The high price of snobbishness

Posted on January 1, 2011


(First published:  December 2007)

St Vincent is the patron saint of the wine trade and, every year on “St Vincent’s day”, there is a tradition of calling for protection from “hail, frost, thirst and taxes”.  The producers of the Cape winelands may this year add:  “and snobbishness”.

For South Africa’s wine producers — including “empowerment” groups — are fuming in the wake of reports about celebrations of the recent elections and the presidential inauguration.  Because professedly “proudly South African” politicians and groups such as the ANC Youth League toasted their successes with imported wines and spirits.

Yet South Africa’s premier wines can hold their own with any in the world — and that includes our cap classique sparkling wines or bubbly, still widely referred to as “champagne”.  However, that latter designation belongs legally to the branded varieties from the Champagne region of France, the most popular of which sell at premium prices.

There are also other sparkling wines made elsewhere, including Limoux in France and in Germany that may also not legally be known as champagne, but which may be of the same quality and may look and taste similar.  The same applies to the premium range of South African bubblies that have been produced since 1984 by the traditional, French named, methode champagnoise.

But it is the premium priced French brands — in particular Moet et Chandon at R475-plus a bottle — that seem to be favoured by the leadership of the ANC Youth League and their bling-bling and black diamond hangers-on.  To the annoyance of producers in the Cape winelands, it was also reported that the bubbly served at Jacob Zuma’s presidential inauguration was not only French champagne, but Dom Perignon.  This is, of course, a premium vintage wine from the Moet stable and it costs at least R1 500 to R1 700 a bottle, making it perhaps the highest priced bubbly available.

However, it appears that the Dom Perignon was reserved only for the top table guests, the 4 000 lesser dignatories have reported that they were served South Africa’s Pierre Jourdan.  This bubbly — it retails at R78 a bottle — comes from one of the earlier local makers, Haute Cabriere.

But while nobody could honestly claim that “Dom” is not a fine vintage champagne, it is also a masterpiece of marketing — and that, largely , accounts for the price.  The supposed rarity of various “Dom” vintages pushes the the price well beyond that of perhaps similar quality wines.

But it all comes down to a matter of individual taste and, to the small minority of expert palates, that can depend on a number of subtle factors including how long the vintage has been aged “on the yeast” or “on the cork”, or how it has been kept before tasting.  For example, when the local “Time Wasters” club of wine connoisseurs and producers in the Western Cape gathered recently for a blind tasting that included the same vintages of Dom Perignon and Moet et Chandon, the less expensive Moet won hands down.

“But that’s not the point,” says cellarmaster Pieter Ferreira.  “The fact is that South African cap classique wines can compete on an equal level and are clear winners in terms of price.”

Ferreira should know.  He is the cap classique master at the Graham Beck vineyards, whose premier sparkling wine recently made international headlines when it was ordered for a private pre-inauguration dinner for newly elected US president, Barrack Obama.  “But the wines at the actual inauguration dinner were, of course, all American,” notes Ferreira.

However, it seems that the new US first lady, Michelle Obama, developed a taste for South African bubbly when she was introduced to to it at one of her favourite restaurants in Chicago.  “As a result, she ordered a case for a private dinner after the election,” says Ferreira.

News of the order leaked — rumour has it from the shrewd marketing people at Graham Beck — and made headlines around the world. This apparently annoyed elements in the US political establishment.  “But it has done wonders for our sales in the US,” Ferreira admits.

There seems to have been no similar response on the local front with French bubbly swilled at the recent ANC election celebration by the proclaimed “proudly South African” ANCYL and various political big wigs.  “But I did get a call shortly before the presidential inauguration, asking for a quote for the supply of 1 000 bottles of our Tradition cap classique for the inauguration,” says Jeff Grier whose family-owned Villiera vineyard was among the first to produce South African bubbly.

He thought he had been approached both for the reputation of his wine as well as the name — “a Tradition for a democratic tradition” — and gave “ a very good quote”.  But he heard nothing more until he read that it was planned to serve Dom Perignon at the inauguration.

“I was more than a bit surprised, especially when there is so much talk about being proudly South African,” he says.  He and other wine makers point out that, through excise duties and taxes, their industry is one of the largest agricultural sector contributers to state coffers  as well as being a major employer of labour.

“All this ordering of imported wines and spirits just boils down to snob value, and perhaps a desire to show off how rich you are,” says a Franschoek winemaker who wishes to remain anonymous.  The French too, have a word for such folk:  “nouveaux riche.”

Posted in: Uncategorized