which they might previously have relied.

As Europe and America both slowly emerge from their recession, buyers in those markets are creeping out of the woodwork. Producers are now less inclined to discount prices in pursuit of cash flow. The traditional customers of the key European suppliers have tastes and expectations which pretty much align with those of the South Africans who have been dabbling in quality imported wines. The stories of how the top Bordeaux market has become addicted to Chinese custom (and is now suffering from a marked lack of interest from Oriental buyers) makes for good newspaper copy, but this is not what keeps South Africa’s wine importers in business. The trophy wines the wealthy Chinese and the Russian oligarchs like to serve cost upwards of $5,000 per bottle (and frequently reach three times that amount). It’s not difficult to work out that in Rand-locked South Africa, even the most conspicuous of spenders will think twice before opening a case at R1m simply to amuse a few dinner party guests.

The real imported wine trade in South Africa – excluding for a moment the supermarket offerings priced to compete with the local industry – comprises bottles which retail for R250 to R600. Within this range you will find everything from Chablis to premium white Burgundy, fine red Burgundy, quality Mosel, decent wines from Tuscany, most standard brands of Champagne and even Cru Classé red Bordeaux.

At least, that is what you would have found when the exchange rate hovered around R10 to the Euro. In the past 18 months this has moved to R15, a situation which is becoming increasingly uncomfortable for those importers who have been hoping for the Rand to claw back some of its losses. Most were subsidising the margin while currency traders talked about “temporary corrections” and “impending Euro weakness.” Since many carried enough stock to be able to average the higher price of new arrivals with the lower price of what had been in their warehouses for some time, the full impact of the Rand’s precipitate decline was kept from the punters. Clearly there’s an expiry date to this strategy.

To make matters worse, several of the major European appellations have had execrable weather, not just in 2013, but in some cases for several years. Bordeaux’s last decent vintage was 2010, while Burgundy has not had a normal-sized harvest since 2009. While average quality vintages are not necessarily a bad thing (for a start, they keep the trophy wine buyers out of the market and ensure that producer-driven price increases are not unrealistic, from the perspective of everyday drinkers) the good but small vintages can be catastrophic for wine collectors in South Africa.

Burgundy, for example, has seen several harvests in a row with volumes down 30% – 50% from the long-term average. Growers simply cannot survive without raising their prices, and since the quality of the 2012s has been very good, hard currency wine buyers have been willing to stump up what it takes to get an allocation. The result is that in many of the more desirable regions (and certainly from the big name producers) the ex-cellars price increases have been pretty much in direct proportion.

Here is where the arithmetic becomes alarming: the current vintage of a bottle of wine which cost the importer 50 Euros in 2012 could well be on offer now for 75 Euros. However, when it sold for 50 Euros, the ex-cellars price, in Rands (at the time) was R500. Today the same wine – at a R15 to the Euro exchange rate – comes to R1,100. Higher shipping costs, together with their attendant hard currency add-ons, would increase the largely fixed expenses associated with handling by significantly more than annualised inflation.

There is no light at the end of this particular catacomb for those whose joys in life extend to relatively sensibly-priced exotic wine imports. Short of the Rand coming back from the dead before the stocks currently in South Africa are bought up by those astute to know they are approaching the twilight moments of an era, massive price increases are as certain as the rotation of the earth.

Now, it may be difficult to sympathise with the plight of those whose most compelling crisis in life is a 50%+ increase in the price of their favourite tipple, but the situation is something of a touchstone for those who fear that South Africa is on an irrevocable downward spiral. Also, while the hike in the ex-cellars price of red and white Burgundy is an extreme example of what is happening in a particular segment of the imported goods market, it is by no means unique. The recovery of the northern hemisphere economies will see the prices of many more essential products harden, eroding the discounts and extended trading terms that have helped South Africa importers ride out the inflationary impact of the weakening Rand over the past 18 months.

Cars and car parts, computers and electronic equipment, crockery, stemware, fabric, fuel, even food (an industry in which we are increasingly without the self-sufficiency upon which we prided ourselves) will all move inexorably upwards. Those who enjoyed a glass of Chablis or a bottle of fizz when the Rand was at 10 to the Euro will manage perfectly well on a little less Moet and the occasional bottle of Glen Carlou’s perfectly brilliant unwooded Chardonnay. But a significant hike in new car prices, coupled with petrol price increases, more expensive basic foods, cellphones, clothing – this will focus the minds of those who think that the downward trajectory of the Rand won’t change their quality of life. Fancy imported wine is simply the canary in the coal mine: the chill breeze of the collapsing Rand sweeping through our economy contains enough methane to wipe out more than a few pretty birds in a cage. DM

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