Greg Sherwood MW: A little comfort for SA wine during its ordeal

By , 20 January 2021

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“I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it—unless I’m thirsty.” So goes the famous Champagne quote from Madame Bollinger who resided over this famous estate as the owner from 1941 until 1971. However, with a slew of new import and export data released this week, I suspect the Champenoise will more likely be crying into their flutes of Bollinger than celebrating the new year as Champagne shipments have stalled and are expected to fall by -18% for 2020, representing a year-end volume decline of around 51 million bottles on 2019.

Despite becoming a beverage for all occasions, Champagne consumption is still very closely linked to the health and prosperity of the on-trade hotel, restaurant, club, and cafe sectors as well as the travel retail sector. Throw in the added damper of multiple lockdowns across Europe and the banning of all nature of social gatherings, and you can see that even the celebratory wind has been taken out of this category’s sails. With no imminent easing of restrictions insight, one has to wonder what the prospects are for overall Champagne sales in 2021? Pretty dire I suspect. Nobody is in the mood to celebrate.

Naude Chenin Blanc 2018 on the floor at Handford Wines, London.

Why all this lamenting over Champagne sales? Well, I thought it would help put South Africa’s export growth of +23% in value and +7% in volume to the UK last year into a better perspective. Throughout our lockdown 1.0 (March 2020) and 2.0 (November 2020), wine merchants, buyers, retailers, importers, and wholesalers the length and breadth of the UK passionately and wholeheartedly got behind the numerous campaigns to support and champion South African wine to help boost the export opportunities for an industry facing prohibitionist Armageddon. Now I’m not going to pretend for one moment that the South African wine industry doesn’t currently sit on a very, very dangerous precipice of economic viability, but these export figures are surely very small green shoots of hope and possibility for the SA industry.

Recent Winemag.co.za articles in the past weeks by locally-based fellow columnists Michael Fridjhon and Tim James have more than adequately illuminated the severity and desperation of the situation facing producers and the greater South African wine industry. The Covid-19 pandemic has already, and will undoubtedly continue, to hasten many new global trends, both positive and negative, so it might seem a little bit naive to think that any industry would be spared upheaval and change. It just perhaps sticks in the throat a little more in South Africa because so much of the wine industry crisis is man-made.

For all those producers in South Africa crying into their glasses of Pinotage, rest assured, there were no equivalent national UK campaigns to encourage people to buy more Chilean wine, or Argentinean wine, or American wine. This was a solitary impassioned call to arms from South Africa’s biggest export market and a supportive industry here in the UK shocked and dismayed at the obvious hardships the South African alcohol ban would result in, and none of us can yet accurately predict what the longer term hangover will be. But these export growth figures are also heartening in another sense because they highlight the ready capacity for further growth in value (more premium packaged wines) over straight low-priced volume wine. While there is certainly going to be a lot of spare bulk wine looking for a home in the near future, perhaps China might be a better end destination than the mature, established markets of Western Europe.

During this mainstream lockdown push to sell and drink more South African wine, in the back of my mind, I genuinely did fear that after several months of more marketing push than pull, consumers might start to get satiated and begin to tire of the endless fine wine offers merchants and retailers were pumping out from South African wineries. But thankfully, 12 months on, as we head towards mid-January, the consumers’ taste and appreciation for top quality South African red and white wines do not seem to be waning whatsoever. On the contrary, the clamour by many newer collectors to register for the allocations of smaller production wines from the likes of Alheit, Savage, Sadie, Raats, Naude, Van Loggerenberg, Le Riche, Thelema, Kanonkop, Mullineux and many other top quality focused producers is palpable.

Anyone who reads my wine columns regularly will know that in the end, I remain an eternal optimist rather than a pessimist as my default setting. And although I am gravely concerned about the unfurling disaster in the South African wine industry, I am equally if not more troubled and saddened by the broader potential economic wasteland that will be left behind across the entire South African economy once the pandemic finally recedes and lockdowns become a thing of the past. In the meantime, I will continue to buy, sell and drink as much of South Africa’s finest vino as possible.

  • Greg Sherwood was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and as the son of a career diplomat, spent his first 21 years travelling the globe with his parents. With a Business Management and Marketing degree from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, Sherwood began his working career as a commodity trader. In 2000, he decided to make more of a long-held interest in wine taking a position at Handford Wines in South Kensington, London and is today Senior Wine Buyer. He became a Master of Wine in 2007.

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  • AB20 January 2021

    Funny, I didn’t think you were a big fan of Naude wines…

  • Hennie C20 January 2021

    I certainly hope the Champenoise will drop their prices because of the oversupply.

    • Greg Sherwood MW20 January 2021

      Doubtful. They price their brands more on the grape prices each year which have been rising steadily. But several years of reduced demand could lead to price drops.

      • Hennie C20 January 2021

        Ah, one can dream of cheaper champagne though Greg!

        I know they’re paying over €8 a kg for grand cru site grapes in Champagne with average prices over €6. Prices which I suspect would make any South African grape farmer swoon if they could get those kinds of prices.

  • Angela Lloyd20 January 2021

    Thanks, Greg for these positive views. Like you, I’m an optimist though also aware of our precipice situation.
    I hope the clamour from the UK’s new collectors is sustained, especially when they see how well the wines can age.
    Larger exports of these small production wines will see less available on the local market, perhaps not such a bad thing if it wakes up local winelovers to the ‘snooze you lose’ situation and keener to buy them.

    • Greg Sherwood MW20 January 2021

      Yes Angela. The shift in premium allocations has been discussed for many years and the “use it or lose it” mantra is well established. Simple supply and demand will dictate that larger quantities are reassigned for export if the local consumer demand starts to waiver.

      One thing I left out the piece is the new, level playing field Covid has resulted in. This is not an African pandemic or an American one, it’s basically screwed everyone, everywhere… which while terrible in reality, allows South Africans to share their hardships with supporters around the world. There are more opportunities for Covid to bring countries closer together post pandemic in a shared trauma experience than to act to divide us further. This will surely be a silver lining.

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