Greg Sherwood MW: The acceleration of wines carrying icon status

By , 4 May 2023



The wines of Jura producer Domaine Jean-François Ganevat – soon to be completely out of reach?

There are several evocative wine topics perpetually floating around out there in the ethernet, that if a fellow columnist or indeed myself touches upon, is sure to ignite some high-octane commentary and heated debate.

Some of the topics may touch a more sensitive nerve with one group of readers more so than another, but usually, anyone sensible can recognize the potential for a certain amount of incendiary reaction. Hence I am always cautious when asked to nail my colours to the mast about certain topics like the absolutes of scoring in wine, politics in wine, the pricing of wine, equality in wine, etc. But Tim James’s recent column, Wine as a luxury product, elicited some very interesting commentary on several diverse channels, which I feel shouldn’t be just swept under the carpet.

Of course, Tim’s piece discussed a topic that always gets a lot of long suffering and devoted wine drinkers hot under the collar – namely the ongoing movement or momentum turning a much loved, everyday enjoyed, consumable product of wine into a global measure of wealth, position and status.

For me, as someone who has worked in the fine wine trade for the past 25 plus years, it is, I must say, not a topic that gets me particularly hot under the collar as I feel I tend to equate the drinking (or generally the broader consumption) of any global icon brand, be it jewellery, sports cars or fine wine, as something that will always shift ever faster into the realm of the global wealthy elite.

There is no grand conspiracy, and it isn’t engineered intentionally by unseen puppet masters. Limited supply, rising global demand from an ever-growing international social class of wealthy individuals ensures that certain products across a broad luxury spectrum, including fine wine, will slowly but surely become ever more unaffordable to the broader group of early adopters who were once able to enjoy the pleasures of these products. Unless you engineer your business model to be closer to the socially inclusive IKEA ‘accessible and affordable quality for all’ philosophy, all luxury products have the potential to become eventually unaffordable to many previous consumers, and more often than not, they do!

But actually, I am not here to commiserate with the drinkers who can no longer afford their weekly bottle of Chateau d’Yquem, or even here to offer the Burgundy drinkers on their last bottle of Domaine de la Romanée Conti bought in the late 1970s or early 1980s a hanky to mop up their tears. These products are global benchmarks that have long been out the of reach of your everyday consumer (internationally!) however enthusiastic, in the same way that Patek Philippe watches and Ferrari sports cars have been for a long time. And in any case, if you want some more Romanée-Conti, I am sure Mr Derek Kilpin at Great Domaines in Johannesburg will find you some… but just be prepared to get your platinum credit card out.

 Interestingly, as and when this debate or discussion periodically arises on social media, I get quite irate that wine always gets singled out as the main culprit and is always used as the case in point. I suppose maybe there are more people out there with the remnants of cellars they or their parents / grand parents bought with valuable bottles in them than there are people with vintage Ferraris in their garages. But funnily enough, property seems to be exempt. The grand house in Houghton or Bryanston that was bought for R30 000 or R40 000 in the 1970s never seems to come into the equation. The young middle class professional living in his small townhouse in Mid-Rand does not seem to lament that he can no longer afford a R20- or R30-million rand house in the posh suburbs. Of course not!

 Tim James’s points are of course all valid and certainly resonate with many drinkers of a certain age. But one of the unexpected splinter threads that spilled over from Tim’s initial article primarily on to Twitter, was certainly much more interesting and relevant to me. One well known social media blogger and commentator (not Jamie Goode!) started running with an off-shoot thread inspired by Tim’s article, but which actually touched a lot more younger and current drinkers than perhaps the Michael Fridjohns of this world. Fintan Kerr or @Wine_Cuentista on Twitter, documented the phenomenon of how the growth in pricing of fairly modest names had gathered pace considerably in the past few years – see here. I have tried to put a label on this trend but the best I could come up with was “icon acceleration” as a label for the phenomenon.

