Greg Sherwood MW: South Africa’s sweet wines reconsidered
By Greg Sherwood, 30 October 2023
In the current modern era of the fine wine market, most classical wine categories and regions have been riding high amidst burgeoning global market demand for almost all styles of fine wine, from Bordeaux to Burgundy, Barolo to Brunello, and California to Coonawarra. Even South Africa’s most popular and proven quality categories like single vineyard old vine Chenin Blancs, White Blends, top Rhône-style Syrahs and classically formed Cape Bordeaux Blends from Stellenbosch have a newfound resonance and demand in the international collector and connoisseur market space. But of course, there is always someone that misses their alarm clock and wakes up late only to miss the school bus. In this fine wine scenario, it appears to be the sweet wine styles.
From Sauternes to Barsac, vintage Ports to Tawnies, Noble Late Harvest Rieslings to Straw Wines, all of these wine styles have found themselves victims of the new no-sugar / low-sugar mantra that modern wine drinkers seem to be adopting. Sugar is portrayed as being the ultimate evil, whether it’s in your Coca Cola or in your Yquem. With the entire wine industry already starting to wade through the ever-deepening swamps of the anti-alcohol lobby, the sweet wine category appears to represent a short-term concession the wider wine industry seems willing to concede and forgo in order to buy more time to convert the next generation of wine drinkers out there. The big problem is that ultimately, these sweeter wine categories in essence represent the true heart and soul of many historical wine industries around the world, underpinning tradition, quality, evolution as well as longevity. Can we in the industry afford to turn a blind eye while this important category is hunted into extinction? Surely not.
This past week I accepted an invitation to what was described by many as “a once-in-a-lifetime sweet wine tasting” featuring 18 wines across different styles. If you haven’t guessed it already, the tasting line-up in London included only South Africa’s finest sweet and dessert style wines, covering Noble Late Harvest Rieslings, Vin de Constance Muscats, Botrytis Semillon and Chenin Blancs, Straw Wines, Tokaij-style Essencia Straw Wines, Vintage Muscadels and a token limited Release Vintage Port. An incredibly impressive lineup of wines which wouldn’t have stood any taller even if the wines had been sourced from all the world’s greatest wine regions.
Carefully curated, the lineup of 18 wines was made up of four flights, and just to add the cherry on top of the cake, the whole tasting was expertly tutored by special guest Andrea Mullineux of Mullineux and Leeu Family Wines based in the Swartland and the Franschhoek Valley. A passionate proponent of South African sweet wines, few winemakers can offer the knowledge and expertise that Andrea has acquired over 15+ years of producing Straw Wines in the Swartland. Though, it should be noted that this was not a Mullineux Winery comparative tasting in any way but a privately organised event.
Wine #1 – Paul Cluver Late Harvest Riesling 2020
Always considered one of the finest botrytis Riesling creations in the Cape, but sadly not produced every vintage, this beautifully poised 2020 showed all the classical allure of the grape with layers of sweet white peach, passionfruit and honied grapefruit. Notably sweet but with a very fine balancing acidity that makes one sip beckon the next. Really excellent. (95+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Wine #2 – Keermont Fleurfontein Sauvignon Blanc 2019
Known for their plush bold reds, Alex Starey has expertly fashioned a beautiful dessert style wine from Sauvignon Blanc that shows a wonderfully cool, classical elegance with a very finely knit texture and complex layers of pear puree, yellow orchard fruits and ripe quince. But it’s the seamless balance and purity that steals the show. Delicious. (96/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Wine #3 – Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2016
A wine that needs no introduction, this 2016 is one of the standout vintages of the past few years with a 164g/l RS and a 14.2% alcohol, all in perfect balance and symmetry. The aromatics are wonderfully floral and fragrant with a melange of yellow orchard fruits and confected white citrus all wrapped up with an impressive freshness and harmonious, seamless balance with an exotic, spicy finish. A class act. (96+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Wine #4 – Delheim Edelspatz Noble Late Harvest Botrytis Riesling 2020
