Greg Sherwood MW: Accepting SA wine’s greatness

By , 26 August 2020

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What does greatness require of a wine producer? It’s an age-old question, one which those of us in the world of marketing agonize over day today. But when your own fine wine is your livelihood, your pride and passion, you can hardly blame producers for getting edgy or possibly slightly irritated when their wines are over-looked, or even worse, dismissed out of hand with not much more than a glancing nod. Surely their efforts deserve more recognition?
Kanonkop – widely regarded as South Africa’s “First Growth”.

I’m not going to beat around the bush – this article is most certainly a reprise of some of the key themes raised in my last column discussing not only the scoring of South African wines but also the cultural cringe that accompanies many of the reviewers’ scores. I mean gosh, there is just so much ground to cover, so many myths and foolhardy comments to discuss and rebut that the topic of scoring wine probably deserves its own individual weekly column on this site just to allow all the opinions and heartfelt comments to reach the light of day.

We all know the challenges that the South African wine industry is going through, but when international journalists like Will Lyons from The Times write articles entitled “Why we all need to buy South African wine“, it would appear that the call for help and support is filtering through internationally.

Even so, the proper understanding of South African wines is a journey that needs plenty of detailed studies.

With Will Lyons’ recent call to arms in support of South African wines, came a few accompanying comments from readers that unfortunately typify the uphill struggle that the premium South African wine category still faces when taking on parts of the mainstream UK market. Just two comments that caught my eye were as follows:

“They are pricing their wines far above the equivalent European produce. And I’m a great supporter of the country and its wines, but they have to do what Chile did years ago and make themselves affordable for everyday drinking.”

“Some of those prices are ridiculous. I am fortunate enough to live in Spain (as a Brit) and can buy a very good bottle of red for € 10 (Ribera del Duero). If the £/€ exchange rate goes belly up, I also have the option of a palatable € 0.87 bottle of plonk!”

The first comment really brought a key truth to light, and that is the crucial question of recognizing the greatness of South Africa’s best wines but also acknowledging that IF we are indeed making some of the most exciting wines in the world, as judged but international critics like Neal Martin, James Suckling, and Tim Atkin MW, surely it’s time international consumers also woke up to this fact and started to acknowledge that South Africa can no longer compete price-wise with the budget nations like Chile or Argentina, and nor should they even want to.

Chilean wine, while offering some delicious top-end offerings from the likes of Errazuriz and Clos Apalta and a few others, just does not possess any real noticeable collector value in the broader fine wine market. For South Africa to be pointed in the direction of Chilean wine merely confirms that our generic bodies are doing their job very well, instead of focusing on premium quality, individuality, regionality and the fact that NO!, South Africa cannot supply the cheap plonk international markets sometimes desire.

Ironically, in reality, neither can Chile, who are surely experiencing one of their greatest market oversupply challenges with the onset of the Coronavirus crisis but also because of the diminishing capacity of larger international brands to promote and sell their wines during the pandemic. Countries like China, Ireland and the USA to a lesser extent, have been the markets most capable of mopping up the excess wine, but with the current on-trade restrictions and a massive drop in consumption, Chilean wines look certain to take a massive knock along with other entry and mid-market Spanish and Italian brands that normally service the on-trade hotel, bar and café sectors.

Another comment to my column mentioned above followed in the same vein, pushing South African score inflation claims to the forefront again… “Most of the ratings I read from this website are on the very high side of the 90 pts. In fact, I don’t know anymore if they ever give a rating below 90 which I find very frustrating. I am still of the opinion that SA’s top wines don’t come close to the best from France, Italy, Spain, USA, or even Chile and New Zealand. So if an SA wine gets a 95 pts, what should be scored a Chateau Lafite or a Chateau Lynch Bages or a Sena or Clos Apalta from Chile or a Guado Al Tasso from Italy, or a Vega Sicilia from Spain? The difference in quality is immense. That’s why I choose to follow ratings of wine critics like James Suckling or Neal Martin, or Jeanie Lee Cho or Antonio Galloni. They are far more exposed to the best of worldwide wines and turn to be more severe in their scoring. Also a very straight question for you Greg. If Christian Eedes rates an Alheit wine at 95 or 98 what would you rate a Comte Lafond Meurseult Charmes, or a Dagueneau Silex or a Chave Hermitage Blanc (to name a few iconic whites)?” Where does one even start when trying to pick apart the assertions in this statement?

Quite simply, as a fine wine buyer, I taste some of the greatest wines internationally on a daily basis and the more I do so, the more I confirm in my own mind that South Africa’s best wines are easily built to match the best of the Old and other New World classics. However, the most encouraging example of this recognition surely comes from my top fine-wine clients, who contrary to the above opinion, regularly serve South Africa’s top producers’ reds and whites alongside other great fine wines from around the world with confidence. It might have initially required a few big critical scores to force South Africa’s foot in the door of the international collector’s cellar, but now these producers and their top wines are being recognized globally and the overwhelming response is that these wines do stand shoulder to shoulder with the world’s best. If you don’t think so, you obviously are not drinking enough of them in the correct context.

