Indian consumes less than half a per cent of the 237.3 million litres of wine exported by South Africa, but that doesn't stop Su Birch, CEO of Wines of South Africa, from predicting that a couple of million cases of wine from her country will be landing on Indian shores within the next five or ten years.
By virtue of her position, Birch is the international face of South Africa's wine exporters. And her optimism, expressed in an interview given to the Business Day newspaper published from Johannesburg, is fuelled by India's "educated middle classes who have started experimenting with wine."
The Indian middle classes have often let down foreign companies by defying the logic of statistics with their unpredictable consumption patterns, but the pace with which the market for South African wines is growing in India must only be solidifying Birch's faith. Says Aman Dhall of Brindco Limited, India's largest wine distribution house: "Our experience with Rupert & Rothschild wines from the Paarl region has been so positive that we are including one more wine house from South Africa, Meerlust, in our portfolio." He was speaking to http://www.indianwineacademy.com
Rupert & Rothschild wines are listed in 65 to 70 restaurants around the country. Their sales add up to 300 cases, but the number sounds more impressive when you take into account the fact that the wines are more expensive than the competition.
The competition, incidentally, consists of two supermarket bestsellers from South Africa -- KWV, imported by the New Delhi-based Global Impex, and Two Oceans, introduced by Sula Wines, the respected wine house from Nashik, Maharashtra, a couple of years back.
"High import tariffs make our wines expensive, but the moment these tariffs are reduced, we expect a big growth," Birch told Business Day. "We have some great wines for Indian food. Pinotage and Chenin Blanc, two of South Africa's popular varieties, are suited to the spicy Indian cuisine." Chenin represents 20% of wine grape plantings in South Africa; Pinotage, South Africa's native varietal, accounts for 7%.
Incidentally, Sula's experience with Chenin Blanc has been so positive that grape farmers in Nashik are rapidly moving over to this white wine variety. The semi-dry wine, which is gentle on the palate, is reported to be popular among young people who're just getting initiated to wines. Wine snobs may regard it to be the Bacardi Breezer of wines, but who are they to sit in judgement on people's tastes?
Birch promises to hit the road with South African wine promotions in major Indian cities. Her target is the high-spending middle class, which has just discovered a taste for luxury goods, previously the exclusive domain of the upper classes, and is increasingly moving over from whisky to wines. Birch, we are sure, will be happy to discover the increasing popularity of wines in parties, especially in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, the three main wine markets in India.
The performance of South African wines in the international market is the principal reason for the industry's turnover growing by 45 per cent between 1999 and 2003, according to the statistical powerhouse, South African Wine Industry and Systems. Home to the ninth-largest wine economy, accounting for 3.1% of the world's production, South Africa employs 257,000 people in the industry, including 59,000 who earn their livelihood from wine tourism.
South Africa exported 33.4% of its wine production -- 237.3 million litres (at least 50% of it to the UK, the largest market for South African wines, folowed by Germany and the Netherlands), out of 834 million litres -- in the calendar year 2003, and this amounted to a 10% growth over the previous year's level. Interestingly, South African wine grape farmers, responding to the changing palate of the world, are moving rapidly over to reds -- the percentage of land under of white wine grapes, as a result, has slid from 81.7% to 59.4% since 1996, even as the land under reds has risen from 18.3% to 40.6%. Red, by the way, account for 45% of all wine exported from South Africa.
"It must, however, be kept in mind that in the period that the latest wine industry study was performed, exporters enjoyed an extremely favourable exchange rate due to the weak Rand," says Dr Johan van Rooyen, CEO, South African Wine and Brandy Company. "Current margins in international markets are under pressure. Continued growth of the industry will also depend on aggressively exploiting new markets and showing a commitment to market demands for higher quality wines."
Van Rooyen's comment puts Birch's promised marketing thrust into India in the right perspective. His comment of quality should please Dhall, who feels that South African wines are still not association with high quality among Indian wine connoisseurs with a discerning palate.
South Africa has many pearls that the world is slowly discovering. We must not forget that South African wines have been in the international market for only about a decade, after the dismantling of the apartheid regime. And the wines are waiting for us to discover them.
Going by the world's experience, it shouldn't be a disappointment.
For more information on the South African wine industry, go to http://www.wosa.co.za and http://www.sawis.co.za