Wine: South Africa’s More Refined Natural Resource In A Nation Of Beer Drinkers

Wine: South Africa’s More Refined Natural Resource In A Nation Of Beer Drinkers

For decades, South Africa’s industrial might has rested on the gritty extraction of raw resources, particularly platinum, diamonds and gold. But lately, this hardy nation of beer drinkers has emerged as a global player in a significantly more refined natural resource — wine.

Wineries are proliferating across the African continent, and especially in South Africa, where the volume of exported wine has nearly doubled in 10 years. Meanwhile, critics have praised its quality, with prominent observer Neal Martin calling South Africa “the most exciting New World country on the scene at the moment.”

Industry leaders say the recognition is the overdue payoff of 350 years perfecting its wine craft.

“South African wine can hold its own against the best in the world,” said Su Birch, chief executive of the industry association, Wines of South Africa, in an email. “This is borne out by our high ratings from respected wine journalists and the international awards which we win.”

Yet it also reflects cultural and economic shifts in both South Africa and the rest of the continent. Some African nations are popping up as competitors, but mostly as customers. Nigeria, Tanzania and Kenya are among the top African importers of South African wine, according to a 2012 survey, but South African wine has found its way onto dinner tables in 134 countries.

Robert Marx, 54, is one of the American connoisseurs, and he’s one of the reasons the U.S. lands in the top four importers.

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Marx is from Minnesota, but in 1980 he was a young man in Cape Town, a Marine stationed to guard the U.S. consulate there.

“As a 21-year-old guy I was introduced to wine,” he said.

Back home in the Midwest, there wasn’t much South African wine to be found, if any. Broad international sanctions intended to crush Apartheid also crushed any hope of a vital wine trade. But Marx says he saw potential.

“I made a little note and thought, ‘Maybe someday the politics will change, and I’ll be the guy,’” he says.

In 2002, after retiring from the Marines and then retiring again from an executive search firm he founded, Marx remembered his note-to-self from 1981. “I did a little research on South African wine and found out they were the eighth largest wine-producing country in the world,” he said. Soon he was on a plane back to Africa with a copy of “Red Wine for Dummies” in his lap.

Now Marx is the owner of Amara Wines, a growing distributor based outside of Minneapolis. At first he only imported South African wine, but now it accounts for about two-fifths of his business.

Though his imports are more diversified now, he anticipates distributing to major national retailers next year. Marx believes that in 2014 Amara Wines will be the largest American importer of South African wine.

Historically, grapevines arrived in the Cape the same way most European things arrived there: the Dutch.

Holland didn’t make a lot of wine, and its inhabitants preferred beer. That’s why the first transplanted vines came from France. But early colonial commanders, perhaps for aesthetic reasons, decided Cape Town and the mountainous lands around it should be lined with vineyards.

In 1659, Dutch Commander Jan van Riebeeck scribbled in his diary, “Today, praise be to God, wine was pressed for the first time from Cape Grapes,” writes University of Stellenbosch historian D.J. van Zyl.

Now the South African wine industry employs more than a quarter-million people, and its share of the nation’s gross domestic product contribution has increased at least 10 percent per year since 2003, the nonprofit trade group South African Wine Information Services, or SAWIS, reported this year.

“Liberated by the advent of democracy, the South African wine industry has gone from strength to strength, with exports growing by 219 percent between 1998 and 2010,” according to the report.

Improvements in the buying power of other African nations and slowly shifting taste buds have led to greater overland exports. Meanwhile, the wine industries of Morocco, Tunisia, Namibia and Madagascar seem to have grown in recent decades, though not as fast as in South Africa.

“You will find that there is more favor of beer as a cool drink,” Matome Mbatha, an industry market analyst, told the news site How we made it in Africa. “And in that sense, with the change of lifestyle, people migrating from low-level lives to medium up to high-end lifestyles, there is a trend of diversifying from their normal drinks, which is beer and whisky, to now wine.”

Difficulties remain. For one, global competition is fierce. Australia and Chile — plus standard-bearers, like France, Italy and California — enjoy established reputations and an upper hand. And one academic observer in Stellenbosch, the African equivalent of the Napa Valley, has noted ignorance and inefficiency in supply chain management.

Birch, the industry association head, says South Africa’s biggest problem is low prices. Export returns hover around $1.50 per liter.

“South Africa has struggled with the fact that we have not easily been able to get the selling price which our quality merits, for a whole host of historical reasons,” she said.

That’s bad for vintners, but it’s great for consumers.

Brian Dawson, CEO of a U.K.-based charity, lives four hours north of Johannesburg and says he has noticed a cultural movement underway as artisan interests migrate from breweries to cellars. His son works for a wine distributor, he said. “We have quality wine for a really affordable price. For 2 or 3 U.S. dollars you’re getting really good, quality wine.”

Perhaps as demand grows, that will change. For now, Dawson admits, “we’re a nation of beer drinkers.”