Bring back the Huguenots!
12 June 2012 by Neil Pendock
After VinExpo Asia in Hong Kong last month followed by a week in
Shanghai (the Cape Towns and Johannesburgs of the Middle Kingdom,
respectively) Neil Pendock calls for an urgent change of direction for
SA wine marketing.
While the first grape vines at the southernmost tip were French – Muscat d’Alexandrie – they were planted in the Company Gardens by a Dutchman, the appropriately named Hendrik Boom (or more likely by a slave working under his direction). But the French soon returned to kick-start fine wine production, in the shape of Huguenot refugees from France. Their heritage is scattered all over the Cape in wine estates with Gallic names.
Ground Zero is Franschhoek, where black berets are popular and Lodine Maske sells an impressive array of fromage. Le Quartier Français is the only Africa-based establishment to consistently make the San Pellegrino Top 100 Restaurants in the World while JP Rossouw (who looks dashingly darkly Gallic) publishes a local Guide Michelin. The Commanderie de Bordeaux set up shop last year at La Motte, with Hanneli Rupert-Koegelenberg as patron.
To celebrate Bastille Day 2012, a gang of Gallic winemakers is being routed from the Rhône while at the end of the year, 20 final year winemaking students at Elsenburg Agricultural College are planning a trip to France. They have roped in Alan Pick, of Butcher's Shop fame, to host an auction featuring wagu and CWG wine to cover the R600 000 travel bill.
Alan has long argued that SA wine should call itself Afrique du Sud, to steal a march on Australia on lexicographically sorted supermarket shelves. After a visit to China, it looks like a French connection will once again boost SA wine.
Chinese consumers are consummate drinkers of labels and France has a lock-hold on luxury. Specialized boutiques are popping up all over Asia with Cartier, Dior and Château Lafite (spelt with one or two f's) on offer. Although 40% of China's $15.6 billion purchases of luxury goods last year happened offshore thanks to swingeing import taxes, including SA wine imports that are taxed 20% higher than those from Chile and New Zealand. A scandalous state of affairs that should cause sleeping heads to roll among the dozy bureaucrats in quangos charged with promoting SA wine exports. What's the point of belonging to BRICS if you pay more than non-members?
Already the savviest wine marketers in SA are wearing tricolour underpants. Rupert and Rothschild have redesigned their labels to emphasize the Rothschild connection while Hein Koegelenberg's Asian brand (which accounts for one in every two bottles of SA wine sold in China) is called Le Huguenot - which means “one Huguenot” as Hein told the queues of visitors to his La Motte/Leopard’s Leap stand at VinExpo.
Fleur du Cap was popular on Cathy Pacific last year and Cape Legends is in the fortunate position of having many brands that parlez vous like Plaisir de Merle and Le Bonheur. Chateau Libertas needs to urgently reinstate the circumflex and flex its French muscles.
French aristocracy already make wine in SA: Hubert de Bouard and Bruno Prats at Anwilka and May-Eliane de Lencquesaing at Glenelley, although the choice of distinctly un-French brand names was a serious faux pas. Anne Cointreau's pied à cap was already called Morgenhof, so she's excused. Christophe Dauriac at Marianne, heroine of the French Revolution, was the only one to get the brand name right and once he brings Michel Rolland's alcohols under control, he’ll be well paced to surf the French vague.
So where does this leave the boutique boys of the Swartland, trendiest of the newly emerging appellations? One of the Gang of Four controlling the Swartland Independent has the good sense to be a Mullineux while embracing Franschhoek celebrity chef Reuben Riffel was sheer genius. The Pays Noir needs to emphasize French imports at the annual Revolution more (more Olivier Clape and Stéphane Ogier) and keep serving the Bollinger. A brand so exclusive, a tasting of vintage bubbles was only available to Chinese visitors at VinExpo. Delicious discrimination indeed.
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