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Monday, April 27, 2009


New range called Obikwa, corkage charges in restaurants and Meerendal celebrates 40 years.

A recent arrival on the South African wine scene is a range called Obikwa, made by the local liquor giant Distell and consisting of five different wine varieties: sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, shiraz, merlot and a pinotage rosé.

These wines have been exported for some years and are now sold in 43 different countries. The name and the label are unusual. The Obikwa were one of South Africa’s earliest peoples and they had a special relationship with the ostrich, whom they regarded as a life force and a trusty companion. So the label on the wine bottle has a stylised ostrich with a very long neck.

I have tried three of these wines, the sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and shiraz, and they offer very good value, retailing at about R18 to R23 a bottle, depending on the type of wine, and where and when you buy it.

I suppose we are fortunate. My colleague David Biggs (we worked together on The Friend in Bloemfontein more than 40 years ago) writes about wine in the Cape Argus, Cape Town. He has been on holiday in Canada, and in a newspaper article he writes that Obikwa wines are a huge seller in Canada – at a price equal to about R110 a bottle.

South Africa has many problems, but at least we can drink wine here at a reasonable cost, although it seems that the economic recession has induced many South Africans to “buy down” and choose cheaper wines.

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I have for years campaigned for lower wine prices, and lower corkage charges, in restaurants, but it is an uphill battle. To charge R40 to R60 corkage on a bottle of bring your own wine seems to me extortionate, a calculated attempt to force customers to buy the restaurant’s own grotesquely overpriced wines.

It is difficult to get the message across when there is little support from people who spend much time dining in restaurants and presumably getting paid for doing so, the food and wine reviewers. When I read about wonderful bargain-price lunches at R200 a head, I wonder if they live in the real world.

One reviewer wrote not long ago about a meal at a Durban hotel where he found on the wine list “a fair value Hartenberg Chatillon for R75”. Chatillon is a very pleasant white wine made from chenin blanc grapes, just off dry, and it has a big following (among home drinkers). I bought some at my bottle store the other day. It was R21,90 a bottle.

The Durban hotel, buying wholesale, would of course pay less, perhaps R17 or R18 a bottle. Which means that they would be charging four times as much when they put it on their wine list at R75.

Fair value? Come on.

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The South African wine industry is 350 years old this year, and the Meerendal estate near Durbanville has its own reason to celebrate; it is 40 years since the first wine appeared under the Meerendal label (although the farm itself dates back to 1702, when the land was granted to Jan Meerland).

To mark the occasion Meerendal gave an elaborate lunch and a vertical tasting of Meerendal pinotages and shirazes spanning the 40 years, with 11 vintages of each wine between 1969 and 2008. Generally the response of the tasters was good, and they agreed that the older wines were full of life.

All the pinotages were made from grapes from the same vineyard, planted by Kosie Starke in 1955. – Michael Green