Zulu Royalty and Celebs jol at Shaka Zulu in London

Last night saw the launch of a new era in Camden, London with the opening of Shaka Zulu Restaurant and lounge. Guests at the launch of the South African

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Wine, social media and the power of the internet

Originally published in Off Licence News

Clay Shirky may sound like the sort of moniker people come up with when they combine their first pet with their mother’s maiden name to create a fictional porn star, but the American academic, writer and commentator is real enough and nothing to do with Debbie Does Dallas. Indeed, I think he’s one of the most stimulating thinkers of our time, a man who has important things to say about the internet and social media and their impact on our lives.

I’ve just been reading his second book, “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age”, which, despite the jargon-heavy title, is every bit as good as his first, “Here Comes Everybody”. I can’t do justice to the full complexity of his arguments here, but I’d like to focus on a couple of points.

Shirky argues that, thanks to the internet, we are “becoming one another’s infrastructure”. We are also free to “participate in the public conversation” at the click of a mouse. Unlike television, the new media provide people with ample opportunities to “comment on the material, to share it with their friends, to label, rate, or rank it, and of course, to discuss it with other viewers around the world”.

Facebook, Twitter and the like may look “trivial and frivolous”, he adds, but social media give people the capacity to connect, communicate and, if necessary, take action. He cites the example of the lifting of the ban on US beef imports in South Korea, a decision that was reversed because of popular, internet-driven protest, and forced President Lee to sack his cabinet. Not so trivial after all.

How many people are part of this global community? An exact figure is difficult to arrive at, partly because of shared computers and cyber cafés, but Shirky estimates that two billion people have access to the internet, while three billion have a mobile phone. We live, for the first time in human history, in a world where “being part of a globally interconnected group is the normal case for most citizens”.

What does this have to do with wine? Quite a bit, as it happens. As in is so many other fields, the way that wine is sold, described, criticised and presented is changing for ever. The surprising thing is that many of the people who work in and around wine haven’t noticed or are in denial about the power and scope of the revolution.

If you disagree with what I’ve just said, I suggest you take a look at a few winery and generic websites. How many of them connect with their audience? How many present information in new, interesting and visually-appealing ways? How many of them ask for feedback or seek to create communities of fans and aficionados? How many of them are on Facebook and Twitter, conducting tutored tastings or telling people about their latest releases, winemaker dinners and so on? Surprisingly few.

Wine writers have adapted faster to change than the wine trade. There are two reasons for this. First, we’re in the communication business, so are supposed to be good as using words. And second, we’ve all seen the dwindling number of wine publications and the truncated space allocated to the subject by many national newspapers. If we want to present our opinions to a wide audience, and engage with them as individuals and groups, then increasingly we have to do so on-line.

As a comparatively late convert myself (whose website will be relaunched and redesigned later this year) I raise my spittoon in admiration to wine writers such as Jamie Goode, Tom Cannavan, Jancis Robinson MW, Neal Martin and Tyler Colman (aka Dr Vino) who saw the potential of the new media at an early stage. Good wine writing doesn’t have to be marginalised any more. Indeed, it has a greater opportunity than ever to connect and communicate with real consumers.

The same applies to the wine business. One of the most remarkable things about the internet, typified by Wikipedia but apparent everywhere, is that people are happy to share their opinions for nothing. Some of these opinions are worth more than others, but they are freely and often rapidly expressed. If you want feedback on a new wine, label, brand or concept, what better way to get it? Using new communications tools, punters readily exchange views, news and tasting tips on a worldwide scale.

Lobbying and, where necessary, direct action are part of this too. At a time when wine is under threat from health and religious lobbies, the internet is the place to tell the other side of the story: to promote the diversity of wine, its role in a balanced diet, its suitability with food. A global coalition of wine lovers would be a very powerful group of consumers, capable of influencing the way wine is made, taxed and sold. To people who argue it that it could never happen, I say this. The brave new world created by the internet and social media is the present and the future; it’s time we embraced it.

South Africa is full of suprises

By Jamie Goode | 13 July 2010

South Africa is full of surprises. Before the World Cup tournament, most commentators were expecting trouble as the world’s soccer fans arrived en masse. The challenges of logistics and security were deemed to be too great, and many were predicting disaster, but instead the tournament went without a glitch. Overall, it was a great advertisement for the rainbow nation – even the Dutch thuggery in the final as they tried to kick the Spanish off the pitch couldn’t spoil things.

