Greg Sherwood MW: Is it time for us to reassess our attitudes towards SA’s leading wine brands?
By Greg Sherwood, 9 December 2020
There are certain brands that really do transport you back to your childhood. Within a wine context, these brands will be different depending on where you grew up around the world. My English colleagues fondly recall long hot summers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with their parents roasting on sun loungers on the back garden lawn astride large ice buckets stacked with plenty of cold beer together with porcelain bottles of Black Tower from Germany or Lancers Vin Rose from Portugal. Admittedly, wine in this outdoor setting would have mostly been to cater for the lady folk, with men drinking warm bottles of ale, trendy bottles of chilled European lager or else dark spirits. This is perhaps one of the reasons so many people have such vivid memories of their first encounters with wine in their earthy youth as it tended to be quite a rarity even for affluent middle-class families.
Admittedly, the Iberian, Italian or Greek experience of wine in these early days will be vastly different from those of us who grew up in northwestern Europe. For the Mediterranean cultures, wine was and still is generally regarded as “alimentaria” or part of the food chain, where every meal is preferably accompanied by a hearty bottle of white or red wine and thus quality is sometimes less of a consideration compared to the wine’s “freshness”. Within the more Anglo-Saxon context, wine remained an alcoholic beverage for the landed gentry and upper classes right up until the late 1980s which is exactly when the New World brands started to assert their mass-market presence in the more traditional markets of Europe. With South Africa’s wine offering still justifiably hamstrung by its own personal winter of political and social discontent in the apartheid years of the 1970s and 1980s, room for wine brands to make headway internationally was greatly restricted to the likes of Nederburg and KWV.
For many international consumers as well as nostalgic South Africans, the KWV Roodeberg brand played a mythical part in the South African wine industry’s history. Often used in those early days as a spearhead for the broader “brand South Africa” message in international markets during the height of apartheid meant that it was not readily available in the home market and accordingly, became a bit of a rarefied unicorn red wine. Indeed, for the first 55 years, KWV Roodeberg was exclusively made for export after the Canadian market demand paved the way in the 1950s. Although not readily available locally in South Africa until 2004 without an acquaintance with a KWV quota, Roodeberg always enjoyed iconic status in the hearts and minds of most South Africans. So with the brand primarily focused on export markets, it did somehow seem to lose some of its mystique and allure when KWV finally chose to launch it as a brand in the local South African market. With resulting changes to its style and inevitably, its quality level, it faded slightly to become yet another historical brand of times gone by.
Within my own personal context, growing up around the world, I was exposed to some exceptional South African wines on a daily basis. Sadly, in these early days it was more in the labouring sense while serving the wines as a party waiter or barman whilst at university, and not as one of the privileged consumers. Nevertheless, I grew up around South Africa’s top wine brands produced and formed a strong association with some of the quality labels. KWV Roodeberg 1974, Nederburg Auction Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1974 or 1978 and of course, the wine that watered the proverbial diplomatic corps, the ubiquitous KWV Chenin Blanc. Being able to drink all of South Africa’s greatest treasures did make KWV’s commercial decline all the more disappointing for me during the noughties, with the brand’s equity most certainly being taken for granted along with the local and international markets’ consumer allegiance and loyalty to these iconic brands.
Fast forward to the dastardly COVID-19 era of 2020 and I was more than pleasantly surprised to be asked to review both a range of KWV The Mentors current releases (mostly 2017 vintages), but also participate in a separate Zoom tasting reviewing the new 2020/21 releases produced by KWV winemaker Izele Kwaaitjie van Blerk (including mostly 2018 reds and 2019 whites). Look, I am not going to lie to you. I had very low expectations in general as I had not tasted more than the odd back vintage of KWV fleetingly over the past 3 to 5 years and the decline of the iconic KWV brand still stuck somewhat in the back of my throat. But that is perhaps where COVID-19 and Zoom have changed the world in more ways than we initially expected. I have been both impressed and pleasantly surprised by the modern, forward looking, polished expressions produced by Izele and also the incredible consistency of not only quality but also winemaking style across the range and across the latest vintages. Tasting most of the 2017 and 2018 releases over one or two days, I found myself really falling for the seductive sweet fruited purity of the wines, however reluctantly. These were wines I wanted not to like, wines I wanted to be disappointed in, wines that I though would never reach the quality heights of the old greats of the icons from the 1970s and 1980s. But with all modesty, and in all truth, I am happy to admit I was wrong and also most pleasantly surprised by the blatant ambition, quality, vigour and intensity in the new KWV The Mentors range of wines.
Admittedly, these are wines that will retail in the UK in the £15 to £20+ per bottle price point (R300 to R400) so it could be argued that they are merely meeting their expected quality level. Or else perhaps it is just me that has allowed myself to cast off preconceived expectations and disappointments of years gone by. Much is written about the need for South Africa’s greater wine industry to step up to the plate and come up with a premium quality international range of wine brands produced with consistency, accessibility and at affordable price points in volume. If this is what KWV is capable of with their Mentors range, I see no reason why their wines can’t carry the wine industry flag forward once again for South Africa in the International market place, this time without the hamstring of political dogma or the baggage of apartheid hanging over the brands potential development and promotion.
- 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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