Greg Sherwood MW: Access to only the best SA wine is over

By , 22 September 2021

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Its been an interesting past couple of weeks in the wine trade. As I sit sipping on a recently released bottle of Le Riche Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2018, I read with great interest the final thoughts and sentiments of the judges involved in selecting the Platter’s 5 Star wines for 2022 edition. These will  be the next big set of results to tantalise and tease the wine industry, but in the meantime, wineries, exporters, importers and wine agents globally are all still reflecting on the plethora of 95+ point scores bestowed by Tim Atkin MW in his latest South Africa Special Report. Once again, quality is stand-out and icon producers such as Eben Sadie, Chris Alheit, David & Nadia and Reenen Borman have stolen the limelight, and rightly so, with their truly spectacular  red and white wines.

Not necessarily one known for going large on Cape Bordeaux Red Blend scores (Paul Sauer 2015 aside), it was, for me at least, refreshing to see Atkin waxing lyrical about so many of South Africa’s wines in this category like Thelema Rabelais 2019 (98 points), Glenelly Lady May 2017 (97), Miles Mossop Sam 2018 (971, Taaibosch Crescendo 2018 (97) and Stark Conde Oude Nektar 2018 (97). Undoubtedly, recognition where recognition is due. I’ll be the first to put my hand up and point the finger at some reviews, including in this publication, which I feel just simply do not reflect the quality of the juice inside the bottle. It has perhaps always been easier to dish out 95+ point scores safely to Chenin Blancs and Syrahs knowing that there are very few producers outside of the Loire for Chenin Blanc and the Northern Rhone for Syrah, that can produce the quality regularly seen coming out of South African nowadays. (OK, yes, the Aussies make some decent Shiraz but after the latest rugby results, they don’t need any more airtime!)

The yardsticks are clear and established globally when it comes to rating Bordeaux red blends and with Bordeaux having a complete monopoly on the top critical scores, perhaps it is understandable that relative outsiders from South Africa will tend to be judged with a far more critical, circumspect eye. But as someone who tastes Bordeaux En-primeur  releases every year, I certainly have no hesitancy in proclaiming the greatness of both South African Cabernet Sauvignon and of course the wonders of the finest Cape Bordeaux Red Blends. These have always been the wines driving forward the South African fine wine category internationally long before the likes of Sadie and Alheit existed, and these wines certainly now stand as some of the greatest bargains available on the global fine wine marketplace. But for how much longer? They just have it all… sublime quality, complexity, freshness, structure, classical restraint even in riper years, and above all, age-ability – an attribute without which no fine wine can ever truly reach higher levels of greatness and widespread global collectability.

But where would all the critics and critical publications be with out consumers. Though having said that, I did get myself into a difficult situation when I commented on Twitter: “Call me mean, but it’s probably fair to point out that if you aren’t already a client of @HandfordWines, please don’t email me asking for all @timatkin’s 98 to 100 point wines. The era of cherry picking even South African icons is long over! Thank you.” A  fair comment I thought with just a hint of flippant sarcasm in the undertone. But boy did it generate a lot of debate… much of it polite, coherent and poignant on reflection.

But seriously, how are we as wine merchants, sandwiched between ever decreasing allocations in an ever-growing global fine wine marketplace supposed to equitably allocate finite stocks to our clientele. As one keen commentator pointed out: “Critical scores are still relevant and probably one of the best ways to build brand equity for fine wines.” This is true, but I also contended that this is  why the age of the fine wine cherry picker is over. Build a relationship with one of more top merchants and buy your everyday drinking wines from them, support them and they’ll support you at new release allocation time. That’s not unreasonable really.” The quandary remains that trying to be equitable and offering your loyal  customers first pick on allocations makes it more difficult for less wealthy / less engaged people to ever access the Sadies and Alheits of the world “which is essential to build one’s palate”. Undoubtedly a vicious circle where only the engaged and already wealthy customers can access all the great wine releases.

But I do have another take on the situation. Spending £20 buying Tim Atkin’s tome does not automatically buy you access to the greatest wines produced in South Africa. At the very best, it may merely illuminate the wines you should have been following all along. Life is never going to be easy for late starters and as we always say in the wine trade, once a wine starts to be highly rated, it is probably already too late to secure an allocation anyway! I also argue strongly that keen drinkers who are perhaps less engaged and slightly less interested wine consumers do not necessarily need to be drinking 98-100 point wines especially if there is no corresponding context of quality or collectability / rarity / or unicorn relevance for them to start with?

Wine is a journey into pleasure. Very few of us ever get to commence our journey by drinking Bordeaux first growths, Romanee-Conti Burgundies or the finest sparkling wines from Champagne, but if we are very, very lucky, some of us might end our careers having had more than a few opportunities to indulge in a few bottles of some of the world’s greatest icon producers. In the meantime, be an explorer and seek out the affordable future icons to drink now before they too become impossibly allocated and unobtainable.

  • 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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  • dave ingram30 September 2021

    Many of the rich people drinking the exclusive 98- 100s probably could not tell the difference to a bottle of tall horse unfortunately.

  • BvR22 September 2021

    I agree with you here Greg and I can’t see how the Twittersphere could suggest it is your responsibility (with your merchant hat on) to provide access to these 98+ wines to Joe Public. The fact that they knew about the ratings and the swiftness of their outreach would suggest that they are very much in the know and already consume SA fine wine (you don’t need to be wealthy in London to consume the finest SA has to offer). So they are not really Joe Public to start with and even if they were it sounds incredible to suggest it is your moral responsibility to keep a few fine things under the mattress for when a stranger comes knocking.

    • Greg Sherwood MW23 September 2021

      Thanks Ben. As a merchant, we try and reward the customers who invest in us as a business by buying the bulk of their wine requirements from us. People who “whore around the market place” inevitably find out that they are not valued and eventually struggle to get the allocations of the wines they want. Cherry pickers as we call them.

      But our job as merchants gets harder every year as more and more people start to chase an ever decreasing group of international wines, and I include SA’s top wines in this senario. Allocating is always a tricky business and this year, some wines will be shared by the individual bottle, not case, as quantities are so small. We just hope customers are understanding that we just want to share the love to as many loyal customers as possible.

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