Vineyards & Wine

How 3 of the World’s Best Wine Regions are Reemerging

Wineries in France, South Africa, and Australia are embracing innovative new measures to come out of the pandemic better than ever

In March 2020, retail sales of wine increased by as much as 300 percent, according to The Washington Post. The reason? Along with other staples, the public deemed the drink an essential and stockpiled it ahead of the first national lockdown. But has this demand translated into better results for some of the world’s best wine regions?

Not necessarily. As The Post noted, “the pandemic’s economic jolt is hitting the wine industry unevenly.” So, while retail sales soared, lockdown measures inhibited vineyard work within the majority of the world’s wine regions and closed the tasting rooms of even the very best wineries.

But there’s good news too: the pandemic has caused people to embrace new ways of trying and buying wines. And many wineries have been able to reach a global audience, thanks to virtual tastings conducted by their top-notch sommeliers. It’s clear that from France to South Africa and Australia, vintners have found new ways to adapt—although many are digging deep to do so.

A cellar filled with champagne barrells
According to Forbes, the Champagne region lost $2 billion in revenue in 2020, with more than 500,000 barrels (or 100 million bottles) left unsold. But, experts say, the area’s hardy producers are now bouncing back. Image: Getty Images

Old World Resilience

“Champagne has not been immune to the global crisis,” explains Françoise Peretti of one of the world’s most famous, and arguably best, wine regions—where, according to Reuters, sales fell by 18 percent in 2020.

“But,” says the director of Champagne Bureau U.K., “this is a region with 300 years of champagne-making history. These vines were planted as early as Roman times and, due to its geographic location, the area has survived constant invasions. Growers here have been exporting since the 19th century, so they’ve also weathered challenges such as Prohibition.

“During each crisis, they take stock and put whatever means necessary into making it work,” she continues. “When you have a crisis the size of COVID-19, of course you have to act. You can’t do anything to prevent it, but you can set your sails to the storm.”

New World Spirit

This kind of resilience isn’t limited to ancient appellations. In the New World vineyards of South Africa and Australia, growers are adopting a similarly irrepressible attitude—despite their industries being some of those hit hardest by the pandemic.

Mountains and forests surrounding a vineyard in South Africa's Western Cape
Despite three separate bans on national alcohol sales, South African producers—such as Paul Cluver Wines, situated in South Africa’s picturesque Elgin region—are optimistic about the local industry’s ability to recover.

“South Africa has been heavily impacted,” explains Maryna Calow, communications manager for Wines of South Africa. “In addition to a five-week export ban, alcohol sales were banned outright for approximately 24 weeks. Many of our smaller producers are reliant on cellar door sales and tourism, which has come to a standstill.”

“The one thing that has not been lost is hope,” says Liesl Clüver Rust, marketing director of the family-run Paul Cluver Wines, a winery within an hour’s drive of Cape Town. “What is wonderful about South Africans in general is our ability to stand up and keep going, to keep believing tomorrow will be better by planting seeds and nurturing them.”

In Australia, says Prestige Homes of Victoria‘s winery specialist, Adam Morris, “the impact of border closures, both international and domestic, and the severity of the lockdown—particularly in Victoria—eliminated any notion of visiting your favorite winery, even on a day trip from Melbourne. For luxury wineries with fine dining and wedding facilities, the impact was significant.”

But, he says, “this shifting landscape as a result of the pandemic has also been a catalyst for positive change. There is no doubt that wineries’ innovations during this time will set them up for more success going forward.”

In Australia’s Margaret River, border closures halted international wine tourism, “but the region did see significant increase in visitors from within the state,” says Amanda Whiteland, CEO of Margaret River Wine Association. Image: Russell Ord

The French Method

Innovation has indeed been embraced by even the world’s most established wineries. Case in point: when the French government offered emergency distillation of wine surpluses as part of its modest aid package to the wine trade, the hardy négociants and producers of Champagne instead implemented their own measures.

In the face of lower demand, growers agreed to restrict their yields, avoiding a situation where oversupply could cause a possible drop in prices. And it seems to have been the best tactic for the area, as it’s now one of the world’s first wine regions to start seeing signs of recovery.

However, cautions Jean-Marie Barillère, president of the Union des Maisons de Champagne, the direct impact on producers is “a question of their markets. The négociant who sells to the supermarkets, it’s going well. A grower-producer who sells direct to French consumers is doing fine. If they sell to restaurants, they’re suffering.”

Michael Baynes, executive partner of vineyard and winery investment advisory company Vineyards-Bordeaux, agrees that the effect of the pandemic on the French wine industry varies greatly depending on which segment of the market producers find themselves in.

Harvesters pick grapes in a vineyard in Bordeaux
2019’s harvest in Bordeaux (pictured here) looked remarkably different to that of 2020’s, where social distancing was mandated and surplus stock was destined for the distillery.

“Of the approximately 8,000 château vineyards in Bordeaux, there are only 500 that are at the top of the notoriety hierarchy,” Baynes explains. “These châteaux have not seen a significant hit, as many produce investment wines that are purchased as a hedge in uncertain times. The remaining 7,500 vineyards have seen a different world altogether, and those that rely on local business-to-business demand have been the worst affected.”

But wineries with a strong brand presence and good relationships with customers have fared better, he says. “Wine lovers used lockdown to order regularly from their favorite vineyards and in several cases these vineyards saw record sales.” Many of Bordeaux’s vineyards have taken note, and are now placing a focus on developing their direct-to-consumer business channels and making better use of technology.

New Normal, New Trends

For the New World’s wine regions, growers have found that, in the face of the pandemic, turning to technology has been their best strategy. “COVID-19 caused a total change to how we engage consumers,” explains Lucy Clements, operations director of Australia-based Premium Wineries ANZ. “Our digital platforms are alive with winemaker tastings and masterclasses.”

A bottle of white wine being poured
Resourceful South African producers like Glenelly Estate have grown their online channels, with some wineries reporting soaring online sales and month-on-month increases of more than 1,500 percent.

“E-commerce has seen consistent growth in recent years, but the lockdown fast-tracked that trend,” says Caroline Thompson-Hill, managing director for Europe of Accolade Wines, which is headquartered in South Australia. Morris, the Australian winery specialist, agrees: “Anecdotally, the rate of adoption of digital sales strategies has accelerated 10 years in the space of 12 months.”

For Nicolas Bureau, CEO of Glenelly Estate in Simonsberg, in the heart of South Africa’s winelands, that innovation has taken the form of new distribution channels and an increased focus on the country’s domestic market. “We’ve invested in digital campaigns and redeveloped our e-commerce platforms,” he explains, adding that “direct sales through this channel have gone through the roof.”

“We’ve definitely seen a huge upturn in online activities and the results of virtual tastings, webinars, and digital campaigns have been excellent,” concludes Calow of Wines of South Africa. “Now that consumers have tried these platforms and trust them, they’re here to stay.”

Banner image: Sunrise over a vineyard in the Montagne de Reims subregion of Champagne. Getty Images