Another classy Riesling expression, this wine shows more riper nuances with real intensity on the candied aromatics as well as a fuller, riper, more unctuous palate with sweet honeyed peaches, some savoury pithy citrus notes and a slightly more imposing finish. (93/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Wine #5 – Boekenhoutskloof Noble Late Harvest Semillon 2019
One of the classic sweet wines of the Cape that in a good year can be a dead ringer for a top Sauternes from Bordeaux. This Semillon was showing a little flatter on the palate and a little creamier than I remember previously with some moderate oxidative waxy nuances, hints of lanolin, lemon oil and a plush glycerol finish with very soft acids. (94/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Wine #6 – Miles Mossop Kika 2020
Miles certainly is a dab hand when it comes to sweet wines, and his child who this is named after can certainly feel proud that he is making one of the finest dessert style wines in the Cape. This Noble Late Harvest Chenin Blanc is deliciously complex and packed full or crystalised fennel root, savoury yellow fruits and subtle sweaty notes, with a beautiful balance and real textural elegance. True class. (96+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Wine #7 – De Trafford Chenin Blanc Straw Wine 2017
One of the very first pioneers to put Straw Wine on the map in South Africa, David has created a beautiful Chenin Blanc sweet wine with 230 g/l RS at a 13.5% alcohol level. Showing a little more tertiary complexity, the wine is packed full of toffee apples, dried peaches, creamy yellow fruits and a seductively long, tangy finish that displays superb balance. A masterful creation. (96+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Wine #8 – Alheit Vineyards Lost and Found Muscat Straw Wine 2019
Another well documented wine that Chris Alheit finally got right on his third attempt. Made from dried Muscat grapes harvested from vines planted in around 1882 (but registered in 1900). Needless to say, this wine will live forever in homage with its 450g/l RS and 8.5 TA at only 7.2% alcohol. Rich, exotic and intense, this wine is sweet but balanced with layers of barley sugar candy, burnt caramelized sugar and rich tarte tatin naunces. A simply stunning wine. Liquid history in a bottle. (98/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Wine #9 – Savage Not Tonight Josephine Chenin Blanc Straw Wine 2020
Another fine Straw Wine creation from Duncan Savage with plenty of intensity, freshness and detail. The aromatics are lifted and perfumed with notes of guava roll and dried apricots with a long, soft delicately elegant tangy finish. (96+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Wine #10 – Mullineux Chenin Blanc Straw Wine 2020
This classy Straw Wine from Mullineux is pure and intense with 310g/l RS and boasts complex layers of salted toffee, apricot and dried peach. The palate is plush and full, luxuriously rich and creamy with a saline passionfruit and apple strudel finish. Another benchmark Straw Wine from the Swartland. (96/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Wine #11 – Mullineux Olerasay No.3 Solera Straw Wine (2008 to 2021)
The aromatics are complex and slightly dusty with crushed granite, mint leaf, dried herbs, toffee apple and passion fruit. Beautiful and cool, creamy with real freshness, precision and poise. A real wow wine! (100/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Wine #12 – Mullineux Olerasay No.2 Solera Straw Wine (2008 to 2019)
A rich complex creation with some more overt savoury oxidative caramelized notes, lemon cordial, lime peel, passionfruit before a sweeter, more unctuous, creamy plush palate that’s very fine indeed but fractionally less complex overall than the No.3 edition. (99/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Wine #13 – Mullineux Olerasay No. 1 Solera Straw Wine (2008 to 2014)
A wine that is evolving beautifully in bottle to show toffee apple, dried apple, apple strudel pastries, and a dense, creamy mid-palate concentration with sweet tangy acids, salted toffee and a long, elegant complex finish. Simply delicious to drink now but no rush whatsoever. (98/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Wine #14 – Mullineux Essence 2012
A wine that took six years to stop fermenting and still only sits at 5% alcohol in a true homage to the crazy sweet Tokaji Essencia wines of Hungry. The nose shows overt almost Muscat-styled notes of flowers, peach fruits and orange blossom. At 620g/l RS the palate is hedonistically sweet and you don’t need much more than a small glass of this to savour its intense, rich, soft and supple palate that has a wonderfully light touch and a creamy, weightless silky finish. (96+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Wine #15 – Mullineux Essence 2020
