All you need to know about the Cape Winemakers Guild
14 September 2016
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Welcome to Old Mutual Live Wine edition, on mobile, on digital, on demand. Thanks for listening, I’m Jenny Crwys-Williams. Well, Miles Mossop, the acclaimed winemaker at TOKARA has become the new Chairman of the Cape Winemakers Guild. Why is that important to us? Why do we care? He’s joining me on the line from TOKARA, where I understand there’s a soft rain and the sky is grey and Miles, thanks for joining us.
Miles Mossop: Thanks Jenny, thanks for having me.
JCW: What is the relevance, for people who don’t know about it, of the Cape Winemakers Guild?
MM: I think perhaps it’s best to give a bit of a history of how it was formed. It was really formed as a bunch of winemakers, the best winemakers, probably arguably, at that time in the country and in the 80’s. Getting together to share knowledge, share ideas, taste wine and try and improve their winemaking skills.
Obviously in those days when South Africa was in isolation, trying to benchmark themselves against the best wines in the world. It has evolved quite a lot since then. Going from initially it was only nine members, if I remember correctly, to close to 47 now. It’s changed dramatically.
We have a very successful auction and then we also have a protégé programme and a development trust which runs the protégé programme. For young up and coming potential winemakers who perhaps haven’t been given the opportunities that we have. Try and bring them into the industry and train them up and skill up talent essentially.
How do winemakers join the CWG?
JCW: Of course, and that is massively important in SA at this particular time and for the foreseeable future. How easy is it to become a member of the Cape Winemakers Guild?
MM: As you alluded to, you need to be invited. It is sort of a peer selection, if you want to call it that. The members every year get the opportunity to nominate potential new members. There are criteria that are set in place. You need to be making award winning or highly regarded wines for at least five years in one place, with one brand.
Then after that, there’s the potential for all the members to meet the potential new nominees at various functions and get-togethers and tastings. Then at our AGM at the end of the year in November it gets voted on and you need to get a two-thirds majority to be voted in. We have one or two members in the last few years been coming in every single year. But that’s how it’s done.
JCW: In effect it’s a wine club and also it goes out, it gets a lot of publicity. I guess because of the stature of the estates themselves?
MM: Definitely, you can argue there are as good winemakers out there in the industry or better, some of them have been invited, some of them have declined the invite, for various reasons. But arguably, the best winemakers in the country, producing a diverse array of wines from a diverse region.
We’ve got winemakers from Robertson, winemakers from the Swartland, winemakers from Tulbagh area, Stellenbosch obviously, Constantia, Elgin region, all over, which really makes it attractive. The guys are characters themselves and then I think the auction has brought a lot of attention to the Guild.
Which wasn’t the intention of the formation of the Guild initially. The fact that the auction, there are these rare wines that are available only on the day and pretty high prices. Which is quite good for the industry, for benchmarking of our pricing.
How to get your hands on an auction bottle of wine
JCW: That’s exactly what took place the other night when I bumped into you, some of those wines you were telling me that you had just one barrel of this particular wine. It had been made for the auction. People are actually making wines for the auction. Which ordinary members of the public can only get if they go to the places where the wine has ended up in, after the auction.
MM: That is a prerequisite, a requirement for the auction wine. It can only be made available at the auction. We are only allowed to sell them at the auction, in no other format can we sell them. We can donate to charities if we want to, but we may not sell them anywhere else. The wine needs to be made specifically for the auction.
You can’t just take one of your regular production wines and go and put a different label on it, an auction label, that’s not allowed. It has to be made specifically for the auction and small lots. As you said, mine is 30 cases on the auction, 180 bottles, only 300 bottles produced. The other 100 or so bottles we’ll drink ourselves and that’s what we’re putting out this year.
JCW: That must be hugely creative. I would have thought, for any winemaker. Because you’ve got to make the wines that are going to bring the money in, to enable you to take part in the Cape Winemakers Guild Auction in the first place.
MM: Yes, you have to have the track record over a number of years. Then when it comes to the auction wines, it’s small batch winemaking, which can be quite difficult sometimes. Especially when you’re doing a white wine.
But it really is about trying to be innovative and creative. The way I made the wine that I’m making, I don’t want to go on about that too much, but I approached it very differently to how I approach the, let’s call it more commercial wines and it worked.
JCW: Well, what I tasted was absolutely delicious. I noticed people clustering around different winemakers. Obviously I saw buyers, I saw sommeliers there, I am absolutely sure some of the big hotel groups. I think one hotel group last year, the Tsogo Sun’s, I think they just about bought every single wine available.
MM: I can’t remember exact stats, but they were the highest buyer by a long way. They’ve been the highest bidder for the last two auctions. Tsogo Sun in particular is a great supporter of our industry and the sommelier there who is the wine buyer, the head sommelier is a great supporter of all of our brands, not just the Cape Winemakers Guild brands. It’s great to see the support from within South Africa, supporting our industry.
