What is a boutique winery?
The internet is filled with articles about what defines a Boutique winery, with most people associating the word “Boutique” with descriptions like: small production, artisanal wines and passionate winemakers, expensive, superior in quality, handcrafted, off the map and so on. Here is my idea of what constitutes a Boutique Winery and why I choose to focus my tours on these farms rather than the larger often more recognizable vineyards.
Does size matter? Yes and there are many schools of thought about how many cases per year would qualify as Boutique production. In my mind it is not quite so cut and dry as other factors come into play but certainly they would be much smaller in scale than other vineyards in their region. *For example Topaz Wine Company produce 1200 cases per year of their own label and are considered garagiste. Marklew produce approximately 300t or 5000 cases and Stoneybrook 100 tons/6500 cases own label and are both definitely boutique in every sense. Mary Lou of Black Pearl started out as a garagiste producer, crafting her wine in an old shed. In 2012 she was producing +- 1800 cases, now it’s about 5000 cases but she still applies the same amount of dedication and input from seed to bottle and is using many of the same methods and machinery as before; this is truly handcrafted boutique wine. Compare these numbers to well known South African megabrands like Nederburg at 18,000t/2.8 m cs, Backsberg 900t/160 000cs own label, La Motte at 1200t or 170 000cs and Durbanville Hills at 6000t/300 000cs. One gets a better picture.
Some boutique farms don’t produce enough to warrant tasting rooms and offering extras like meals or pairings. Often micro-wineries can be visited by appointment only, so you won’t see the usual line up of tour buses found at the larger Estates who are set up to handle the mass tourism market . It takes a little more planning to visit these boutique farms but the reward is a more intimate behind the scenes experience that few other tourists get to experience.
Are boutique wines superior in quality? The farms we visit fit into this category absolutely but it is not always the case. I have been disappointed with the quality at a number of boutique vineyards and despite some of their other redeeming qualities I have had to leave them off my tours. Thankfully though, there is a long list of boutique wineries that do get it right and are gaining a lot of good attention. Take the Sadie family wines for example; voted Platter’s Guide Winery of the Year again in 2015 and producing just 60t/8000cs own label. Others receiving accolades include …Fable, Alheit, Le Riche, Luddite, De Trafford/Sijn, Oldenburg, Stark –Conde , to name but a few.
More expensive? Most of the time you get what you pay for but I have found great wine at an absolute bargain while being shocked at the prices of some very average wines. For that extra special bottle you will most likely pay a higher price and it’s for the enthusiast to decide if it’s worth it. Are you paying for a name, higher production costs or perhaps the exclusivity of a limited production? Knowing you are one of perhaps just a few hundred people fortunate enough to have that bottle, have made cult wines worth it at any price to the right investor.
Passionate winemakers who have a personal relationship with their customers? This, for me, is the key element and why I love to visit boutique farms. There is a better than even chance that on one of these visits you will run into a family member or the winemaker him/herself. There is nothing better than engaging with someone who takes extreme pride in their craft and is willing to impart some of their knowledge. It is this enthusiasm and passion that is contagious. Wineries who share in their personal story, their spirit or philosophy that makes for a really unique and intimate tasting experience. When I select vineyards for my tours, they are chosen not only for the quality of wine but also for the hospitality and charm of the hosts.
Off the beaten track? Boutique farms are found all over, some are amongst the giants and some tucked away up dirt roads or in small neighboring towns. Seeking out these farms is great fun and highly rewarding. You don’t have to travel far; you just have to know where to look.
Boutique is therefore more than just about the number of bottles a winery produces. It is about an attitude to wine making and the relationship with customers. Kevin Swart of Black Elephant Vintners described his leaving the world of finance to owning a boutique winery as a return on lifestyle as opposed to just a return on Investment. It is this state of mind that goes beyond profits and margins that sums up the heart of these hidden gems.
*Production numbers for the above mentioned Estates were taken from the 2015 Edition of Platter’s wine guide.