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Obama goes pop for South African bubbly

When Barack Obama was voted into office in November, he celebrated the cork-popping moment with half a case of Graham Beck Brut NV. This did nothing to harm South Africa’s growing reputation in the United States for fine wines.

The local bubbly was first sampled by Obama and his wife, Michelle, in February last year during a dinner at their favourite Chicago restaurant. On that occasion the fizz came out to celebrate Obama winning the Democratic nomination to run for president.

The Obamas were apparently so impressed with the libation, described as ‘finely textured, crisp peach­strawberry-edged, grippingly elegant bubbly” that they ordered six bottles for the November announcement of his election.

The year 2009 marks the 350th anniversary of South Africa as a wine producer and the outlook for global sales is rosy.

Graham Beck alone supplies 35 US states including Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois and Montana. And between 2002 and 2007, according to Wines of South Africa (Wosa), local exports to the US grew from two-million litres to more than 10-million litres.

A volume of these exports has been in the form of bulk wine — ‘no name” style wines bottled and sold in the US under their own in-store brands. But this is changing as local producers go all out to sharpen the image of South African wines, traditionally viewed internationally as being cheap and cheerful.

Globally the US is the fastest-growing market for imported wines. It also sells more high-priced wines, making it ‘the highest value market” for the South African industry to set its sights on.

South Africa’s premium wines, says Wosa CEO Su Birch, including our cabernet sauvignons, syrahs (know locally as shiraz) and our very high-end chenin blancs have so far been the most successful in the US.

Good reviews are pouring in. Eric Asimov, the New York Times’s chief wine critic, raved about South African cabernets in his column this month. Asimov gushed:

‘Forgive me if I’m excited, but I can’t help it. I want to tell you straight out that South Africa, of all places, is one of the greatest sources for moderately priced cabernet sauvignon on the planet today.”

Thanks mostly to the young, the US is developing a thirsty palate for the good stuff — current economic blues notwithstanding.

Says Birch: ‘This younger generation in the US is known as the Millennials and they’re driving this new growth.”

Millennials consume the highest percentage of imported wines — 41% against the 24% quaffed by their parents.

‘They are also the group least affected by the current crisis,” says Birch. ‘They are nowhere near retirement and they don’t have kids in college yet.” In other words, just like their new leader.



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Lynley Donnelly
Lynley Donnelly
Lynley is a senior business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. But she has covered everything from social justice to general news to parliament - with the occasional segue into fashion and arts. She keeps coming to work because she loves stories, especially the kind that help people make sense of their world.

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