The UK wine market is growing at 6% by value, while the three best-selling South African brands are between them enjoying much faster average growth at 15%.
Kumala reigns supreme at the top of the South African wine sales chart, although its sales have slipped gradually over the past two years.
The Constellation brand, which experienced consistency problems under former owner Western Wines, is now a priority for the drinks giant.
Last year, former Flagstone winemaker Bruce Jack came to the rescue, Superman-style, bagging a top job as head of brand owner Constellation's South African portfolio.
One of Jack's tasks is to improve ≠Kumala's consistency and get it back into growth. He has already asked winemakers Ben Jordaan and Gerhard Swart to start sourcing wine direct from producers rather than through brokers - a process which should help to stabilise consistency and rebuild consumer trust.
Constellation also bought Jack's old winery, Flagstone, allowing him to merge the winemaking teams so that he now has a five-strong unit with complementary skills.
He says: "Although people have their respective brands, everybody gets involved and it's more of a team effort.
"The Flagstone guys have been making premium, handcrafted wines and they have a lot of skills, particularly in terms of tasting. Ben and Gerhard have been putting together massive blends so they have skills there."
Jack will also employ a full-time viticulturalist, and instal
a "sophisticated research and development laboratory" so each batch of wine can be properly monitored.
Jack and his team have so far monitored eight vineyards from harvest through to tank.
The analysed wine is only 2% of the final production, so once Jack knows the system works he will increase the checked amount each year.
By 2009, 10% will be closely monitored, and by 2010, 30%, jumping up more each year until every batch of wine has been closely checked.
As well as an overhaul at vineyard level, Kumala will get a thorough packaging revamp and production will be taken up to 2.4 million cases.
Jack is keen for the winemaking team to play a greater role in the development of Kumala. The range should be expanded to reflect the varieties that thrive in South Africa - Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Semillon, Shiraz and Cabernet - he says. "Do we really need a Bordeaux blend when Entre-Deux-Mers is already doing that well?" he asks. "It should be about playing to your strengths."
And Jack - who has something of the vineyard philosopher about him - is happy to pass on his views about how South African wine can get back into growth in the UK.
"We have a huge opportunity in this country at the moment. It's a challenge, but you've just got to look at it from the right angle.
"One of our advantages is our amazingly diverse terroir, different types of plant species and different types of soil. Our wines are a direct reflection of the soil and we should be making the most of that."
Another opportunity is in South African red wines, which Jack freely admits are the "poorest at their price point, but I know that, with a little bit of care and attention in the vineyards, we can turn that around". He says: "It's just a question of making simple tweaks and working a bit harder."
Winemakers need to put more "spark" into their winemaking, Jack adds. "We've got to go back to the vineyards -physically, psychologically and philosophically - and then let the wines reflect the soil," he says.
Jack has a huge task ahead of him - putting some of his well thought-through philosophy into a major commodity brand - but if he pulls it off he will have shown that big on volume does not have to mean being low on personality.
Raisin Social's Namaqua brand had a great year in 2007, with value sales up 41% to Jan 26, making it the second best-selling Cape brand in the UK off-trade. Provenance is one of its strong points, according to managing director Simon Halliday.
The brand has been sourced from Namaqua wineries (formerly Westcorp) in Namaqualand in South Africa's far north western corner for the past 15 years. The arid region is made vine-friendlier with an irrigation system that feeds off the Olifants river.
Another strong point has been Raisin Social's insistence on "being honest with the consumer" Halliday says. "I didn't want to mislead the customer by dressing something up to be something it isn't, but I do believe our wines are worth what they are sold for."
Raisin Social has also not been afraid to break from the norm, originally launching Namaqua in bag-in-box then moving into bottle, when traditionally the process is the other way around.
Around 70% of Namaqua's volume sales are bag-in-box but Halliday says the proportion of bag-in-box sales will increase - both for Namaqua and for wine suppliers in general.
Retailers and importers are being charged more and more for the waste they create, so bag-in-box is less expensive compared with bottle, Halliday says. "Several retailers have stated objectives to reduce their waste, and this is a reality we've got to understand.
"We don't have much more space to put waste so we've got to think about alternative, non-vitrous packaging. We're also looking at PET and Tetra Pak, but bag-in-box will certainly grow."
Raisin Social gives consumers an incentive to trade up from bottle to bag-in-box - typically it is 20% cheaper like-for-like against the bottled version.
Halliday is optimistic about opportunities for Cape wine in the UK and thinks South African wine is well-placed to expand its offering at the premium end of the wine market. "It doesn't do cheap well," he says. Raisin Social also looks after two more premium Cape brands in the UK - Leopard's Leap and Goiya - which are less price sensitive and perhaps better-placed post-Budget duty rises.
Raisin Social's long-term approach has also fed into Namaqua's success, Halliday adds. "We have reputable producers from every single winegrowing region in South Africa. We don't buy from unknown sources but work with our long-term partners to foster quality, investment and buil d sustainable businesses."
Despite Namaqua's success last year, Halliday pulls back from ambitious statements about the brand's future.
"I'm not going to say it's going to be number one," he says. The company, he says, is content to continue looking long-term rather than fussing about its rankings.
Top South African wine brands
Position Brand Supplier Sales £m % Change
Kumala Constellation 76 -11
2 Namaqua Raisin Social 39.6 41
3 First Cape Brand Phoenix 33.4 14
Nielsen year to Jan 26 2008
Rugby and branding herald another great year for First Cape
Brand Phoenix directors Steve Barton and Greg Wilkins are chuffed to bits that their First Cape brand has secured sponsorship of the British Lions rugby tour 2009.
