Hotfooting it back from South Africa before quarantine came into effect, Geoffrey Dean reflects on his experiences there. One winery he visited, Babylonstoren, in the Simonsberg-Paarl ward, represented some hope amongst the troubles in the country. Throughout the pandemic the estate has managed to keep all of its 300 staff, and sales are up 20-30%, despite the lack of international visitors to its acclaimed gardens. Dean talks to cellar master Charl Coetzee about how they have achieved this.
“The lack of on-trade demand globally, and the paused domestic market in South Africa, has meant some high-quality Cape wines that normally go for bottling have been diverted into bulk instead, further boosting the quality of an already excellent 2020 vintage,” says Ciatti.
While being painfully aware of Bruce Jack’s worrying concerns for the South African wine industry, poignantly articulated here for The Buyer in late January, I still found grounds for optimism in the country’s winelands after spending the first six weeks of the year there.
For a start, there is no water shortage, with all the dams being full, and fruit quality is very promising. While the harvest has been delayed for most producers – Klein Constantia reporting that this is the latest that they have started picking their Sauvignon Blanc – volume looks set to be in line with last year’s national crush of 1.37m tons.
Although no wine sales were legally permitted in South Africa between December 28 and February 1, exports were allowed, providing many producers with a lifeline that kept them afloat. Campaigns to buy South African wine in both the UK and USA were “hugely appreciated” according to Charl Coetzee, cellar master for Babylonstoren.
Babylonstoren, which is situated in the Simonsberg-Paarl ward, is a winery with what might be termed a good news story amid all the doom and gloom of the pandemic. While fortunate to be able to export 55-60% of its total production and to be part of a wider estate that includes a five-star farm hotel, farm shop and celebrated gardens, it has not shed one member of its 300-strong staff. As a major employer in the Paarl district, it is a vital cog in the local socio-economic wheel.
Coetzee revealed how Babylonstoren had managed not to lay anyone off. “What we did was to redistribute our staff, even if they ended up doing something they were unfamiliar with,” he said. “For example, the ladies in the spa had to harvest our olive trees, which we normally get done by outside contractors who we haven’t used at all in the last year.”
Others were redirected to work in the eight acres of the much-visited gardens, which has over 300 varieties of plants, fruits and vegetables. The entrance fee for it goes to the Babylonstoren Trust, which finances community projects for winery and farm workers’ children. This includes a learning centre for them, as well as meals and help with homework. The trust also provides support with school fees for older children as well as sporting equipment and transport.
Two alcohol sales bans in 2020 as well as the one in the first month of this year, together with a fall in wine exports of nearly a third in both 2020 and 2019 on previous years, have left many South African wineries with excess stock. Coetzee revealed one leading Stellenbosch producer is not even harvesting this year as a result. For Babylonstoren, which fermented 710 tons of grapes last year, selling their wines has not been an issue.
“We’ve seen 20-30% growth year on year,” Coetzee declared. “This year, we will touch 800 tons. We’ve never sat with excess stock before – every year we’ve reached our growth target. Take our most popular wine, our Mourvèdre Rosé: in 2011 when we started making it, we produced just 5,000 bottles. This year, we’ll do 120,000.”
Babylonstoren’s 2021 vintage was picked as the official Rosé of the Chelsea Flower Show. “We plan to launch it every May at the show, although it’ll be September this year as it’s being delayed due to Covid,” Coetzee said. “With its strawberry, rhubarb and watermelon flavours, it will still be suitable for late summer or autumn drinking.”
While China is Babylonstoren’s number one overseas market, the UK and USA compete neck and neck for second spot. DTC business through The Newt in Somerset’s website is thriving, while on-trade marketing and sales is conducted by Stephen Field in Stevenage.
Coetzee is hoping that sales not just of the Rosé, but also the other nine labels, will increase to the UK. The capacity for expansion is certainly no issue after the recently-completed construction of one of the biggest subterranean cellars in South Africa, a stunningly-designed 100 x 30 metre cavern. “It is quite unique, and we want to be unique,” he said. “We use it not just for vinification and maturation but also for the guest experience. We have a food and wine pairing tasting there with all ten labels matched up. Soon, we’ll have an eleventh label with our super-premium Pinot Noir when we release our first vintage of it, the 2018.”
Planted at 650m on the upper slopes of the Simonsberg Mountain, this has the potential to be one of South Africa’s best Pinots. With only 1600 bottles produced, it will be Babylonstoren’s most expensive wine, with a likely retail price of 1000 Rand (around £50). “We tried to make one in 2016 but the mountain burnt down and we got smoke taint,” Coetzee added. “The fruit in 2017 was not good enough, and ’18 was the first time we felt it was.”
A year or so on from Covid’s emergence, Coetzee reflected on its consequences. “We have lost the international visitors this summer, but at weekends we are packed with locals, and our farm shop is doing well. Income from that was all we had in the first lockdown. For most wineries in the western Cape, it is going to be very hard. A lot of places are rethinking their business model, launching alcohol-free free wines for example. People are looking at every avenue. We are all trying to push brand South Africa, and think our wines are as good as the French ones or any other country’s.”
Ciatti, the California-based global wine and grape brokers, returned a favourable verdict on South African wines in their February 2021 market report: “The lack of on-trade demand globally, and the paused domestic market in South Africa, has meant some high-quality Cape wines that normally go for bottling have been diverted into bulk instead, further boosting the quality of an already excellent 2020 vintage. Consequently, the Cape’s price-quality ratio is very impressive and should be of interest to European buyers seeking quality varietal wines for off-trade.”
Helped by the weakness of the Rand, Babylonstoren’s impressive range offers outstanding value for money to UK buyers. For full details and pricing, visit: www.thenewtinsomerset.com