South African wine – is it any good?

In a word – yes! There are some truly world class wines coming out of South Africa these days. However there are two main obstacles preventing the wine loving British public from getting their hands on them. The first is the South Africans like to drink the good stuff themselves! Perfectly understandable and something we can live with. The second obstacle is the domination of the UK wine trade by big corporations who insist on churning out dross and dressing it up as wine. We’re talking about a multi billion pound industry here, so we can all understand their motivation. Unfortunately it’s us, the average wine lover, who suffers – along with the other major victim in this, the small quality producer who makes his wine with pride.

Why can’t I just buy good wine in the local shop?

Anyone who’s been fortunate enough to travel to the South African wine country has almost certainly enjoyed some superb wine, and no doubt on his return wondered why the South African wine he ordered in his local shop, restaurant or pub was so awful. It’s the same message as always – the big brands, by their very nature offer poor quality at cheap prices and these dominate the UK trade. If you want good wine you have to look elsewhere. Unfortunately the brand culture dominates in the supermarkets, and national grocery chains.

You may then think you could find better wine in independent retailers? Well, in specialist wine merchants – possibly, dependant on the business model and integrity of the individual retailer. In independent grocers and off licenses – probably not. This is because the bulk wine trade in the UK is dominated by several huge companies who supply the vast majority of these retailers, with the inferior quality brands. Companies like Matthew Clarke Wholsale with a turnover in excess of £1 billion p.a., Waverly Vintners TBA with a turnover of £1/2 billion p.a., national brewers like Carlsberg, Scottish Courage and Coors all of whom pedal this poor wine into all their outlets. The pubs, restaurants and retailers are all under financial pressure and are pressurised by these big companies into stocking their wines. Unless you’re lucky enough to find one which is owned by a wine enthusiast, you’re likely to be offered a selection of poor quality brands from one of these major players.

So how do I find good quality wine, South African or otherwise?

Here’s the good news. There’s a new wave of small, independent wine merchants who are catering for the market who want to buy good wine, made by real people with generations of epertise, in wineries – not by machines in vast, sterile factories. 10 years ago in order to buy good wine you’d have to be lucky enough to live close to one of these merchants. However, nowadays with the advent of the interweb, it’s easy for everyone to find good wine at the click of a mouse and have it delivered to the door. And the best news – your local wine shop can’t get away with overcharging you because you can check prices nationally and make sure you’re paying the right price.

The good from the bad?

Of course not everyone on the internet is offering good wine! There are plenty of firms just offering hundreds of wines they’ve never even tasted, using descriptions and tasting notes straight from the back label! This wine may still be rubbish! There are also online ‘wine merchants’ who are really just one man trading from his bedroom!  They get a fancy website and take the customer’s order. They then try to buy the wine themselves and sell it on at a profit taking up to 2 weeks for your wine to arrive.

However it’s relatively easy to be sure you’re dealing with a reputable firm, that the wine’s good and has been correctly stored. Just do a bit of investigation on their home page. Look for a phone number. Look for someone who holds their wines in stock and offers next day delivery. Look for someone who’s actually tasted what they’re selling, and is choosey about which wines they offer, not simply offering every wine from each producer. And best of all look for a business that’s owned by a human being, not a corporation so you’re dealing with a person! These wine merchants do exist – spend some time tracking down a good one like and you’ll be drinking good wine at last!