The pair, two of three directors of the company - the third is Steve Rosser, based in Bristol - share a love of rugby . And the tournament, to be held in South Africa, will be the pinnacle of a year which will offer plenty of opportunity for Cape wine brands to capitalise on the "feelgood factor" surrounding the country. South Africa is investing in a huge tourism campaign in the UK, Barton says, and the summer cricket should also help. "We've got some natural, easy stuff we can benefit from here, without any of us spending any money," he adds.
First Cape was the light wine star performer in OLN's brands report 2007, with 131% value growth between 2005 and 2006 (Nielsen). Last year's growth was more sedate at 14%, but Barton describes the year as a period of consolidation.
And 2008 will see another spike in sales, he says, partly because a deal struck with the SHS sales and marketing group last autumn has borne fruit. "Listings in Bestway, Booker and Batleys were confirmed last week," Barton says. "And they've already secured listings in Parfetts, Budgens and Londis."
The pair have big plans for First Cape. "If you want to call your product a brand, it's got to be available everywhere," says Wilkins, who admits it will be a long road to full distribution.
They want to see other suppliers' South African brands in growth, believing it will have a beneficial knock-on effect to the Cape wine category as a whole.
With an economic downturn looming, consumer focus is more important than ever, says Barton. "If you're going to get into the FMCG market, the consumer is in total control of that category. We've got to invest in the consumer."
The pair feel confident about South Africa wine's prospects in the UK. More people are travelling there and a whole generation has grown up since apartheid ended with less political baggage than previous consumers. Wilkins says: "The best of South Africa is yet to come."
The British Lions deal will mean plenty of publicity , prime advertising on pitch hoardings and sampling opportunities at the matches. Wilkins and Rosser will be out in South Africa to enjoy it - while Barton gamely stays home to keep the office running. "That's OK, I can watch it on my flatscreen," he says, bravely.
PR boost for Spier
Spier will be supported by a number of PR initiatives throughout 2008, with national wine writer press trips, radio interviews, travel and lifestyle press trips, regional press competitions and dedicated lifestyle publication tastings and activities .
Spier's managing director Neville Carew said the South African wine industry "can now proudly state that at all price points we offer a fantastic price-to-quality ratio". He adds: "In terms of sales trends, the category needs a strong brand and perhaps the introduction of a lower-priced tier from Kumala will help the SA trend analysis.
"This will counter the 9-10% loss we saw when prices were raised above £5. What we do not need is large volumes of wine being dumped at £2.99 into the market. Strong brands with support will help grow the category. The next two years will offer brand owners the opportunity to grow market share as we believe the exchange rate and the supply of quality wine in the marketplace will give us a competitive advantage to other producing countries. I look forward to category growth numbers in excess of 7% pa for the next three years."
'Wine finder' jogs consumer's memory
Distell has announced major changes for flagship brand Nederburg. The whole range has been re packaged to "create a consistent message of quality". There are now four tiers to the range - Foundation for everyday wines; The Winemaster's Reserve for more mainstream wines; Manor House for speciality and varietal wines; and Ingenuity for new blends. Also new to the Nederburg range is a "wine finder" on each bottle, to help consumers remember which wine they drank and encourage repeat purchase. Gary Greenfield, managing director of Distell Europe, said: "With Nederburg we can offer a wine for all occasions and now it has been made easier for consumers to identify the style and quality of wine they are buying ." Nederburg is also giving consumers the chance to win more than 2 million South African rand in a neck-collar promotion.
Every bottle will have a neck collar featuring a unique number which consumers can check online to see if they have won one of over 10,000 cash prizes totalling the equivalent of around £140,000.
Morgenhof's wine for ageing
Stellenbosch-based Morgenhof estate has released The Morgenhof - a Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend with smaller amounts of Malbec and Cabernet Franc.
The wine is aged for 18 months in French oak and is described as having "full, ripe flavours of black berries, prune and black cherries with hints of dark chocolate and mixed spice" on the nose. The wine has 14% alcohol and is best aged for 10 years.
New blends for Discovery
Discovery Wines will launch a Shiraz/Cabernet 2007 and Chenin/Colombard 2007. The blends, which have an rrp of £3.99, will be packaged in heavyweight bottles with screwcaps . The Shiraz/Cabernet wines were sourced from Swartland and Franschoek, with a small percentage from the Breede River Valley. The Chenin/Colombard 2007 came from the Worcester, Franschoek and Malmesbury regions, grown on south-facing slopes for cooler climate conditions, with some vineyards planted up to 400m above sea level.
Marketing moves for Stormhoek
Stormhoek's new owner Origin Wines has pledged to continue with the brand's trademark innovative marketing. Blogger and illustrator Hugh McLeod will carry on working with Stormhoek and further viral marketing campaigns are planned.
Three-strong range from Harvey-Miller
Harvey-Miller Wine and Spirit Agencies is to launch Shepherd's Cottage, a range of wines from South Africa's Overgaauw vineyards, into the UK. The wines are made from grapes grown on deep-weathered granite soils on south-facing vineyards. The y are available in 75cl bottles and will retail for around £5.99. Three wines will be launched initially - Chardonnay/Semillon/Chenin Blanc 2007; Pinotage Rosť 2007 and Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 2005.
Thierry's plans for Cape brands
Thierry's has repackaged its KWV Lifestyle range under screwcap. The packaging enhancement is the final phase in a makeover for the brand, and follows last year's introduction of blends specifically developed for the UK palate. Its Cape brand Golden Kaan continues as wine sponsor of the Afrika Afrika show at the O2. Meanwhile, Laborie is teaming up with Anita's Vintage Fashion Fairs, and will be offering refreshment to fashionistas attending the London Events in April and June.