Danie de Wet on wine industry


Danie de Wet, proprietor and cellarmaster of De Wetshof Estate and a leading figure in the South African wine industry, wrote the following article for the ANC’s Progressive Leader magazine. An Afrikaans version appeared in Die Burger newspaper of 5 January.

When looking at the economic impact of the South African industry, one has to use a two-pronged approach. The reason being that unlike most agricultural products, one of wine’s many unique features is that it cannot – or should not – be seen as another general, standardised commodity. Wine represents the cultural and geographical diversity of the various countries and the regions within those countries where it has been produced for centuries and millennia. And this enables wine to impact on the economy of a country in a number of ways.

The first – and most obvious – approach to take in measuring the impact of the wine industry on the South African economy is that of statistics.

Currently over 3 500 farmers cultivate some 100 000ha of land under vines for the wine industry. Based mainly in the Western and Northern Cape, the wine industry employs 275 600 people on a direct and indirect basis. Taking the employees’ dependants into account, it is obvious that the industry supports a large number of communities in these areas. This has been the case historically and will be the case for generations to come.

The impact of the industry on the local economy is not to be sniffed at. During the last official study commissioned by the South African Wine Industry and Systems (Sawis) in 2008, the wine industry’s contribution to the country’s GDP was considered to be R26,2bn. With exports and local sales having increased since then, as well as the continued substantial increase in wine tourism, it can safely be assumed that this figure is now well into R30bn.

In terms of the complex system of levies and duties imposed on producers, the wine industry’s annual contribution to Government coffers is over R4bn, ensuring that not only those involved in production and selling of wine benefit from the industry.

The wine industry is thus firmly entrenched in the South African landscape and the country is seen as one of the world’s traditional wine producers.

For example, our first wine was made in 1659, a few years before the soils of Bordeaux had yet to be drained before those iconic vineyards could be planted.

I mention this because the history and culture of the South African wine industry is vital in the second prong of the approach aiming to underscore the economic importance of the South African wine industry.

For in the eyes of the consumer, wine’s uniqueness lies in the fact that it is not a bulk agricultural commodity whose origin and identity is of lesser importance to price and ease of access. Simply put, wine is not a box of breakfast cereal, a sack of maize or a carton of milk.

Ernest Hemingway’s quote “Good wine is the most civilised thing on earth” may – for some – belong to a bygone romantic era. But as a producer of the noble product of the vine, I believe and have always believed that wine is one of the most special gifts humankind has been fortunate to receive, and this from an agriculture source. It originates from a plant – the grapevine – that has a magical ability to express itself through the soils and climate the plant has to endure in creating each season’s grapes.

The making of wine is a natural process, more natural than the production of most consumables. Despite wineries employing science and technology, the basic recipe has remained the same throughout the thousands of years during which man has made wine. The grapes’ sugar is converted to alcohol, a process which delivers unique and diverse flavour profiles to that particular grape’s elixir. These flavour profiles express the natural terrains of the vines from which the grapes originate.

Therefore a Chardonnay from Robertson will have its own unique characteristics compared to one from Stellenbosch or from Burgundy in France. Or a Pinot Noir from the cool slopes of Elgin is bound to offer wine-lovers different features than one grown in the valleys of Stellenbosch or Hemel-en-Aarde.

These intrinsics – all blessed gifts of nature – has given wine, the process of wine-making and the passion of the people who make it an allurement that sees wine being spoken of as a cultural product instead of just another beverage.

This is where South Africa’s future success as a wine-producing nation lies – in embracing the unique wine culture of our country. Excellent wine is, of course, non-negotiable. Fortunately South African wine has shown itself able to share a stage with the best wines from France, Germany, Italy, America, Australia and all other famous wine countries.

But unlike the countries named, the image of South Africa’s wine industry has not yet been amalgamated with the image of our nation as a whole.

The wine industry has the potential to be the glittering jewel in the South African crown. If marketed and communicated effectively to the world, the wine industry’s reputation for excellence, the spectacular beauty of the wine-lands and the deep cultural wine roots can boost the global image of the country in its entirety.

This image of a world-class, multi-faceted and culturally rich wine industry will spearhead the reputation of South Africa’s agriculture in general, causing the world to look at our agricultural offerings in a whole new light. Who knows how valuable this could be in igniting export growth on myriad fronts, including those outside the agricultural arena?

The industry also needs to do more to create a wine culture in South Africa. The wine culture should not stop at the borders of the Cape winelands – from the game lodges in Limpopo to the tropical coastline of KwaZulu-Natal; from the small towns of the Karoo and the mountains of the Eastern Free State, South Africans should be made part of the wine culture to thereby position not only a wine nation, but a producer of excellence in all agricultural aspects.

Countries such as France, Australia, New Zealand and South America use their indigenous wine culture as a major lure for tourism and investment, and due to wine’s image as a civilised, enticing and culturally endorsed product, this strategy has borne fruit in many ways.

What must South Africa do to put our best wine foot forward to the rest of the world?

From the industry’s side we have to guard our reputation for excellence. This means not falling into the trap of producing cheap and cheerful wines at the behest of bargain-hunting retailers in foreign markets. Alarm bells have already started ringing due to South Africa’s increased exports of cheap bulk wine for bottling in other parts of the world, thereby losing control of the quality of the product as well as sacrificing the identity of the bulk-exported wine.

Furthermore, the industry has to protect its pockets of excellence, namely the various vineyards that have proven themselves in creating world-class wines of distinction through their geographical positioning in various areas of the Cape. These unique vine-growing terrains have to be identified and the wines they continue to produce must be promoted on the world stage as shining examples of what South Africa can truly do.

In summary: the South African wine industry is a vital cog in the country’s economic wheel. However, although it is one of the country’s oldest agricultural industries, it still has an enormous contribution to make in the economic landscape due to its potential contribution to South Africa’s image of a country able embrace and express excellence.

This recognition of excellence, whether through wine or any other product or service, is now needed more than ever to push the country forward.


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