Opinionista Michael Fridjhon 24 April 2014

Wine and status: Fashion, performance, and other shifting markers

The fine wine scene in South Africa is remarkably dynamic: most of the names which twenty years ago were front-of-mind have been replaced by relative newcomers, a function as much of a fascination with the new as it is a measure of quality or performance. On its own this would simply suggest that the market – or at least the consumers and commentators who drive its fashions – is a unfaithful creature. If the power to remain on top is never really with the performer, then status is arbitrary, and there's no real point in making an effort.

This is plainly not the case in long-established quality wine industries, despite the replacement of their traditions-based technology with a more scientific understanding of viticulture and oenology. A considerable number of hi-tech gadgets have arrived on the wine scene in the past couple of decades – designed mainly with the premium value Old World market in mind. Many have been engineered to ensure that the fruit that ends up in the fermentation vats is not simply defect-free, but is in the optimum condition to deliver a desired flavour profile. This is a dramatic change from the 1960s and 1970s when – even in the best of the long-established appellations – growers would manage their vineyards in accordance with farming practices largely determined for them by previous generations.

For many, the first step in the direction of modern farming methods proved inimical to quality. In Burgundy, for example, growers fell into the trap of selecting clones not on their ability to yield quality, but merely to increase yield. Almost all of them opted to use the industrial fertilisers and disease-control chemicals which started coming to the market in that era and to replace their low-impact plough horses with tractors and spray-carts.

By the early 1980s they began counting the cost of the innovations in farming methods they had so hastily embraced a few years earlier. From this point onwards, a much more rigorous approach to ensuring premium fruit quality became evident. Clonal complexity returned to the vineyards, a more natural (organic) approach to viticulture was widely adopted, and vineyard management became an altogether more hands-on activity.

This opened the way to advances in how the fruit was processed: if you’ve invested time and effort in growing healthy grapes, with smaller berries yielding greater flavour concentration, you want to maintain these advantages when the bunches get to the crush. This led first to manually operated sorting tables, where quite skilled labour literally picked out the berries which were evidently defective (over- or under-ripe), removed leaves and tidied up whatever was destined to land up in the press. High labour costs in First World vineyard areas soon compelled producers to look to more automated solutions for sorting the fruit. There are now robotic machines which identify the greener berries and literally pick them off the tables with mechanical pincers. Less expensive (though not by much) equipment uses moving sieves on the tables or drafts of air to effect a similar separation.

As a result of these innovations, the best producers take into their cellars only evenly ripened healthy fruit. Free of green stalky notes or whiffs of rot, the resulting wine has more pronounced aromas, and is generally accessible sooner. It is clear that modern winemakers can now more easily make better (or at least showier) wines – especially in difficult vintages. Their decisions from the moment the grapes are in the press can then be strategic (rather than determined by what is required to remove inferior raw materials). Do they wait for natural yeasts to kick-start the fermentation or do they innoculate with an industrial selection? Do they use stainless steel fermentation tanks, small or large wooden vats, or the now-fashionable concrete ‘eggs’? How long should the fermenting juice be left in contact with the grape skins, when should they press – and how much (if any) of the press juice should they add back to the final blend? Should the wine be aged in wood – and if so, should this be oak (or acacia, for example)? If oak, European or American? If European, from which forests – and then, which cooper, what size barrel, what level of wood char, and for how long? In short, the options available today, together with the knowledge and experience that the average winemaker enjoys (compared with earlier generations) have all contributed to a massive improvement in wine quality at the top end of the market.

In environments as competitive as Bordeaux, where each new vintage is scrutinised by the trade and wine press in a series of barrel tastings which take place roughly six months after the vintage (and way before the final blends are assembled), a great deal depends on the scores and comments which follow the en primeur sampling. When the vintage is good, and the world economy robust, most of the crop is sold forward to the trade (and to speculators) at prices based on the reputation of the property and the reviews which follow the pre-release tastings. Clearly there’s no room to let things slip: if your wine is palpably less good than your neighbour’s, or if it is obviously under-performing in terms of your ranking (an arcane table based on the 1855 classification of the wines of the Medoc) there are long-term consequences. Not only will you sell less – and for less money this year – but you will be haunted by the reputation of that stock in the trade, and your ability to re-price in the future will obviously be compromised.

Why, then, if this is the world in which Old World producers perform, and if this is the access to technology which all winemakers enjoy, is the South African table of merit such a moveable feast? A bi-annual survey, conducted by Grape’s Tim James since the late 1990s, shows that very few of our icon producers retain their status in the eyes of the commentators and retailers who participate in his review. The top five wineries in 2001 were Kanonkop, Vergelegen, Veenwouden, Neil Ellis and Rustenberg. In 2012 they were Boekenhoutskloof, Sadie Family Vineyards, Kanonkop, Paul Cluver and Tokara. Not only is Kanonkop the only leading winery to retain its place in the top five (and it has done so in every one of these reviews so far), but four of the 2012 top five had only been crushing grapes for a few years when the 2001 table appeared.

The inescapable conclusion is that, in South Africa at least, fashion, rather than performance is a key determinant of perceived status. You can make it to front of mind quickly enough, but it’s almost impossible to retain your place there. We are impatient for change, we attribute more value to the new, we take reliability for granted and respect it less as a result. Of course not all producers remain on top of their game forever: winemakers come and go, investment funds are not unlimited, newcomers spend more and spend better – there are other variables in the equation. But it does seem that it hardly pays to try and stay on top – you’ll get usurped anyway (at least in the eyes of the critics and the trade). The only consolation is that it probably won’t be all that bad for business. The market discounts its own fickle opinions: I don’t think Hamilton Russell Vineyards or Meerlust have ever made it to the top five in the Tim James survey. Despite this they are both comfortably in the top five sellers (by volume) of super-premium wines in the country. Their owners may be slightly chagrined not to be on the winner’s podium, but this frees them up to cry all the way to the bank. DM

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