Year of the Grape

Neil Pendock October 28, 2012 0

Witty cartoon illustrates my story on Chinese horoscope wines in the Sunday Times Food Weekly this morning. Here is an extended magazine-style version of the story.

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Sales of Swiss watches in China rose an incredible 49% last year as overall exports ticked up 19% to R160 billion. Which is almost unbelievable if you note, as Michael Skapinker did in the Financial Times in March, that “expensive watches are not nearly as good at keeping time as those you can buy for the cost of a takeaway meal.”

Of course buying a Jaeger Lecoultre Reverso or a Panerai Luminor is not about telling the time. As Alexander Schmiedt, director of Montblanc International, noted of his company’s watches: “your phone for $50 is much more precise.” It is about indulgent luxury, buying the authentic product of a craftsman’s expertise and the aesthetic appeal of a piece of expensive jewelry.

Cartier are probably the most successful company in this highly competitive market. As CEO Bernard Fornas told the Wall Street Journal in March “I don’t know what level we will be at during 2012, but I am sure we can do better than the others” before showing off some of the 100 new watches — more than any other exhibitor — at the recent Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva. Bernard’s new range is a veritable menagerie de luxe, for if you want to sell luxury in the Middle Kingdom, use animal branding.

One watch features a horse face made from a mosaic of semi-precious stones. Only 40 were made at €90,000 each. Another features a cockatoo, with plumage made from slivers of mother-of-pearl. My guess is that horse face will outsell cockatoo in the Sinosphere as the horse is one of the dozen signs of the zodiac in the Shengxiào.

China is the promised land for SA wine exports, so it is good marketing feng-shui to translate authentic SA wines into Mandarin by associating them with their appropriate animal of the zodiac.

1. Rat 鼠
Chinese people do not distinguish between rats and mice linguistically at least, so they’d be equally happy meeting Mike Ratcliffe, GM of Simonsberg senior producer Warwick if he changed his name to Mike Mousecliffe. The interchangeability of rats and mice is also good news for Steenberg, Graham Beck’s all-singing, all-dancing winery in the shadow of Muisenberg, Mouse Mountain, or Rat Rock, if you prefer. One of the few estates to use Nebbiolo to make southern hemispheric versions of those Italian classics Barolo and Barbaresco, each glass begs the question “why are there not more such wines?”

2. Ox 牛
Bertus Osbloed van Niekerk was a predekant in Carletonville for 16 years and Hervoremd to boot, before he hit the bottle, in spite of his non-conformist surname. Some rate his Cinsault the best in SA and since the grapes come from the Bottelary Hills, I’m not surprised.

3. Tiger 虎
Nitida is a leading Durbanville producer located on the Tygerbergvallei road. Although the tiger in question is actually the Cape leopard, several of which still patrol the high hills. A champion of Sauvignon Blanc made in the expressive Cloudy Bay style, Nitida had pulled back from extreme expressions after some pithy consumer feedback. “I realized it was time for a change when I gave an ou oom (old uncle) a glass of our Sauvignon and he said ‘hierdie wyn trek my poephol op ‘n klont’ (‘this wine puckers my fundament’)” admits tasting room manager Jacus Marais.

4. Rabbit 兔
In Vietnam, rabbits are replaced by cats in the zodiac, which neatly explains the Al Stewart mega hit Year of the Cat from the 1970s. Flat Roof Manor on the Simonsberg provides the feline version of the Faithful Hound legend (see Dog below) although in typical feline fashion, the cat stayed behind for the Georgian gem of a house rather than loyalty to an owner. The cat can be seen sunning itself on the roof and has been the reincarnation wish of many a visiting bibulous Buddhist over the years.

5. Dragon 龍
Bordeaux-style blends are made from at least two out of five varietals. Cabernet Sauvignon supplies the skeleton; Merlot the flesh. Petit Verdot is the blood and Cabernet Franc the oil in the gearbox. Finally Malbec supplies muscle. Marais Viljoen’s wonderfully tight Drakensig blend of Malbec and Shiraz makes this point most eloquently, although once Shiraz enters the equation, we’ve moved east from Bordeaux to the Rhône.

6. Snake 蛇
If you throw a left after leaving the Huguenot Tunnel en-route for Worcester, you enter the magical Slanghoek Valley where wine prices are lower than a snake’s belly and far more tasty.

7. Horse 馬
The Paardeberg – horse mountain – is the heart of the Swartland, a fashionably wild appellation full of hairy winemakers with Victorian sideburns and anarchic attitudes. Diposmaniacal desperados like Craig Hawkins, Adi Badenhorst and Jasper Wickens hold epic raves which have led to the suggestion the mountain be re-named “Partyberg.”

8. Goat 羊
It was Picasso who boasted that mediocre artists borrow while great artists steal and the same can be said of winemakers. Take the hundred year old goat tower at Quinta da Aveleda in the Vinho Verde appellation of Portugal, for example. Swartland pioneer Charles Back appropriated the goat idea (and tower) and turned them into an international brand, goats do roam.

9. Monkey 猴
High up in the Witzenberg Mountains between Tulbagh and Worcester are the organic vineyards of Fable Wines. This is baboon territory. So no surprises then that the statement Syrah is called Bobbejaan. Although now that the farm is American owned, “Baby Jane” is a nickname that will surely stick.

10. Rooster 雞
While the “Tree Taliban” clear non-indigenous species from Tokai forest and the slopes of Table Mountain, there is a logical inconsistency in ripping out Port Jackson and bulldozing eucalypts when the biggest alien invader, vitis vinifera, imported from Europe, thrives unmolested.

But the Taliban dirty work could soon be done by simple economics as vineyards fail to wash their faces when compared to housing developments. In leafy Constantia, famous for grassy Sauvignon Blanc, the real money is to be made hawking hanepoot grapes, descendents of the fruit of the first vines imported by Jan van Riebeeck. Called roosters’ feet, a delicacy in China, a 2.5 Kg box will set you back R35.

Constantia Uitsig viticulturalist and winemaker André Rousseau takes the grapes left on the vine after the hawkers have cut their bunches and makes a sweet Muscat wine that tastes and even looks like those pink blocks of Turkish Delight dusted with castor sugar.

11. Dog 狗
When American moneyman Charles Banks bought Mulderbosch in 2010, he dedicated the brand to white wines. Which leaves the Bordeaux-style blend Faithful Hound, out in the cold. Named after a mutt who would wait for its owner to return each day from the fields, even after the labourer died, the label is a real tearjerker and the wine flies off the shelf. “We’ll be faithful to the hound” promises Chas, but probably as a stand-alone brand rather than part of the Mulderbosch kennel.

12. Pig 豬
Some of the happiest pigs in the Cape live on Joostenberg, a farm I am reluctant to visit after owner Annette Myburgh promised me my very own suckling pig. The film Babe had a lasting effect on me. No matter that the Joostenberg Chenin Blanc Noble Late Harvest is as good as it gets, and cheaper than most.

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