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MICHAEL GREEN’S WINE NOTES #154 (article first published : 2006-07-23)

The “price correction” at this year’s Nederburg wine auction, a decline of 25 percent on last year’s prices, may have come as a timely reminder to the wine industry that the pockets of wine drinkers are not endlessly deep.

The hard truth is that over the past five years South African wine sales have declined by 5 percent. I have this figure from Neil Pendock, one of the country’s best wine writers. He is a mathematician by profession, employed as a consultant by various large companies, and he has made a study of the statistics of the wine industry.

According to Neil (who was born in Singapore but has spent almost all his life in South Africa), wine sales have declined while those of mineral water have soared. And selling the latter can be very profitable. One luxury hotel buys mineral water at R2 a bottle and sells it at R38 a bottle, chilled and served in an elegant glass, of course.

I think that price is the major factor in restricting wine consumption, followed by health (all those calories) and caution (nobody wants to be prosecuted for drinking and driving).

When glossy magazines describe a Cape wine as being an absolute bargain at R80 or R90 a bottle they are, in my opinion, hopelessly out of touch with reality. Most of the regular wine drinkers I know look for wine at about R20 or maybe R30 a bottle.

As for dining out, I find it depressing that restaurants should charge for wine three times as much it cost them. These days more and more people take their own and pay corkage of R20 to R30 a bottle.

My advice to ordinary wine drinkers is to shop around, try different wines and find something that you like at the right price. Some of the best value comes from cancelled overseas orders. These wines often have labels indicating that they were intended for sale in England or Sweden or Ireland and other parts of Europe. They have to be sold reasonably quickly and they usually offer good value.

The chenin blanc grape produces good white wines at moderate prices. This once disparaged cultivar is now well regarded, and the experts say that it often has good bottle-ageing potential.

Of course if you are feeling flush there are plenty of opportunities for exuberant spending. One hotel I know charges, on its wine list, R360 for a bottle of Hamilton Russell chardonnay, R580 for a bottle of Meerlust Rubicon and, if you are in the mood, R33,500 for a bottle of Romanee-Conti from Burgundy. Repeat, R33,500.

Notwithstanding the remarks above, if you pay a high price you will usually get high quality. At a recent tasting held by our private group at the home in Durban North of Vanda Davies and Dennis Banks top marks in the scoring (the tasting was blind) went to the two most expensive wines: Lanzerac Shiraz of 2003, priced at R74 a bottle, and Ross Gower sauvignon blanc 2005, R65.

There was no disputing the quality of these two wines, but if I were looking for real value I think I would opt for two of the Long Mountain wines included in the tasting, sauvignon blanc at R31,40 and chardonnay at R32,50. This Stellenbosch cellar consistently offers good wines at reasonable prices, and here are two examples: less than half the price, compared with the other two, and only 7 percent lower in the scoring. – Michael Green




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