In terms of wine, probably the biggest surprise about South Africa is how well it has done with Sauvignon Blanc. It’s a variety that flourishes in cool conditions, and if you were to sit down with a chart showing the growing degree days (a measure of average temperature) of South Africa’s key wine regions, Sauvignon wouldn’t be your first choice grape for planting. But winegrowers have managed to find combinations of vineyard sites and soils where Sauvignon can flourish, have managed these vineyards well and worked hard in the cellar, and as a result Sauvignon is now South Africa’s fastest rising variety.

Back in 2002 it accounted for 6.7% of vineyard area; by the end of 2009 this had risen to 9.3%. There is now more Sauvignon than Chardonnay in South Africa, and the only white varieties more widely planted are Chenin Blanc and Colombard (most of which is used for brandy production). It may surprise you to learn that with 9446 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc planted, South Africa now ranks third, behind France and New Zealand, in the Sauvignon league table.

Sauvignon Blanc is an interesting grape variety, because it’s probably the one where we have a better handle on the science underpinning how the viticulture and winemaking affect the flavour than for any other variety. There are two groups of chemicals that are considered to be key to the flavour of Sauvignon Blanc.

The first is the methoxypyrazines. These are responsible for the herbal grassy/green pepper flavours and aromas, and are an important part of Sauvignons varietal character. If you want to train your nose and palate to recognize methoxypyrazine, then take a green pepper and cut it open. That’s methoxypyrazine, and in high levels it can be quite pungent and even unpleasant. It’s produced by the grapes, and levels are initially high during the early stages of ripening, falling as the grapes get riper. Viticulturalists have been working hard on ways of managing the grape vine canopy (the leaves) to get just the right level of methoxypyrazine when the grapes are ripe and ready to pick. These methoxypyrazines are stable and the levels remain unchanged during fermentation and ageing.

The second is the thiols. These are sulfur-containing compounds produced during fermentation by the yeasts, from precursors present in the grapes. They’re closely related to compounds that can cause problems in wine, so it was a surprise to find out that three thiols – 4MMP, 3MH and 3MHA – are actually responsible for attractive fruity notes in Sauvignon Blanc. Their typical signature is passionfruit, grapefruit and boxwood, and if you want to get a handle on what they smell like, take a passionfruit, slice it in half and take a good sniff. Thiols aren’t all that stable, and can be lost with ageing. Because they are seen as desirable in Sauvignon Blanc, a lot of work is taking place trying to identify the precursors that the yeasts use to make them from, and then finding out ways of enhancing these precursor levels in the grape by intervention in the vineyard.

The key to successful Sauvignon Blanc is getting a balance between these more tropical fruity aromas and the green herbal notes, and this is what South Africa seems to be doing very effectively. Part of this comes down to growing the grape in the right place, either in cooler regions (such as Constantia, Darling or Elgin) or in cooler spots (such as south-facing vineyard blocks) in otherwise quite warm regions. But it is interesting to note that even among the leading examples of South African Sauvignon there are stylistic differences.

Perhaps the biggest difference in style relates to the level of greenness, contributed by the methoxypyrazines. Some people just can’t get enough of them, while others can only tolerate them in small quantities. A little grassy, green pepper character is an important element of Sauvignon style, adding freshness and focus to the wine. Sometimes, however, this character can be dominant, resulting in overtly green herbal wines. Still, the high-methoxypyrazine style is very successful with some consumers. An example would be Springfield Estate’s Life From Stone Sauvignon Blanc, which is one of South Africa’s most celebrated Sauvignons. Personally, I find this level of greenness off-putting, but this is very much an individual taste issue. My preference is for wines with less of this character, such as Warwick Estate (Professor Black) or Vergelegen.

While Sauvignon Blanc has proved immensely popular with consumers, there has always been a feeling that it is a non-serious variety. You just don’t find many Sauvignons priced £15 and over, whereas for most other varieties, this sort of price ceiling doesn’t exist. For this reason, it’s exciting to see the work being done by Duncan Savage at Cape Point Vineyards. From this cool, maritime spot Duncan has for some years been making one of South Africa’s top Sauvignons. With some oak and a bit of Semillon in the blend, the Cape Point Isliedh is one of the world’s best expressions of Sauvignon, complex and precise and capable of ageing. This is the sort of wine that could see Sauvignon taken much more seriously by the fine wine community.