Neil Pencock April 2011 – The Sunday Times
As SA generic wine marketing rapidly loses credibility and struggles to get a grip, could a rejuvenated Estate Producers Association [EPA] help? This was one of the many insights offered by Jean Engelbrecht in the Sunday Times yesterday.
If dog owners look like their pets, it should come as no surprise to report that wines resemble their brand owners. Jean Engelbrecht is a useful chap to have on your team in the hurly burly of a public wine tasting and his Rust en Vrede reds are like the man himself: bold, statuesque almost, larger than life but with an underlying sweet elegance. Wen DNA (winning DNA) as he might say.
After a recent vertical tasting of four decades of reds, several things became clear. 2000 was a watershed as Jean adjusted his style parameters, taking onboard comments from US consumers asking for riper expressions with less austerity.
So alcohol levels are up – the 1979 Cabernet is an almost teetotal 12½% while the 2008 blend of Syrah and Cabernet called “1694” is almost 25% more alcoholic at 15.3%. At R1200 a bottle, it is also the most expensive wine sold in SA. “We used to harvest when the sugar reached 23 balling” explains Engelbrecht “but now we don’t look at picking before 24-25 balling.” The ’79, which cost all of R1 a bottle in its day, is still alive, redolent of meat and leather with red berry fruit still miraculously intact.
This switch to the riper side of the street clearly worked as before the sub-prime meltdown, the US accounted for 25% of sales and exports 70%. Exports are now down to 50% with the farm tasting room accounting for 25% of turnover by value. In fact with a restaurant and SA’s best rated chef, David Higgs, on the premises, wine tourism is a Helderberg goldmine for R&V.
Another marketing mantra that’s been re-engineered is the “one estate, one wine” tune being sung a decade ago, taking a leaf from the Bordeaux Bible which has first growth producers like Châteaux Latour and Lafite making a single red under the main label.
“Economic survival has made a repositioning necessary” admits Engelbrecht. “The SA wine industry is in a lot of trouble. You must be realistic about what you produce and where you sell it.”
That said, Engelbrecht is far more than a one brand boy. At the March wedding of Paul Cluver, most eligible bachelor in the Overberg, the father of the groom blamed his son’s Bacchanalian impulses on Engelbrecht. “My daughter Liesl was handling the marketing but she was busy with an MBA, so we sent Paul to ProWein in Düsseldorf. There he fell in with Jean Engelbrecht who taught him how to dress and how to enjoy wine. When he came home, he said he’d handle marketing and sell all our wine. Easy.”
Which highlights Engelbrecht’s strong suit and his manifest destiny as captain of the SA wine team. Indeed, with SA exports floundering in confusion as the marketing tail attempts to wag the dog, Jean is talking about resuscitating the moribund Estate Producers Association.