Saturday, September 23, 2006

Wine snobs face packaging revolution

By Tula Dlamini

I have added wine to my three most basic needs of life: food, clothes and shelter. Wine makes glad my heart and that gladness I endeavour to share with others.

Like Allen Sichel, the president of the Union de Maison de Bordeaux, I am of the opinion that "wine drinking should be a sober habit of every normal man and woman who has the courage to enjoy the rhythm of life, not for those whose pleasure lies in exaggerating its miseries".

But I have a problem with the wine industry in South Africa, which seems caught up in a time warp in which the wine producer communicates with the consumer principally through the "bottled product". Any packaging that deviates from the norm is considered common and undistinguished.

This attitude is taken up by the wine snobs and often directed at wine that comes in a box. This view is not up to speed with international trends, especially when one considers the advances made in packaging. Winemakers the world over are getting creative with packaging, swapping corks for screwcaps, or putting premium varieties in boxes.

Of course, boxed wine has been around in South Africa for years, but it is generally lowbrow stuff, the sort that wine snobs do not touch.

Now imagine some of the most elegant wines coming in a box. That should appeal to the growing number of South Africans who have a nose for good wine and consume it on a regular basis.

Convenience is just one reason. I have on several occasions come across a stubborn cork or, even worse, one that breaks or crumbles. And yet all will agree that there is no such hassle with opening wine in a box. Once it is open, it is easy to draw a nice glass of wine and for restaurants to serve the same by the glass.

Wine consumers want something that does not require uncorking and that will last longer than just a few days. The wine boxes are essentially bags in boxes and, unlike bottled wines, the bags come with spigots that keep air out. This prevents the wine being exposed to oxygen and the resultant deterioration in taste and quality.

The South African wine industry has to help overcome the history of boxes holding inferior wines. Caryn White, a wine consultant in Johannesburg, agrees with the advantages of boxing premium wines, but contends that it is the popularity of screw caps on wine bottles in the United States that has helped boxes overcome the stigma.

"Making a mental leap from cork to screwcaps has made it easier for the discerning US consumers to make a leap towards boxed wine," White says.

The wine industry, favoured by a relatively stable economic environment, is booming in South Africa. Good climatic conditions, soils and terrain have contributed immensely to its growth.

However, its sustainability may depend on the extent to which it adapts to the fast-changing perceptions of its local consumers. It must take advantage of the highly sophisticated international industry, which is geared to supplying wine of every conceivable style and flavour to different markets - and that includes the international boxed wine market.

Several US premium winemakers have already joined the boxed wine craze and sales figures show it is working. According to AC Nielsen, a marketing information company, the sales in 2005 of premium-priced, three-litre boxes increased faster than any other segment of wine sales.

South African winemakers ought to take note of this trend.

No comments: