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Cape Classics Eyes More European Wines, Sees Potential In South African Chardonnay

February 17, 2015

Known for its roughly 30% share of the 1.1-million-case South African wine category in the U.S., importer and marketer Cape Classics launched its first French wines stateside in 2013, and chairman and CEO André Shearer tells SND more Old World entries are on the way.

After beginning about 18 months ago with two Loire producers, Domaine Vincent Careme and Clos du Gaimont, Cape Classics’ French portfolio now likewise includes Domaine Grosbois, Domaine Paul Buisse and Le Roi des Pierres, also of the Loire, as well as its most recent addition, the Rhône’s Pierre Dupond La Renjardière. The Rhône label ($15 a 750-ml.) is debuting in 11 U.S. markets over the next month.

While noting that the company has also explored opportunities to market wines from other parts of the world, like Australia, Shearer says “Europe seems to move more in rhythm with our South African heartbeat.” France, Spain and Portugal are of particular interest, he adds.

As it looks to diversify its range, Cape Classics continues to nurture its core South African lineup, which includes Jam Jar, Indaba, Excelsior (all around $10-$12 a bottle) and others. Jam Jar, whose Sweet Shiraz was one of the pioneers of the modern sweet red category, now accounts for about 8% of the $50 million sweet red segment and is growing at 20% annually in Nielsen channels. Boosted by early success at Darden Restaurants’ Seasons 52 chain, Jam Jar was extended a few years back with a Sweet White, which is also doing well.

Excelsior and Indaba, meanwhile, continue to benefit from placements in prominent retail chains like Trader Joe’s and Costco. Indaba, which sells the vast majority of its 100,000-case global volume in the U.S. market, is led by its Chardonnay offering, a varietal that Shearer believes holds potential for the South Africa category overall.

“Some people think I’m crazy, but I see Chardonnay as the big opportunity for South Africa,” he says, pointing not only to the success of Indaba’s version but also Cape Classics’ DMZ Chardonnay from DeMorgenzon, which sells around $18 a bottle and consistently scores in the high 80s in Wine Spectator ratings. While Pinotage and Chenin Blanc are more closely associated with the country’s wine heritage, neither will be “the Malbec of South Africa,” Shearer contends.

Indeed, Cape Classics isn’t alone in sensing potential for South African Chardonnay. In December, Wine Spectator reported that Jackson Family Wines had acquired 20 acres of vines in Stellenbosch—marking its first foray into South Africa—with plans to release 1,000 cases of South African Chardonnay from the 2013 vintage under a brand called Capensis.


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