Our best fruit was airfreighted to hard-currency customers, so this idea had a ring of truth to it.
In the glory days of Cloete’s Constantia (late 18th to early 19th century) the entire production of the estate was sold via the Dutch East India Company at auctions in Amsterdam.
But that’s the only case about which one can say with certainty that the best of Cape wines were not available to domestic consumers (unless they were willing to bid at the Amsterdam sale).
Judging from the comments of visitors to the Cape and critics about what was sent in bulk to the UK between 1850 and 1950, it’s unlikely that overseas consumers did better than those at home.
When isolation ended 20 or so years ago, most demand in international markets has been for high-volume commercial blends, rather than our finest wines.
There was a period (probably from 1994 to 2001) when producers were making more from exports than from domestic sales – so they would have been keen to encourage overseas buyers to take their very best wines.
Now, most exports are through large wholesale operations, or are supplied to supermarkets and multiples.
Large retailers can’t really sell small parcels of site-specific wines. They need continuity of supply, and prefer to own or control the brand names which appear on their shelves.
Unsurprisingly, these specs exclude the kind of wines most desired by wine buffs in South Africa who know – on a vintage-by-vintage basis – the best cuvees from our top producers.
If you want the best Cape wines, stay at home and phone your local wine merchant.