How the world aided South Africa's wine trade

“The total bans we have had have been devastating to our business, because such a large percentage of sales of our super-premium wines have traditionally happened in South Africa and through restaurants and independent retailers.” The blunt force of the domestic alcohol bans has been disastrous for the country’s wine industry, but it is possible to see a logic to a decision made by a panicking government forced to act incisively to protect its citizens. 

However, even ardent supporters of the government might find the so-called export ban harder to ratify. At the outset of the pandemic, Cyril Ramaphosa’s government prohibited the transport of all goods to seaports and international airports. A week later, an exception was made allowing wine to once again be transported abroad, then another U-turn banned the practice nine days later. Although no reason was provided officially, it was thought that fears of looting and alcohol theft prompted the change. 

“The export ban was not only extremely harmful, but also completely unnecessary,” says Deidre Taylor, sales & marketing manager at Kanonkop. “It did nothing to reduce the Covid cases but it was very damaging to an industry that exports around half of its production each year 

“We were also fortunate to be able to get a container out during the small window that opened in the midst of the export ban so our losses were less than others, but who knows what the sales could have looked like.” 


The turmoil created by such heavy- handed policy meant that the impact of the transport ban was felt far beyond its five-week duration. 

“With the ban on transport, producers couldn’t get the wine to the port, but what also with everything shut down there were problems with get- ting dry goods like bottles and corks,” says Jo Wehring, UK market manager at Wines of South Africa. “Then the port was operating at 25% capacity, so even if you could get your wines to the port, you couldn’t necessarily get them shipped. Then, on top of all of that, there were some severe weather conditions, so ships weren’t even docking. Everything was compounding problems in terms of getting wine out to markets. South Africa lost out because of that, and we were probably still feeling the impact in the autumn, six months later.” 

The response from the international community has been a shot in the arm for South Africa. In the UK, where a quarter of all South African wine exports end up, sales increased by 23% in 2020. “This year, up to August 2021, we’re up a further 29% in value, and if we take packaged wine out of that then we’re up 46%,” says Wehring. 

In the spirit of support that the pandemic created, many who became aware of the situation in South Africa were compelled to offer their backing. “We had a flow of support coming from the trade once wine could flow into the UK,” says James McKenna, sales & marketing director at New Generation Wines, a London-based importer and wholesaler that works with many South African producers. “We got more promotional space and certain retailers featured South African wines more. We had the initial trauma but the support that emerged from it was wide-spread and that was very well received. It wasn’t charity because retailers recognised the quality, diversity, and value for money of the range, so they knew they were backing a strong horse, but it was good to see that solidarity.”