Off to the Troyeville Hotel tonight for a dinner of leitão assado – roast suckling pig – along with great value Touriga Naçional from Boets Nel’s De Krans Winery in Calitzdorp. We asked the Portuguese ambassador to come along, but he needs a written invitation so we’ll have to make do with Joaquim Sa, MD of Amorim Cork, who played the role of Honorary Consul at the 350th birthday celebration for SA wine earlier this month. Searching my old stories for inspiration, I came across a feature I wrote on Graça for WINE magazine three years ago. Most of it is still very much à propos.
Graça: a triumph of populism over pretence
Reinventing the past is a game historians play to keep themselves amused: if Napoleon had won Waterloo, would the Beatles (les Scarabées) have recorded le sous-marin jaune (Daphne class)? My own version starts with Vasco da Gama, padrao planted and copy of Camões in hand, settled at the Cape a century before Van Riebeeck and this edition of Wine speculating on which Joaquim Platter five star Touriga Naçional had Brett in a publication with a sub-continental footprint as SA would extend from Agulhas in the south to the northernmost tip of Angola and from Cabinda in the west to Pemba in the east.
As the Brazil of Africa, we’d be members of the G8 with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and we’d all be merrily fala-ing Portuguese and segueing to Cesaria Evora and the percussive guitar playing of Sebastião Tapajós. Former mine dump magnate Joe Berardo (Portugal’s richest man) would play the role of Patrice Motsepe and the botanical gardens of Madeira would have fewer cycads. Apartheid would be unknown, South America would be the largest export destination for SA wine and the national soccer team would have a serious chance at 2010.
Portugal lost much of its wealth and status after the destruction of Lisbon by earthquake and tsunami in 1755 after three centuries as a dominant world power and two and a half centuries after Vasco opened up the lucrative trade route round Africa to the fabulous and spicy Indies. But the tectonic plates of fashion are still in play.
Portugal is now flavour of the month in Johannesburg following the peaceful invasion of the Vida e Caffè franchise from Cape Town; the Adega chain of Portuguese restaurants has raised flaming chouriço sausages to a culinary art form while the garish Flamingo Room in the Troyeville Hotel is the Bohemian centre of Gauteng, beating with the heart of a peri-peri chicken.
The Portuguese model of hedonism is no new thing as Flamingo-patron and Spier supremo Dick Enthoven will tell you, or better still, ask his son Robby who now runs Nando’s in the UK. Back in 1983, when Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery launched Graça, a Portuguese-style white wine with a slight pétillance, no one considered it a social faux pas.
Hedging their bets, SFW co-launched La Vie at the same time. Another off-dry white, also pétillant, in a frosted emerald green teardrop-shaped bottle (versus the Vinho Verde clear glass knock-off of Graça) it was aimed at “the sophisticated, fun-loving ‘in’ set” as the SFW corporate biography a Magic Blend (by Romi van der Merwe, 2000) reports. “Unfortunately La Vie’s chic Parisian image was not enough to sustain the brand” and the plug was pulled on the French experiment, less than two years later. La Vie joined the corporate cemetery of Cape Crown (pineapple-flavoured perlé wine) and Voodoo Vodka.
While La Vie ended up as a mineral water in the Vito Palazzolo stable, Graça went from strength to strength and is now the leading bottled white wine in SA closed with a cork, with volumes of over two and a half million litres and serious export sales (under the Blouberg label) of 200 000 litres with the UK largest export market.
Graça was a success from the get-go for several reasons: a crisp off-dry (8-10 g/l residual sugar) wine, it delivered serious flavour (the current blend is 50:20:20 Sauvignon Blanc:Sémillon:Crouchen Blanc) at a realistic price – between R15 and R20 retail.
Non-vintage, with modest alcohol levels (11.5%), countrywide distribution and serious support from the restaurant trade (you don’t need to be a sommelier with a tin tastevin to realize the potential of Graça and seafood) ensured it poll position at the value end of the HP market segment. The brand nurtures this restaurant connection with the Knysna Oyster Festival and Lamberts Bay Crayfish Festival two seafood extravaganzas it sponsors.
But perhaps the biggest pro was that Graça is the ultimate defense against the dark arts of the anorak brotherhood – the back label even describes the contents as having “an earthy presence” – surely a no-no for a crisp white, or perhaps a precaution against cork taint.
A surprise success with Joburg trendoids – and perhaps even more amazing is the fact that men drink two bottles of Graça to every one consumed by the fair sex – which may be put down to the very naffness of the packaging with its sub-Tretchikoff label and an overall John Waters-like appeal. Like a prop from one of his trash trilogy movies: pink flamingoes, female trouble and desperate living. The back label sets the scene: picturesque town of Almansil (Portugal), tiny restaurant called La Paella, the owner Chili cooking up a bowl of her specialty – seafood paella. Move over Pedro Almodóvar.
While Graça is undoubtedly populist, clichéd even, the most obvious reason it is still around while La Vie has become Le Mort, is a simple one: a complete lack of authenticity. While the advertising strap line might say “Graça is the Vinho” – it clearly isn’t. And with SA cuisine a glorious mish-mash of LM Prawns, Italian Pizza and Spanish Tapas, what better match than an authentic fake?
So forget about breaking the rules of social etiquette when choosing wine to match food. Graça is billed as best drunk “with friendinos. With a handful of sardinos. Or a lorryload of langoustinos.” Merrily stereotyping Portuguese accents with un-PC abandon in the time-honoured Len Davis Biltong and Potroast tradition.
A 375ml version, called bambino, appeared in 1994 (and disappeared shortly thereafter), while a rosé was launched just in time for the new Millennium. Replacing Crouchen Blanc with Pinotage and Colombard, it sold 60 000 litres in month one. The image was expanded to pan-Mediterranean: the bottle back label described one Jerez de Molino and his little seafood café called Mesón Altamira “offering some of the best authentic Spanish cuisine in Valencia.” All that’s missing is Ernest Hemingway, twinkling through the chest hairs.
October 2006 saw a label tweak and it’s a case of back to the future. The current bleached Veuve Clicquot yellow will be toned down back to the tried and tested template from two decades ago.
The original label was changed shortly after the launch date following complaints that the wine was being passed off as a product of Portugal – and the Nels of Calitzdorp will tell you how sensitive that issue can be. Especially with the producer listed as the fictional Casa de Ouro. Graça was the first SA wine to be intentionally made in the Vinho Verde style of under-ripe fruit and bracing acidity you encounter around the northern Portuguese town of Porto as you head inland, towards Spain and the serious reds and Ports of the Douro Valley.
The brand received a boost PRs can only dream of when Graça Machel, wife of Nelson Mandela, sent her husband a framed picture of a bottle, inscribed with the message “Madiba, we thought you might want to celebrate with a little bit of Graça.” The picture hangs in pride of place in their Houghton home – the ultimate accolade from the man this magazine voted most influential person in SA wine earlier this year.