South Africa wines are really undervalued
JCW: I’ve had discussions recently with people about the price of South African wines and you’ve said something a little bit interesting just a bit earlier on. You were saying that with the sale of these wines, they set records that are kind of like a guide for the industry in terms of the cost of wines? Maybe you just want to expand on that a little bit?
MM: Maybe a number of consumers will disagree with me, but there’s a lot of talk in the industry and the peripheral industry. Whether it’s journalists, critics, winemakers, buyers, that in general, at the very high end, our wines are too cheap.
If you compare them to wines benchmarked, getting similar scores and accolades around the world, wines from United States, from California in particular, South America, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand and parts of Europe, our wines are really good value and sometimes too cheap.
It’s quite nice to have an auction up, I don’t think we set the bar, but at least we show it is a bit skewed. Because it’s a once-off auction and unique wines. But we show what wines of this quality and calibre can achieve. Wines are going at the auction, prices anything from R500 to over R1000 a bottle, which is good to see.
JCW: Yes, in fact I’m noticing some wines, when I potter around and stick my nose into different cellars, some wines are selling for more than R1000.
MM: You saying within the industry –
MM: Yes, there are wines out there. They’re normally, again, very, very small lots, but it’s good. I think it’s great to see those prices being achieved and it can pull the industry up. Because the industry, it’s tough out there. Wine producers and particularly grape growers, they’re not rolling in the money. It’s very small margin business with a very high investment upfront. We need those prices to elevate up, especially on the very high end wines.
JCW: Miles, talking about the high end wines, there’s incredible trend towards finding old vines and feeding them a little bit or whatever. It is that you’ve got to do to them, because the yield is so low. But they are producing, some of them, the most gorgeous, idiosyncratic wines in South Africa. This surely is a trend and I’m wondering whether members of the Cape Winemakers Guild are au fait with this particular trend in the industry?
MM: Definitely, there’s a number of members that are working with very old vines. Obviously the definition of old vines needs to be defined, what is an old vine? In South Africa our vines are pretty young, so I think anything, getting in excess of 25 to 30 years starts being regarded as older. When you start looking at vineyards over the age of 45, 50 or 60 years old, there’s no many vineyards out there. A lot of the members are estate driven, so it’s obviously vines they planted themselves. So it becomes quite limiting for them to go out and look for older vines because they have what they have.
Without a doubt old vines do contribute to complexity as well as depth of flavour. But then there’s also the examples where old vines are sick and old and they make poorer wines. One has to be very careful by painting everything with one brush and saying old vines are great. One has to say the right old vines planted in the right area. Then obviously the winemaker needs to be skilled enough to then convert that into something that’s great.
We have a number of old vineyards in the country and Rosa Kruger has started a registry of all those vines. We’re now seeing those vines getting the prices they deserve, the grapes from those vineyards. The grape producers are less likely to pull them out, which is always a concern and them being converted into these beautiful, unique wines.
JCW: I think it’s very exciting. Let’s talk about the Cape Winemakers Guild auction. It’s exactly a month from the time of this recording through to the first of October when you are going to be at the Spier Conference Centre just outside Stellenbosch for the auction. Do you sit down and say listen, we would like to make this sort of figure in order to do this and that with the money that actually comes in?
The goals for the auction
MM: We obviously set our goals, we’re an organisation and we have a budget, there’s a committee of which I have to be the Chairman of. So we do the year before, based on the previous year’s auction, we do set goals and a budget based on it. We have been a bit conservative this year in our outlook, just a bit worried. Because there’s been a run for the last few years of record prices.
So you obviously get a bit nervous that you’re not going to achieve that. There’s obviously a certain percentage of some of the auction activities that we do, well, there are certain auction activities that we do solely for our development trust. Those are really just up to the market forces and we hope to achieve. We benchmark according to the previous few years and hope to achieve that or better.
JCW: How positive are you?
MM: I was a little bit nervous when I took over as the Chairman last year, looking at how the prices rallied last year, record single bottle prices. We earned slightly less than the previous year, but we had less wine on auction. Looking at the interest and the hype around the wines and the activities we’ve done in Johannesburg and last week in Cape Town, the week before, there seems to be a lot of hype and interest around the wines.
I must say, we’ve put a new selection process in for the wines, to get onto the auction. I think that’s resulted in really some outstanding quality wines this year, probably the best wines we’ve ever had on auction. Some of the most diverse range of styles, which for me is very exciting. I think that will all probably lend itself to being quite a successful auction.
JCW: It sounds really exciting. Thank you very much indeed for chatting to us Miles Mossop, I’m really grateful to you.
MM: Absolutely pleasure, thank you, it was great to chat to you.
JCW: Thanks Miles.