Greg Sherwood MW: Big brand clout – can South Africa join the international party?

By , 24 March 2021

Domaine de Chevalier 2016. Total production: 100 000 bottles. Approximate retail price: £60 a bottle.

One of my last trips to France pre-lockdown was an inspired long weekend excursion in late July to Bordeaux just before the annual French summer holiday shutdown began, to meet up with a very good friend who is the sales director for a group of privately owned premium chateaux that sell directly to merchants thus circumventing the traditional en-primeur/negociant system where courtiers and middlemen effectively negotiate and buy part of your annual production and then mysteriously market and sell it around the world to nameless end-clientele that the chateaux normally never get to meet themselves. This trip had been a long time in the planning and with a small window of free time finally presenting itself, this was indeed the perfect moment to pay a few good producers a visit.

Between the chateaux visits, we had several informal lunches and dinners planned, all of which required us to bring some interesting bottles to drink. Not being able to transport any wines over in my own carry-on hand luggage, I was placed at a major disadvantage when it came to the choice of my fine wine offerings. Enter my friend Anthony, and hey presto, a swift trip to one of his favourite fine wine merchants near Bordeaux had been arranged. Like a bookworm in an antique reference library, I am, to my wife’s eternal despair, capable of spending virtually a lifetime browsing in an extensive range of wines in a decent foreign fine wine shop.

With an incredible selection of fine wines on display, including many of Bordeaux’s greatest creations, I was momentarily transfixed by the choice of grands vins on sale from all of the most sought-after big-name Bordeaux chateaux on the left and right banks. But it was probably at this point that I realised that the prices were somewhat out of my price range, or indeed, downright fanciful… as if they were expecting a busload of Chinese “brand hunting” wine tourist to suddenly descend upon their shop and hoover up the shelves of all their local icon brands of note… and at the going rate! One thing that is certain is that the locals definitely don’t buy these bottles.

In the end, I defied the odds and did not do as the Romans do when in Rome. Instead, I browsed extensively and was drawn in hook, line and sinker to a selection of Eben Sadie Old Vine Series wines on the small “foreign shelf”, that included their last bottle of 2015 Skurfberg Chenin Blanc at a meagre €35 Euros per bottle. I should add that when I say it was their last bottle… it was indeed the last bottle of 2015, with another 10 to 12 bottles of Skurfberg 2016 waiting in reserve to take their rightful place on the shelf. With an exciting white wine secured, I followed my other tried and tested, water-tight rule when purchasing wines in France, namely, to never buy a premium bottle retail that is produced in the region you are actually in. As we all know, regional wine nationalism in France dictates that you should never be seen drinking Bordeaux in Burgundy or Loire reds in the Rhône. The South African mantra “local is lekker” most definitely rules the waves. Instead, I proceeded to eagle-eye the small but interesting Rhône selection and ended up snaffling what turned out to be one of only six bottles of this retailer’s allocation of Rene Rostaing’s super-rare lieu dits ‘La Viaillere’ Côte Rôtie 2016 for bargain price of €95 Euros.

The subsequent balmy summers evening braai in the Entre-deux-Mers that night was indeed an exercise in bliss with my carefully selected wines being incredibly well received. The Sadie Skurfberg 2015 made for a rich, textured, tantalising fine wine mouthful that left many of the Frenchmen in awe, while the Rene Rostaing Côte Rôtie with barbequed steaks was a match made in heaven. But it must be said, that while I browsed the shelves of this large French fine wine merchant, it did occur to me that however incredible and exciting it was to encounter iconic South African greats like Eben Sadie’s Old Vine Series Skurfberg, it would have been equally fulfilling to see a larger core of premium South African volume brands occupying prime position on the “international” wine shelf.

The perennial question of why South Africa can’t (or won’t) produce a large production fine wine brand continues to populate the social media airwaves. As my experience in Bordeaux clearly showed me, and as many discussions with international consumers reaffirm, South Africa has a golden path open in front of it with untold rewards and riches awaiting the producer(s) that succeed in unlocking the correct combination of large scalable wine quality, well managed international distribution, with attractive, timeless, authentic packaging that is presented at a not-too-inaccessible luxury price point. This could possibly be just what brand South Africa needs to take it to the next level of serious global success.

  • 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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