23 June Boutique or Big Brand

Pity the country’s successful wine producers: the better their reputation and the more extensive their sales, the harder it is for them to get spoken about (and “spoken about” includes everything from editorial to social media). The rush of the new has entirely displaced the gravitas of long-established credibility. This rule applies most particularly when reputation is paired with distribution, but it is substantially diluted the moment perceived rarity enters the equation. If it’s believed that you don’t have any wine for sale, being well-known is not an impediment. In fact, it may be a positive advantage.

This rule means that, no matter what award a big producer wins, no one really writes or tweets about it. The Winery of the Year – as determined by the panel selecting the 2017 Platter Guide five star laureates – was Nederburg, an extraordinary achievement, and one which places it alongside some of the most successful and sought-after small scale producers. The news hardly generated a ripple, certainly nothing like the waves which accompanied the announcement when cellars like Mullineux & Leeu, Sadie, and Cape Chamonix took line honours.

Life’s not fair of course, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept blindly this injustice. If a long-established (but non-boutique) producer really does do well, then not making the same effort to write about, circulate the information and act on the news is a betrayal of the raison d’etre of a wine communicator. The top-scoring wine on WineMag’s recent SA Bordeaux blend tasting was Thelema’s Rabelais, consistently one of the Cape’s best Bordeaux blends. At 94 points it edged ahead of Morgenster 2011, another of the country’s under-recognised vinous masterpieces, which in turn shared the 93 point slot with Tokara’s Director’s Reserve 2013 and with Mvemve Raats De Compostella. Given that De Compostella enjoys great perceived rarity, and a price point which comfortably exceeds (by at least double) anything which scored more than 90 points at the judging, you can bet that this will be the focus of most wine conversations around the results.

The burden that Thelema shares with Tokara (recently judged best producer at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show) and Morgenster is that they are real wine enterprises, with vineyards and cellars of their own, and the kind of sales volumes which might one day justify the tens of millions of rands that have been invested in them. Alongside this, Mvemve Raats is like a disruptive predator, sourcing fruit from growers, making loot without roots. Good luck to them – we all take advantage of these fleet-of-foot operations (like Uber), but sometimes we need to step back and ask ourselves not why they are doing well, but why the others are being disregarded.

In the past few weeks I’ve tasted the 2013 Thelema Cabernet and the 2014 Rabelais: both are delicious (and the Cab at R220 or so per bottle is a great price for wine of that quality). So incidentally is the Thelema Stellenbosch Chardonnay (R135), more substantial than the prettier, but still very drinkable (Thelema) Sutherland Chardonnay 2015 (R120). At the same tasting I sampled several wines from Villiera, of which cellar the same might be said about the inverse relationship between desirability and distribution.

Using this curious logic of brand, market reach and price, Villiera’s standout wines were doomed to radio silence. The Griers have been leading producers for over three decades, so their wines lacks the sexiness of the new. They are readily available and  surprisingly inexpensive. Don’t expect to read or hear anything about the delicious Villiera Bush Vine Blanc Fume 2016 R150), or the equally smart (no sulphur added) Brut Natural 2012 MCC (R140). They’re simply too well priced, and can be found with very little effort. Perhaps instead you need to chase down the Chardonnay from their Domaine Grier southern French property. While it will be a little harder to find, you’ll have to disregard its R100 price point. Otherwise it might not seem worth the effort.

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