If South Africa, as a local industry, truly wants to claim to have moved past the issue of cultural cringe with regards to scoring South Africa’s top wines, then all that needs to be addressed is this perception held by some that “South African wine does not necessarily compare favorably to the other international icon wines”… even if it’s just on a national basis of comparing international scores. Which of course is the fall-back position of any journalist when accused of score inflation. “Well, let’s do a blind tasting with the top international wines up against South Africa and see what happens.”

Well, I have done it over and over and all that happens is one of two things… a) the top South African wines perform exceptionally well and often trounce the French Bordeaux, Rhône or Burgundy reds, or b) wine commentators score ALL the wines, including the internationally respected, 95-100 point international wines, much lower than when tasted sighted, in an attempt to validate score inflation in a South African context, when all they are actually pointing to is perhaps a wider phenomenon of global score inflation.

With 100 point scores being regularly dished out by critics to Chilean and Argentinian wines, not to mention the legions of perfect or near-perfect scores awarded to Australian wines annually, to continue to insist that score inflation is rampant among South African wines is plain and simply wrong. Needless to say, my war against the “fake news” of score inflation among South African wines will continue and I credit my best international clients for the encouragement to do so.

  • 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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  • Michael Rathbone28 August 2020

    I read Will Lyons article and more specifically the comments with the majority are positive towards South African wines and both the quality and value they represent. The big improvement is South African wines has been in this century and later than most other New World countries and so it is very much a marketing issue to get the message to consumers. I am in Ontario, Canada and our LCBO has just released the 2014 Almenkerk Syrah at C$17.95 which would be expensive in other markets but represents much better value for the quality than Syrahs from any other country and I have recommended it to my friends. I believe it may be a matter of time but ultimately South African wines will get the recognition they deserve.

    • Greg Sherwood MW28 August 2020

      It’s a double edged sword sadly. Once they do get the recognition they deserve, which they will and are already starting to, allocations of the top stuff will get tougher and tougher and prices will have to rise. Simple supply and demand. So my advice… drink and enjoy the top SA wine category now… because our kids may not be able to afford the wines one day. We are living in a golden age of quality with low prices.

  • Lisa Harlow27 August 2020

    Great article Greg, but you know my opinion! South Africa unfortunately still has an image to shake off and half the battle is actually getting people to remain unbiased and taste what’s in the glass, regardless of where it comes from

    • Kwispedoor27 August 2020

      Yes, it’s incredibly difficult to get past what you know if you taste sighted – who can remain unaffected if they know they have a first growth from a good vintage in their glass? Greg explained quite well what actually happens when SA’s best comes up against traditional world benchmarks in blind tastings, but most people don’t taste blind…

  • Bernard De Boer27 August 2020

    Mustn’t take the biased buyest too seriously

  • GillesP26 August 2020

    It seems to me that your are catering here on a South African wine website with an audience which is buyest All they want to hear and please them is that South African wines are the best or on par with the best of rest of the world. The likely reality is that 98% of the audience has not had exposure to the best of foreign wines to compare it with and develop a realistic opinion. Luckily we have a some importers like Great Domaines with a pocket of clients which have an educated palate for what the rest of the world is capable of producing and are very happy to purchase wines of quality they can’t get locally.

  • GillesP26 August 2020

    Hello Greg, thanks for quoting me in your article. I certainly feel honoured. I am no masters of wine and probably not tasting as many wine as you do on a daily basis, but spend many about 6 years drinking the best and the worst and the in between from all around the world. Still today while based in South Africa , I drink a great deal of South African wines and luckily enough some of the best French or Italy can offer. I won’t change my mind I’m saying that the best of the New World World comes from USA, Chile, New Zealand or even Argentina. (Not a fan of aussie wines) and that with very very few exceptions, the best of SA wines doesn’t match. I won’t even go back to comparison with the best of Bordeaux, burgundy, Rhone, Piemonte, Tuscany, ribera del duero, and a few more. Clearly we are on a difference of opinion or maybe buyest of our own country although I think I have made a point saying I am not only into top French wines.

  • Rioja26 August 2020

    cannot agree with you more. to those unbelievers – do the test : blindtaste

  • Mike Ratcliffe26 August 2020

    Solid article. A dose of reality.
    Score inflation doesn’t exist in the context of South African wines.

    • Greg Sherwood MW26 August 2020

      What’s fascinating is that you never see the Californian or Argentinian producers arguing internally within their industry about score inflation. They accept the big critical scores graciously… and celebrate.

      • Marcus Ford27 August 2020

        I could not agree more…. SA makes great wines and they need to be celebrated. If points and scores are a reflection of this then so be it, 25 years ago you could buy Australia’s top wines for 100US$ a bottle, now there are dozens who release at 300$ or more, SA is on a journey, lets make it a positive one! The wines stand up and let’s shout about that.

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