There is a potential demand in Britain for SA wines, but I really couldn’t say that the producers or importers have a thirst for growing their market in the UK – other than in supermarkets and specific areas of the country.
I am convinced that with innovative awareness campaigns, the quality of the product and the exchange rate advantage of South African wine should challenge other southern hemisphere wines for popularity – and quite a few from the northern hemisphere as well.
Having been back in the UK for several years now, I have tried to support South African wine whenever I eat out or meet friends in pubs around Kent and London. In such places, I have found rather limited availability of SA wines. And when they are available, they are very rarely first on the list – if at all – when the wine steward or bar staff are asked which wines they have.
In many instances, I pre-empt this by specifically asking for SA wine, but this usually results in whoever is serving me having to check with management, or refer to a list behind the bar.
While UK supermarkets stock a wide variety of SA wines, the same cannot be said of the British pubs and restaurants, where I enjoy a meal or casual catch up with family and friends.
The Sportsman at Seasalter, a Michelin-starred and National Restaurant of the Year in 2017 and 2016, is not far from where I live. It lists only one SA white (2016, Ernie Els ‘Big Easy’ Chenin Blanc, at £23.95 a bottle) – compared with three from New Zealand and one Australian. There’s a complete absence of SA red wine – compared with one on offer from New Zealand and three Australian wines.
Around the corner from my home is a Gastro Pub, County Winner of the National Pub & Bar Award for 2017. From SA, it features only a Sauvignon Blanc, Vondeling, Voor Pardeberg at £19 a bottle, and a 2013 Shiraz ‘Baldrick’, Vondeling at £19.50 a bottle. This is on a wine list of 52 wines.
On a more positive note, SA wines in pubs are reasonably priced, and those I’ve come across are at the lower-to-middle price range. They are also quite frequently among the few that can be bought by the glass. The high alcohol content can be a problem, given the strict drink-driving laws here in the UK.
Both at home and when I’m dining out, SA wines are well-received by my chums and business contacts. A certain amount of surprise is registered, given that the term ‘New World Wines’ is normally taken to mean wines from Australia, New Zealand, Chile and California. Very rarely is it taken to include SA, even though the Cape is often described as the oldest of the New World wine regions.
The lack of profile of SA wines in the British pub and restaurant sector seems odd, given their seeming popularity in supermarkets. That said, there is a significant market to be developed, and any growth in the consumption of wine in pubs and restaurants could be beneficial.
A poll of consumers by the Wine and Spirit Association in September 2016 found that 30% of adults said that they had drunk white wine in the preceding month (equal-top with cider), with 29% preferring red wine. These figures dropped to 12% and 8% respectively when people were asked about drinking wine in pubs.
Not surprisingly, white and red wines came top when people were asked what they drank with their meals in restaurants.
Despite this, one of the biggest pub chains in the UK, Wetherspoon’s, with a chain of over 900 pub/restaurants – does not seem to offer any South African wine at all.
It is not easy to say how things could improve – but it would appear that many UK pub and restaurant customers appear to order wine by the type – merlot, chardonnay, and so on – rather than by country of origin. South Africa as a producer is not at the front of people’s minds.
Maybe by more actively promoting SA wines in South Africa to tourists – through some sort of offer on purchases when they get home – we might ignite a habit among the Brits of looking out for SA wines once home.
In the coming week or so, I am arranging to speak to an executive of a major wine wholesaler and retailer that supplies UK pubs, and I will try and get some insights into the factors that influence the market.
The re-emergence in Britain of wine bars would also have big potential – particularly as they are using equipment that can serve many wines by the glass on tap, while still preserving the best taste experience.
Market-profile research would also certainly help. I’m sure this is already carried out by individual producers, but maybe it needs to be an industry-wide effort – with help from the DTI – after which an annual South African wine-awareness campaign could be launched in key markets, aimed at publicans and restaurateurs.
I’m sure the innovative and imaginative advertising industry in SA can rise to such a challenge.
So, which countries are doing a better job?
Given the widespread availability of New Zealand wine, I would say that they have found a way to enter a saturated market and make noticeable headway.
Chile seems to be the leader in getting its wine on the tables and bars of Britain – even though – unlike Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – the Chileans don’t have the large historical connections with the UK. For my part, I shall – of course – continue to support the fruits of the Cape vines as much as is healthily possible.
James Lennox is a former head of SACOB and now lives in exile in Kent