This new edition of the Mullineux Essence took only 2 and a half years to ferment to 5% alcohol with an RS of 605g/l. The palate is more youthful and shows notes of dried herbs, granitic spice and quince skins. Beautifully sweet and cool in the mouth, like the 2012 edition, this wine is incredibly soft and creamy, with a silky density and a mouth coating complexity. Another exceptional sweet wine to savour. (96+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Wine #16 – Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2007
A little sweeter than the previous 2016 tasted at 177g/l RS, 8 TA and 14% alcohol, this 2007 comes from a hot dry year and the Muscat de Frontignan is lifted, heady and sweet scented with plenty of exotic spices, apricot, peach puree, orange peel and a saline, bitter orange edge on the palate that finishes dry and spicy. Showing impressive density and complexity though I would argue that these older vintages don’t quite have the precision and freshness of the newer generation of Vin de Constance. Delicious nevertheless. (95/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Wine #17 – Charles et Charles Superior Vintage Muscadel 1974
A tertiary oxidative aromatic profile with acetic hints, notes of vinyl, earthy sweet fruits and a touch of wood spice on the finish. Possible hint of cork? (87/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Wine #18 – KWV Limited Release Vintage Port 1967
Made from Tinta Barroca, Tinta Franca and Touriga Nacional, the aromatics display a complex array of cheese rag, diesel oil, quince jelly, and sweet caramelized orange peel with hints of toffee, sweet oak spice and a classically nutty, spicy, tawny Port dried fruit finish. Unctuous, dense and fairly robust still but slightly spirity on the finish. (90/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Undoubtedly, an astonishing selection of premium quality sweet wines that shone brightly across all the varied winemaking styles with only the two older examples disappointing somewhat. While South Africa has long been acknowledged as a world leader in the category of sweet dessert-style wines, much of this expertise and knowledge must surely be attributed to the rich history and heritage of sweet winemaking traditions in the Cape that date back to the late 1700s and early 1800s when sweet Constantia ruled the fine wine world. This is a rich, intricate history and heritage that must be nurtured and protected. Certainly, much of the commentary both during and after the tasting centred on how not only South Africa, but all sweet wine regions around the world could reinvigorate this precious category not only among current wine collectors and connoisseurs but also for the next generation of wine drinkers.
Some successes have been achieved in the past few years but there is much more work that needs to be done. The producer focus on the niche quality of products is always paramount because if there is going to be an early casualty in the sweet wine battle, by necessity it will probably have to be the more mass produced, lower quality, generic creations that certainly do hark back to a bygone era of more voluminous sweet wine consumption that no longer exists. With focused quality production has come better packing and presentation as well as smaller units of delivery, with 37.5cl bottles leading the way in the less is more approach to selling dessert style wines. Another clear part of the successful premiumisation of sweet wines has been the introduction of many more limited-edition aged vintage wines, as is the case for Vintage Ports, Tawny Ports, sweet vintaged Sherries and Muscadels, but also more desirable prestige cuvees such as the inspired creations of the Mullineux Olerasay solera-style Straw Wines and their Tokaij Essencia-styled Essence Cuvee.
Whatever the solutions are to cultivate a renewed interest in sweet dessert style wines, one of the most important aspects surely has to be creating more appropriate occasions where these delicious bottles can be opened. It worked for the Champagne industry, so why not for the sweet wine category as well? If we are all being called on to drink better but also drink less, perhaps the evening should begin with an appetite stimulating glass of sweet wine when our palates are eager, rather than ending an evening with the stereotypical sweet wine with dessert or Port night cap when our palates are already fatigued. Time for a rethink?
- Greg Sherwood was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and as the son of a career diplomat, spent his first 21 years traveling 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, working his way up to the position of Senior Wine Buyer. Earlier this year, he moved across to South African specialist merchant Museum Wines to become the Fine Wine Director. He qualified as a Master of Wine in 2007.
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