Extreme Wine South Africa: Oldest Living Wine?

I received many invitations to sniff, swirl and chat while I was in South Africa and I had to decline most of them because of my tight schedule. But I’m glad I made time for lunch with Cobus Joubert of Maison Joubert and his winemaking (and photo-taking) brothers. It was a most memorable Extreme Wine experience.

[This is part of a series of posts reflecting on my recent visit to South Africa to attend Cape Wine 2012 and give the keynote address at the Nederburg Auction.  Click here to see all the posts in this series.]

Brothers in Wine

The agenda for the tapas lunch was mainly to talk about wine and South Africa (and for me to autograph a copy of Wine Wars that Cobus brought along for that purpose). Cobus and his wine-maker brother Meyer opened several bottles of wine from the family wine farm, Joubert-Tradauw, which were excellent and paired well with the tasty food.

But the simple tasting turned a bit competitive when another brother, Schalk-Willem Joubert, Cellarmaster at Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons, pulled out some of his wines for comparison. Joubert-Tradauw and Rupert & Rothschild represent two faces of South African wine that, like the brothers, compete in a friendly way.

The Joubert family history in South Africa goes back ten generations to 1688 when French Huguenot Pierre Joubert arrived in Cape Town. The current  Joubert-Tradauw wines date from 1982, when vines were planted in Klein Karoo, and 1997, when the cellar was established.

Rupert & Rothschild, on the other hand, is a partnership between the Rupert family of South Africa and the late Baron Edmond de Rothschild. The Rupert family, whose wealth is measured in the billions, controls the Swiss luxury goods multinational Richemont (brands include Cartier, Alfred Dunhill, Van Cleef & Arpels, Piaget, Sulka, Montblanc, and Baume & Mercier) as well as South African wine and spirits producers such as La Motte Wine Estates.

Baron Benjamin de Rothschild, who continues his father’s work in this project, is descended from the non-winemaking branch of the Rothschild family tree, but certainly the Rothschild name unlocks doors, for wine as other things, especially in the growing China market. The R&R wines have South African roots to be sure, but with high international aspirations.

It was interesting to taste the brothers’ wines at lunch. Sometimes Meyer’s wine would shine a bit brighter, other times it was Schalk-Willem’s wine that stood out. The wines were deliciously different, but not without a certain family resemblance, just like the brothers themselves.

The Oldest Living Wine?

But the brightest star of all came at the end of the meal, when Cobus brought out a small bottle of Jaubert Muscat d’Alexandrie vintage 1800! Wow, what an experience it was to taste this wine. Here is Neal Martin’s Wine Advocate tasting note:

Just twelve 250-ml bottles of this incredibly rare and ancient Muscat d’Alexandrie are released from a 100-litre French oak barrel in Klein Karoo that is topped up each year. It has an iridescent clear amber hue with green tints on the rim. The nose is simply stellar: candied orange peel, toffee, apricot and almond soar from the glass and fix you to the spot. The palate is perfectly balanced and fresher than some South African wines two centuries younger! It has a Sauternes-like viscosity but is not cloying like a Tokaji Essenzia. There is a touch of sherbet at the tip of the tongue and then it fans out towards a kaleidoscope of spice, clove, candied fruits and a touch of honey. One can discern an oxidative tang towards the finish that has a touch of volatility. Very long and intense and yet somehow refined and elegant, this is an ethereal experience. Drink now-2100+. Tasted June 2011.

I missed the touch of sherbert, but the rest was there in my glass. Drink now or until 2100+. Now that’s a wine that can age.

The brothers date the wine in their barrel from 1800 because that is the date that is given for the few similar lots of wine that are still around, but they think it could be older. The barrel has been in the family for several generations and in fact the house they grew up in was built around the barrel, so there is no way to get it out. They worried a bit (as brothers would about an ageing uncle) that the oak barrel was getting old and might some day simply collapse. But they had no plans to try to fix it up — too risky.

They maintain the wine — and share it! — through a sort of solera practice where, as the tasting note above explains, three liters of the wine are drawn off each year, replaced with new wine and a little bit of spirits. Is it the “oldest living wine” in the world as some have said? That probably depends upon your point of view, but it is certainly the oldest wine that I have ever sampled. And one of the youngest and freshest, too, if you go by taste.

One of my goals in visiting South Africa was to taste a wine as close as possible to the famous Vin de Constance that European heads of state treasured and Napoleon requested on his death bed. I did in fact get to taste a 2007 Klein Constantia Vin de Constance (made by Adam Mason, who was at the Joubert lunch) at a dinner party hosted by Mike Ratcliffe and it was great — hats off to Napoleon and special thanks to Mike and Adam. But the glass that Cobus put in my hand brought me as close as any human being can come to that 200 year old taste.

