China becomes Glenelly’s biggest export market

South Africa’s Glenelly winery, founded in 2003 by the eminent Bordeaux vintner May de Lencquesaing, now counts mainland China as the single biggest export market for its Bordeaux style wines, despite South African wines’ overall small percentage share of the market.

With 56 hectares under vine, the Stellenbosch-based winery makes three ranges, its ‘Class Collection’ single variety wines, ‘Estate Reserve’ wines and its flagship Bordeaux blend called ‘Lady May,’ a tribute to de Lencquesaing, the former owner of Bordeaux second growth Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande.

The winery only started making wines in 2008, and within a few years mainland China has grown to be its biggest export market, where its sales volume for 2018 is expected to reach 60,000 bottles, said Nicolas Bureau, grandson of May de Lencquesaing, who is in charge of Glenelly wine sales.

“We sell a lot in China. We have a very good importer called Easy Cellar,” said Bureau, adding that the relationship with Easy Cellar and his grandmother May de Lencquesaing went back years, when the founder of the Chinese importing company was studying in Bordeaux.

“And we are the only South African wine in his portfolio,” he added.

Glenelly’s brisk business in China is in stark contrast to South African wines’ overall performance in the country, where its market share only accounts for roughly 1% of the total.

However, in the past couple of years, South African wines have been gaining traction, with the country’s wine trade organisation Wines of South Africa rolling out promotional events in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and other Asian cities.

Explaining on the lag from a historical point of view, Bureau said, “It [South Africa] has only been selling wine seriously since the late 1990s and early 2000s after apartheid, so it will take some time.” 

In addition to the mainland market, Glenelly managed to find distributors in Hong Kong with Ponti Wine Cellars and Singapore last year via Wines of South Africa and the country’s PIWOSA (Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa) association.

Its wine sales in Japan this year are expected to reach 25,000 bottles, followed by Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam.

The key to break into a new market for South African wines, according to Bureau, is to first convince sommeliers of the quality of South African wines, as these are the “gatekeepers” to any country’s wine market. 

Explaining further, he commented: “Sommeliers should not be label drinkers. They are the ones we have to convince to put our wines on the list. They are the gatekeepers, it’s not the consumers. They are the ones to decide what city is going to drink. If we can’t convince these people, even if consumers are open-minded they can’t assess South African wines.”

Asked about the ongoing drought in South Africa, Bureau admitted it has taken a toll on the country’s wine industry, resulting in the smallest vintage in over a decade, but was quick to point out that its impacts on Glenelly were limited, thanks to the winery’s well stocked dams across its vineyard sites.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot are the two main grapes, with the former dominating about 90% of the blend, used for its flagship ‘Lady May’ red. Its latest 2012 vintage also added Merlot for roundness and structure.

Increasingly, however, the vintner fears that Stellenbosch, the historic wine region in South Africa renowned for its Bordeaux blends, is being overshadowed by Swartland, “the new kid on the block.”

“Who isn’t promoting Swartland?” he asked wryly. “It used to be the new kid on the block, and now it’s established. Nowadays to promote Stellenbosch is a little bit more risky. People forgot about Stellenbosch, and think it’s old fashioned,” he continued.

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