In essence, seemingly once modestly priced wines that have become more and more recognised as being very well made in a desirable style or category, but also made in relatively limited quantities, regardless of if they are produced in Cru Beaujolais (Foillard), St Joseph (Gonon), Burgundy (Bonin), South Africa (Sadie et al.), Australia (Sorrenberg), Loire (Richard Leroy) or the Jura (Ganevat)… the market seems to have gone mental and within the space of one or two years, with these wines now being catalogued on Wine-searcher at prices 10 or 20 times their initial release levels. Yes, within only a year to eighteen months! This phenomenon is vastly different to the sob stories of Burgundy drinkers who once bought Rousseau, DRC or Roumier for small amounts or Bordeaux drinkers who enjoyed first growth claret over Sunday lunch up until the early noughties. That price evolution was more akin to continental drift, whereas the latest wine brand inflation is more similar to panic buying after an earthquake.

I am sure someone will come up with a more accurate and pertinent economic moniker for this worrying new trend, but this “icon acceleration” phenomenon really does change the whole fine wine market like we have not seen for decades. No one single small quality brand is safe from its reach and unintended consequences. The seismic activity can change the landscape within one or two vintages, not one or two decades like in times gone by, and to be honest, I have not really given the matter enough thought to make a decisive pronouncement on its root causes and likely end results.

What is certain is that there are a lot of modest collectors who have built up medium to large cellar collections with ONLY the view to drink the wines that will now be affected by this trend and they will be put in a position where they will have to decide whether they are prepared to drink the bottles they paid £20 or £30 pounds each for or whether they contemplate selling them at £300 to £400-plus per bottle on the open market. For some passionate drinkers, this is the ultimate nightmare.

  • 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.


4 comment(s)

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    Wessel Strydom | 15 May 2023

    Maybe a bit off the topic but I opened the following wines this weekend and decanted them for 3 hours:
    2018 Feudi Do San Gregorio Primitivo
    2018 Chateau Puygueraud
    2018 Conceito Douro Tinta
    2017 Herederos Marqoues de Riscal Rioja Reserve
    2017 Uva Mira Cab
    All wines was tasted blind and I suppose because we are not used to good European wines, varieties and style the UVA Mira came out tops.
    Must admit though that the Portugese Conceito Douro was quite brilliant as was the Chateau Puygueraud. The other two wines was quite disappointing to say the least…

      James Bosenberg | 19 May 2023

      When you decant, do you leave the wine in a normal room or do you keep it in a temperature controlled room or wine fridge? I’ve always wondered about decanting wine for a long period, especially whites, and how that works.

    David K | 8 May 2023

    Thanks again Greg for your insight. Your analogies are very valid. And I often make a similar one regarding Ferrari – in my case Ferrari and Corvette, or Rolex and Seiko. They both do the same thing, and many will argue that the cheaper version does it even better (and at a much more modest price). And then the other side will argue that a Corvette will never have the history and pedigree of a Ferrari. And of course, both arguments will have merit.

    I think we all come to the party, or fight (depending on one’s perspective), from different angles. For example, my perspective to buying SA or French wine will be quite different to someone buying the same product who is based in SA – for clarity, I have lived in Japan since the ‘90s. So, SA wine will be a lot more expensive for me than for my mates in SA. I will therefore compare it directly with a bottle of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone etc. and buy accordingly. And I can tell you that I buy a lot more French wine than I do SA wine. A bottle of good Tavel or even Pouilly-Fume will cost less than a bottle of good SA rose or Sauv. Blanc here in Japan. I imagine this might surprise many in SA.

    But getting to the core of your article regarding inevitable and obscene price increases for luxury or outstanding goods – I won’t even pretend to have an answer. Other than reminding us that supply and demand will dictate free market prices. Barring another French Revolution type event, I think we are stuck with it for now. But I also think the bubble will pop. And in the meantime, it is up to us “mere mortals” to find the affordable gems that are most definitely out there. And not only find them but enjoy them properly.

    Tom at Radford Dale Imports | 4 May 2023

    Forgive the plug.

    There’s a real buzz around Beaujolais, which remains a category of French wine offering up great value to style relative. We’re starting to see this view gathering a pace here in SA.

    Good villages is available here at circa R280. Cru from a host of independent domaine in their area of specialty between R350 – R550… less than a generic Bourgogne pinot.

    We’ll see where the ’21 intake of Foillard Morgon Cote du Py comes in at. The increases overseas are concerning.

    For now, we have stock of 2020 sitting pretty at R676.

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