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The lunch group shown in the photo includes (left to right)  John Mitchell, Chris Waters, Igor Ryjenkov MW, Schalk-Willem Joubert, Adam Mason (winemaker at Mulderbosch, ex of Klein Constantia), Cobus Joubert, Mike Veseth and Meyer Joubert. Photo by Andries Joubert. Thanks to Cobus and family for sharing this great experience with me.

Critter Wines, Signature Varietals and South Africa’s Secret Weapon

This is part 2 of the Nederburg Auction talk I delivered on Saturday, September 29, 2012. 

Although we would like Brand South Africa to be defined by the great diversity of its wine, the fact is that the space currently available for South African wines on highly competitive U.S. retail shelves and restaurant lists is very limited. South Africa has two feet to tell its story, a national wine distributor executive told me. And the story that is often told is defined not so much by the wines as by their labels.

I told the audience that when I went to the local wine shop with the most comprehensive selection of South Africa wines I found that 15 of the 16 wines on the shelf were “critter wines.”

The Paradox of Critter Wines

If those two feet of shelf space include brands such as Sebeka, The Wolftrap, La Capra and Goats do Roam (all of which are or have been widely distributed in the U.S.), then the identity is clear. South Africa means “critter wines,” a class defined by Yellow Tail and Little Penguin. Critter wines are fun and often sell very well, but the image that they project is simplicity, not complexity, even when the wines themselves are not simple at all.

The paradox of so-called critter wines is that while they can be hugely successful for the individual wineries that deploy them (think Yellow Tail in the U.S. market), they can potentially undermine a region’s reputation if they are so numerous and prominent that they become the de facto collective brand. So Brand South Africa could use an upgrade in the U.S. if you want to expand beyond the self-limiting critter category. But how?

The Signature Wine Strategy

It is natural to look at the countries that have established new national brands in the U.S. market and to try to discover the secrets of their success. Australia then New Zealand and now Argentina are on the list of usual suspects.  The one general factor that unites them is effective distribution.

In the talk I also stressed another factor — the importance of international partnerships and strategic alliances — that I think runs through all these examples.

Brand Australia was driven in part by Yellow Tail’s partnership with W.J. Deustch, the family distribution firm that previously carved out the U.S. market for Beaujolais. Brand Argentina owes much of its success to the Gallo company, which opened doors for Alamos, the best selling Argentinean wine in the U.S., and Don Miguel Gascón, the number three brand. And Brand New Zealand’s success was built in part on the high level of international investment in that country’s wine industry, which allowed brands like Cloudy Bay to take advantage of the sophisticated distribution channels that its owners – Möet Hennesy Louis Vuitton – had already constructed.  Or Brancott Estate, which rides Pernod Ricard’s global wave.

In property investment they say that the three most important things are location, location, location. In the structurally complex U.S. wine market, it is distribution, distribution, distribution. Effective distribution alone will not make a wine brand, but success is very difficult  without it.

Beyond this, however, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina are best seen are special cases that would be difficult (or perhaps even dangerous) to try to replicate. Brand Australia has suffered as the simple critter wine strategy has backfired. Argentina has been unable to extend the Mendoza Malbec wine brand to other varietals, although many still hope for a Torrontes surge. And New Zealand has also been frustrated in its attempt to expand the brand beyond Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc now that the Sideways boom in Pinot Noir sales has run its course.  The Kiwis have had difficulty establishing other white varieties such as Riesling or Pinot Gris or the red wines of Hawke’s Bay in the U.S. market.

Increasingly the “signature varietal” brand strategy is seen to be a one note samba rather than the first step towards broad market penetration. Although it is tempting to try to brand your excellent Pinotage or Chenin Blanc as South Africa’s version of a signature wine, this seems like a risky bet in terms of the U.S. export market. It is important to simplify wine a bit – which is what a signature varietal does — so that consumers, especially new ones, can understand it. But beware of Einstein’s Law. It is difficult to see how a single varietal could truly open the door to South Africa’s diverse wine portfolio.

Terroirists’ Revenge

So how will South Africa win the Wine War for the U.S. market? Well, the good news, given what I have said, is that Brand South Africa is actually something of a clean slate for many U.S. wine consumers – especially the rising millennial generation who are open to new wines from new places and show no particular reverence for conventional wisdom.  They are refreshingly original in their thinking, bold in their actions and willing to open their pocketbooks. These new wine drinkers and others like them around the world are high value targets. How should they be approached?

Millennials are very independent. They are accustomed to writing their own narratives and they embrace products and experiences that integrate into a lifestyle experience. They aren’t just buying wine, they are building an identity. Millennials are not fundamentally different from earlier generations in this regard, simply more skilled, self-empowered and more interconnected. Reaching them, which requires more emphasis on story-telling, social media and first person wine experiences, is ultimately the task of South African wineries and their U.S. distributor partners; there is also a role for Wines of South Africa in shaping perceptions.

