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Cape aims high with new classification

A new South African wine classification aims to tackle the country’s difficulty in building a more upmarket identity for its wines.

Officially introduced at this week’s London Wine Fair, the Cape Vintner Classification sets out strict criteria for membership and a series of tiers designed to highlight wines from specific estates and vineyards in the Cape.

“This is really about trying to position South Africa in the premium sector,” CVC co-founder Don Tooth, managing director of Vergelegen Wine Estate, told the drinks business. “The concern we have is the presentation of South Africa as cheap and cheerful.”

To highlight the challenge of building this upmarket message at a generic level through Wines of South Africa, he remarked: “Effectively we represent 80% of brands who are 10% of volume. WOSA has done a great job but they have to look after the 90% of volume.”

Pointing to South Africa’s £4.78 average price in the UK off-trade (Nielsen, 12 months to January 2015), Tooth commented: “The CVC is really trying to pull people together to say ‘let’s showcase premium South Africa first and my brand second.’”

After two years looking at other international models of this kind, the CVC founders have now drawn up a series of criteria and tiers for this new classification.

The first criteria for CVC membership is to be an estate, growing your own grapes and making your own wine. Tooth suggested that there are currently 206 registered estates in South Africa, together with “another 100 who could register.”

To qualify for the “Vineyard Wines” tier, members must pass an independent audit of their technical and environmental standards, ethical practices, cellar door facilities and, finally, the quality of their wines, which Tooth described as “absolutely paramount”.

This quality assessment sees the producer present five vintages of his wine to a panel of five judges, at least four of whom must agree that the wine is of sufficient calibre and representative of the estate’s vineyard and winemaking practices.

In addition, all members must resubmit their wines for approval every five years, with Tooth noting the importance of being able to prove a “sustained performance.”

The CVC also carries a second, higher tier of “Terroir Specific Wines”. These are required to have a demonstrable track record in the market place, while the producer must also be able to convince the judging panel that his wine is representative of a specific vineyard parcel within his estate.

“We’re trying to unlock “Picasso sites”, remarked Tooth. “A lot of the estates have really unique areas.” Outlining the level of detail this higher classification aims to encourage, he observed: “Burgundy and Alsace have unique pockets of soil that they really understand in a way we don’t yet for our own places.”

Despite these constraints, members can still buy in grapes for their business but the wines made from those grapes cannot carry the classification sticker, which is displayed on the neck of each bottle. However, where an estate is leasing a vineyard and therefore has control over its management, the wine from these grapes can be included.

To-date, 22 wineries have been approved as CVC members, including Vergelegen, Rust en Vrede, Morgenster, Groot Constantia and Hamilton Russell Vineyards. Meanwhile a further 28 estates have completed their application and another 53 have registered interest.

Emphasising the “rigorous” approval system, Tooth noted that just four wines had so far been accredited within the highest classification tier – two wines from his own estate, one from Paul Cluver and one from De Wetshof – representing just 4% of the wines submitted.

Tooth noted the requirement to show five vintages as a common stumbling block, saying: “We often find a change in style, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but we tell them to come back when they’ve decided on one.”

While many of these members represent some of South Africa’s most established names, Tooth stressed the CVC’s mission “to be inclusive not exclusive” in order to fulfill its core aim of bringing estates together to raise South Africa’s quality image.

“We have to take a lot of care to be open,” he insisted. “We’re going up against the best in the world but if we can stand together then we’re going to get some traction.”

Having established its criteria for membership, the CVC is now planning to begin showing off these wines and estates to the outside world. Tooth picked out the US and UK markets as the initial focus, “mostly on the basis of the strength of the press.”

While describing the UK as “sympathetic” to South African wine, Tooth maintained: “We shoot ourselves in the foot in terms of marketing and positioning our wines because we don’t talk brand South Africa.”

By contrast, he highlighted a rather different challenge in the US, where there is far less understanding about both South Africa and its wines. “Producers have had tastings cancelled because people were worried about catching Ebola from the wine,” he remarked.

The next step will be to organise joint trips and events for CVC members, similar to the approach employed by Australia’s First Families of Wine. For Tooth, “the whole idea is that we can go out as an industry group and there’s enough trust that I can present other people’s wines and they can present mine.”

A detailed look at South Africa’s export strategy and focus will appear in June’s issue of the drinks business.

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