As you heard from Kendal and Keegan we have been on a number of farm and vineyard tours. There is definitely much to be learned from the science and art of wine making but we have also learned a great deal about the local and global business of vineyards. I hope that whatever Kendal and Keegan are taking in from these tours that they are also absorbing some of the larger picture aspects of business. I’ll try and touch on a little of what we tried to take in on our visits.
The majority of the vineyards we toured were all in Western Cape in the major wine-land regions of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl. The intriguing history of wine in this area dates back to 1659 when the founder of Cape Town, Jan van Riedbeeck (a Dutch surgeon), produced the first wine. The Dutch East India Company established a “supply station” for their long travels east, today this “supply station” is known as Cape Town. The Dutch surgeon planted vineyards to produce wines believing the vitamins contained in wine were a remedy that would ward off scurvy the sailors were getting during their travels through the Spice Route. In 1685 the Governor, Simon vander Stel established the Constantia Estate and was at that time considered one of the best wines in the world. The decades that followed were full of, you guessed it, more incredible history. I’ll fast-forward a little…in 1859, after the area fell under British rule, over 1 million gallons of South African wine had been exported to Great Britain successfully. However, an unfortunate combination of a free trade treaty in 1860 between Great Britain and France (the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty) and a phylloxera epidemic in 1865 (an aphid is a plant lice that attacks the plant vines and injects a deadly venom and corrodes the root structure) diminished South African wine exports. This disastrous combination would take more than 20 years for the vineyards to recover from. Even after they got back on track with great wine they really weren’t noticed much globally during the 20th century, most of that vain came because of the boycotts instilled due to Apartheid.
I have been reading a lot in the newspaper over the last few weeks on the vineyards here and the unfortunate financial difficulties many have found themselves in, specifically the “primary wine producers”. There are a number of reasons why over 100 vineyards are for sale and a surprisingly huge percentage are under the brink of bankruptcy and I’m sure some of these same issues affect many vineyards in other countries. They are all interesting reasons in their own right and each one could be discussed at length (but I promised this would be a short blog). South African wine exports have decreased by 25% in the last year. Their fuel, electricity and labor costs have all increased by almost 50% since 2004. It doesn’t help their valid paranoia that if US Walmart Corporation buys Massmart (South Africa’s largest chain retailer), Walmart could very well bring cheap wine to South Africa in large quantities and further hurt local sales. One of the more fascinating areas is the prohibited use of enzymes in the wine manufacturing process in South Africa. The longer the grape is in the ground the more sugar is created which increases the alcohol content. If a vintner is unable to get the grapes picked soon enough (getting labor out on a Saturday or Sunday for example, can sometimes be impossible) your alcohol level is higher and that increased alcohol content increases the vintners’ taxes and tariffs. Other countries are allowed to use enzymes which puts South Africa at a huge global disadvantage because you can’t really level out your alcohol, not to mention the increased aroma and taste enzymes could give your wine. Another way to reduce that alcohol level is to water down the wine (they call this process “Jesus Units”, which comes from the bible story of the Miracle at the Marriage at Cana when they added water to wine). However, this practice in some crowds is considered “wine fraud”. Other countries are allowed to use a limited amount of water to “make sure the grapes don’t dehydrate” or “make sure the grapes flow smoothly through the machines”; the question then is how much water is really used during that process. When you buy a bottle of wine you may have noticed the alcohol percentages have increased over the years. That increased alcohol content, in my opinion does have an effect on the aroma and the palate. Interesting tidbit; lets say a bottle has an alcohol content at 14%, that’s an estimate, bottlers are allowed 1.5% leeway either way for that bottle so it could be 12.5% or 15.5%…at this point I would say it’s more on the high end.
There are so many fascinating aspects of this business and I’m sure if I had the exposure to Napa or Sonoma Valley I would surely have taken this all in back home. As I mentioned many of these same issues affect similar wine markets throughout the world. We head to Spain in next week (we try not to talk about it much because we are all getting very sad that we will be leaving Cape Town) and I look forward to learning a little more about the EU wine process. Let me close my rambling by saying that the vineyards and the wines in the Western Cape area are beautiful and incredible. The people are extremely friendly and inviting to all and we always felt very welcome at each visit.