Millennials and other “clean slate” consumers are predisposed to respond to the Terroirists’ Revenge message. They are seeking wine and a story about wine that connects them to the wine, to an engaging culture, to a rich and exciting lifestyle and ultimately to each other. It’s about the wine, but it’s not just about the wine. South Africa’s terroirists have a secret weapon in their beautiful land and inviting culture than gives them a critical Wine War story-telling advantage.

How can South Africa connect with the Millennials, I asked the audience? Well, don’t look to me for answers, I said. I’ve only been in South Africa for a week. You will have come up with the answers. Only you will know what there is in South African culture and society that will make the connection. I think this statement came as a surprise to the audience, who are probably used to outsiders telling them what to do. But I am sure I am right. 

I felt I had to make a contribution, so I took a chance. My first full day on South African soil was Monday September 24 — National Heritage Day, which is also National Braai Day. Water keeps people apart, I told the audience, but wine brings us together. And the braai seems to bring South Africans together, too. And so I proposed braai as South Africa’s secret weapon.

One possible key to this terroirist strategy – and this is my own crazy idea — is the braai. Almost no one in the U.S. knows what a braai is, but we all love the barbeque experience and this is a good starting point. Any country that makes the braai its national food culture speaks to us in a language we can understand.

But the braai, I have learned, is not merely a food culture — and this is its magic. It is an expression of generosity and hospitality. If you ask someone to share your braai, you are opening your heart and your hearth to them, whether you are preparing a gourmet meal or more humble fare. If South African wines are seen as an extension of that warmth and engagement, they might well strike a sympathetic chord among American wine enthusiasts.

And happily there are many different cultures of the braai in South Africa – there are diverse braai terroirs if you know what I mean – and each has its own story and each lends itself to a different kind and style of South African wine. Americans will love the unique experience of an Afrocentric winelands braai once they get to know it and this can be the gateway to a fuller appreciation of South African culture and lifestyle and to the diverse wines that have evolved along with them.

If you invite Americans to join with you and to celebrate your people, land and culture – to make every day National Braai Day — they will toast your success with your own wonderful wine.

And that’s how South Africa can win the Wine Wars. Thank you.

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The photo above shows me with Jan Scannell, managing director of Distell Group, Ltd, South Africa’s largest wine and spirits producer and sponsor of the auction. Jan is holding the copy of Wine Wars I gave him. I’m holding a bottle of 1977 Nederburg Edelkeur Noble Late Harvest wine. I clearly got the better of the deal! By complete coincidence, Jan’s son (also named Jan but operating under the name Jan Braai) is the leader of the National Braai Day unity movement.

Thanks to everyone at the Nederburg Auction for inviting me to speak. Special thanks to Dalene Steyn and Lesley Gikas.

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Update 10/4/2012  The response to my talk has been pretty positive. Click here to read my favorite (because it is so unexpected) review.

Can South Africa Win the [U.S.] Wine Wars?

Note: This is the first part of the talk I gave last week in Paarl, South Africa. at the Nederburg Auction, which is arguably the Southern Hemisphere’s most prestigious wine auction gathering.  Come back for the second half of the talk in my next post. The talk as delivered was different (more topical and funnier as anyone who has heard me speak might guess) than this written version, but the main points were the same.

Good morning. I’d like to thank the Nederburg Auction for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today and Wines of South Africa for inviting me to attend Cape Wine 2012. Thanks to all of you for coming today to support the Nederburg Auction and the cause of South African wine.

At this point in the talk I paused to make a prediction, since economists are known to be oracles. My prediction: Australia 18, South Africa 21. That was my predicted score for the rugby match that was to be played later that day. I have never heard an economist’s prediction so warmly received!  It turns out that I was half right, but in the way that will not disqualify me from a return visit. The actual score: South Africa 31, Australia 8.

I’m here to talk about how South Africa can win the Wine Wars, so I guess I need to explain what the Wine Wars are and how South Africa fits into the action. Wine Wars is the title of my 2011 book. The title is short and punchy but the real business of the book is described by the long subtitle, The Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck and the Revenge of the Terroirists, which outlines the three elements of the book’s argument. Let’s take them one by one and then think about how they apply to South Africa.

A Tale of Curses, Miracles and Revenge

The first argument, “The Curse of the Blue Nun,” is about the risks and opportunities of globalization. Blue Nun was arguably the world’s first mass market wine brand. Although most people in the U.S. remember Blue Nun as that reliable but so-so German wine that they drank in the 1970s and 1980s (along with Portugal’s Mateus Rosé and Italy’s Riunite Lambrusco), the fact is that it initially gained international attention because of the extraordinary quality of the 1921 vintage. For a time it was the best selling imported wine in the U.S. and distributed around the world.

