Last Monday, I was listening, as I do every weekday evening, to Bruce Whitfield on Cape Talk/Radio702’s The Money Show. What particularly caught my attention was Ian Mann’s book review, ‘Demand: Creating What people Love Before They Know They Want It’ by Adrian Slywotzky. A brief description on the website enlightens us further: ‘With engaging stories, Slywotzky pulls back the curtain on how great demand creators wind up creating the killer offer: things customers can’t resist and competitors can’t copy.’
My immediate thought was, isn’t this precisely what winemakers try to do and, if the wine media believe what the winemakers have produced is worthy, do their darndest to encourage wine drinkers (customers) to believe they absolutely should be buying and drinking these wines.
If there are any South African wines the winemakers are excelling with and the media correspondingly extolling in every type of media possible, it is white wines in general and probably white blends of all shapes and sizes in particular.
Yet so far the skill and innovation of winemakers plus media attention hasn’t resulted in a similar sort of enthusiastic reaching-into-the-pocket from wine drinkers. Even if sauvignon blanc isn’t quite the consumer darling it used to be, it remains popular, mainly I believe because it’s easy to understand both from its varietal name and recognisable, straightforward flavours.
And therein lies a clue to the problems suffered by both chenin blanc and white blends; the wine loving public are too uncertain about what they’re buying. Unlike chenin blanc, there’s no body to promote white blends, but apart from the possibly best-known Bordeaux-style combining sauvignon blanc and semillon with either variety dominating, the rest are such a hotchpotch, even when the make up is listed on the label, it’s no sure indicator of what style will be poured from the bottle. There is discussion among a few of us about how best to categorise these white blends with the idea of promoting them both locally and, importantly, internationally, as our international media colleagues are as enthused about the category as we are.
Chenin blanc’s identity crisis also arises from confusion about what lies behind the ‘Chenin Blanc’ label on the bottle. The Chenin Blanc Association fell into the trap of coming up with too many style categories; after some very interesting research carried out by Dr Helene Nieuwoudt of the Department of Wine Biotechnology and her students, these have since shrunk to three: fresh and fruity, rich and ripe unwooded and rich and ripe wooded. While research has shown consumers can differentiate between the first and last of these with a degree of certainty, the second one is less easily identified and, of course, there are wines that fall outside these three stylistic categories. There has been talk of a descriptive sticker to be applies to the back label, but my feeling is practice rather than theory will be the more useful way to win over consumers. A table of different chenins at the various wine shows, a festival devoted to chenin and why not space on the Association’s website for consumers to recommend chenins similar in style to each other? For instance: If you enjoy Remhoogte Chenin Blanc 2012, you might also enjoy Mullineux 2012?
Is it the very confusion surrounding our classy whites (let’s also include riesling with its different sugar levels) that still sends wine lovers scurrying for red wines? Of course, there are some splendid reds, but overall South African whites receive greater praise. What is it about reds that make them the default wine with the evening meal? Better food partners than whites? Substance and satisfaction? Belief that reds age better than whites? A colour issue? It probably has something to do with all of these and yet I reckon many of our top whites, especially the styles I’ve discussed above and chardonnay, can offer even more pleasure than many reds, especially when they have gained complexity with age.
I have to admit I wish Christian Eedes had boldly run his 10 year old competition for whites rather than reds, which would have drawn some much needed attention to how good they are and how well they age. That said, I do understand few producers would have library stock of whites, whereas it seems from the 70 red wine entries, there are at least a few who would be able to offer sufficient quantity for the awards dinner.
For sure so many of the Cape’s winemakers are creating killer offers with their white wines but for now customers seem more than able to resist them, doubtless through confusing presentation and marketing. Maybe they need to lay hands on Mr Slywotzky’s book and pick up a few tips from that. It would be a great pity if the great potential for South Africa’s USP among white wines fails to be realised