Globalization powered the rise of the Blue Nun brand and globalization nearly destroyed it. The pressure to fill the vast global pipeline forced the original owners of the Blue Nun brand to sacrifice quality to gain quantity. Blue Nun lost its distinctive character and became just another brand, albeit a potent one that continued to sell on that basis even as quality declined. (Blue Nun is back today, as I explain in Wine Wars, with new owners and a new global strategy).

People think that the “Miracle of Two Buck Chuck” is that anyone can make and sell a wine for as little as $2 per bottle, as Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine Company does with Charles Shaw wine, which is sold exclusively at Trader Joe’s stores in the United States. But that’s no miracle at all. The Aldi stores in Germany actually sell the equivalent of One Buck Chuck –simple red and white wine blends that sell for about €1 per liter (roughly one USD per standard 750 ml bottle equivalent). The miracle isn’t that they can sell an inexpensive wine like Two Buck Chuck, the miracle is that anyone would buy it!

Globalization has flooded U.S. supermarkets (and drug stores and even petrol stations) with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to wine.  The sheer number of wines for sale is sometimes overwhelming and the many different brands, varieties and regions makes the problem even worse. You need to master a secret code (I call it the Da Vino Code in Wine Wars) to make any sense of the situation. The fact that wine prices vary so much from bottom shelf to top compounds the confusion.

No wonder so many U.S. consumers purchase no wine at all. They are afraid to stoop down to buy cheap wine because they fear it will be disgusting. They are afraid to reach up to buy expensive wine because they worry it won’t be worth it. The Miracle of Two Buck Chuck is that Trader Joe’s have given buyers the confidence they previously lacked to purchase wine. Their house brand wine strategy effectively expands the reputation of the retailer to the wine. And it works.

Brands are powerful weapons in The Confidence Game that is the U.S. wine market today, but there’s a problem that I call Einstein’s Law. Albert Einstein said that everything should be as simple as possible – but no simpler. By this he meant that, while simplicity is useful, there comes a point where it becomes over-simplifying and essential qualities are lost. Brands simplify in order to sell, but they can go too far. When wine becomes a choice between Bud Red and Bud White and the diversity and distinctiveness of wine is lost, we will have crossed the line.

What is to prevent this? Well, in Wine Wars I argue that “The Revenge of the Terroirists” will save the day. Terroirists worship (or at least honor) the idea of terroir – a  sense of “somewhereness”  (to use a term coined by Matt Kramer) that is so important to us in today’s everywhere, anywhere, nowhere world. Wine, better than almost anything else, connects us to a particular time and place and is thus a fitting focus of terroirist zeal.  Globalization has created the battlefield; the Wine Wars pit the forces that seek to over-simply wine against the terroirists who strive to preserve its soul.

South Africa and the Wine Wars

Can South Africa win its Wine War in the United States market? Yes – anyone who has tasted the wonderful wines being showcased at the Nederburg Auction will have no doubt about the final answer. But it won’t be easy. The U.S. market is crowded, intensely competitive and structurally difficult penetrate. It will take “boots on the ground,” sustained commitment, well-conceived strategy, opportunistic tactics and a little bit of luck. If that sounds like the description of a military battle plan, you are starting to understand the Wine Wars. Let me analyze the battlefield terrain in terms of the three big forces I talk about in my book.

First is globalization – the Curse of the Blue Nun. South Africa has long experience dealing with globalization’s two faces. These days for example, the global markets promise to connect Cape wine producers with new consumer markets around the world – a real plus. At the same time, however, the changing logic of the international wine trade has shifted momentum from bottled wine exports to bulk wine sales. New markets create jobs and income, but the trend towards bulk wine exports shifts the terms of trade in the opposite direction. That’s how globalization rolls.

At the other extreme we have the Revenge of the Terroirists. South African winemakers are terroirists – how could they not be with such wonderful terroir all around them — and, although most consumers in the United States don’t yet understand the complexity of South Africa’s terroir, the fact of the diverse Cape wine terroir is terribly useful. More to follow on this point.

So this brings us to brands and reputation — the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck. What does Brand South Africa look like in the United States? Here are impressions I have gathered in confidential communications with U.S. wine professionals from all the supply chain links and my own personal observations.

My industry informants tell me that when winery or distributor representatives are present to provide samples and information, South African wines fly out the door, but they need that personal connection. The key, one successful distributor of South African wines told me, is for the wines to stand on their own – sparkling against sparkling, Cabernet against Cabernet and so on. Then their quality and value carry the day. Emphasize the “made in South Africa” element, he told me, and interest wanes.  Why?

To be continued …

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