Greg Sherwood MW: The eight factors determining wine brand appeal

By , 27 October 2021

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Top-quality Cab from Simonsberg, Stellenbosch.

With Autumn well and truly in the air and the onset of winter just around the corner here in the UK, the wine industry is gearing up for another very busy Christmas with most customers foregoing any notions of a foreign holiday somewhere in the sun whilst instead deciding to hunker down for a good old Christmas of excess at home in Blighty. This ongoing ‘staycationing’ trend has served to lump more and more pressure on food and wine supply chains across the UK as the wider market creaks and strains under the perfect storm of HGV haulage driver shortages, global container shortages, post-Brexit Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs chaos at UK ports and general warehousing and freight forwarding staff shortages. I think it’s safe to say we can temporarily declare the J.I.T. (just in time) distribution model well and truly in a deep coma on life support.

The logistics chaos has of course also been compounded by some of the most significant wine shortages witnessed in the past 20-plus years as markets across Europe have opened up all at once after 18 months of sporadic lockdown restrictions. Top of the ‘worry list’ for any wine buyer at the moment has to be the total drought of top branded Grandes Marques Champagnes which seem to have effectively run out two months before Christmas as merchants started to panic buy after the summer in an attempt to alleviate the extended shipping times that have seen importing a pallet of Champagne from France jump from two or three weeks to nine or ten weeks or more. Oh, and then of course you have the great New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc shortage at one of its traditional peak demand times of year after the 2021 harvest recorded a -19% drop in production on 2020, with a total of 370,000 tons of grapes harvested.

Invariably, in our interlinked global economy, one country’s crisis becomes another country’s opportunity and certainly South African Sauvignon Blanc producers and their importers have been fairly quick off the mark to meet the shortfall presented by the New Zealand supply shortages. Thankfully, also, the wine gods have been kind to many South African producers with both 2020 and 2021 offering up some exceptional wines in terms of quality and quantity. The secret to success for many SA exporters has, of course, been being able to successfully find container space to export their high demand wines timeously.

But logistical challenges have certainly not all translated into bad news. Historically, in the fine wine trade, most of the UK’s new allocations of all the top, blue-chip South African producers have tended to land at warehouses all at the same time in the middle of July and August when the general retail trade was traditionally very quiet and certainly most consumers were away on holiday creating incredible pressures on cashflow. Challenging logistics however have seen a far more interspersed, genteel pace of new arrivals allowing fine wine merchants more time to offer their top private clients the new releases from Chris Alheit, Duncan Savage, Kanonkop,  Lukas Van Loggerenberg, David & Nadia, Donovan Rall, MR de Compostella, Porseleinberg, Naudé Wines, Mullineux Wines, Sakkie Mouton, Sam Lambson and other highly sought-after producers in an altogether more coherent and value-added manner where their individual stories became the unique selling points and critical scores a more secondary factor. If you are wondering why I didn’t mention Eben Sadie, well, that’s because we will be lucky to offer his new 2020 releases before Christmas this year due to shipping delays, certainly his latest UK offering on record!

While merchants complain about their delayed allocations, there is no doubt in my mind that this slower pace of sales has forced a more considered and less frenzied sales approach allowing for more merchants to focus on the aspects that make these producers’ wines truly compelling propositions. Over the past summer, I sat down with some leading fine wine PR agents and using many of their own parameters, came up with a short list of eight defining factors that were seen as the most important today when considering how compelling a producer is in the modern fine wine market. The only thing that was not agreed upon was the relevant order of importance of each of these below factors.

1. Wine quality – Synonymous with all fine wine brands. Surely a wine cannot crack it in the top echelons of global collectors without possessing exceptional quality and something of a wow factor?

2. Unique story – Undoubtedly, this has been one of the South African wine industry’s strongest jokers in the pack. Fine wine consumers have become very circumspect of producers’ background stories and broader brand narratives that seem contrived and manufactured by marketing departments. Authenticity has won South Africa’s producers a lot of friends around the world.

3. Charisma of key people – I would never suggest that South Africa’s wonderfully colourful wine industry did not have charismatic wine individuals before the maverick young guns burst onto the global fine wine scene, but they certainly redefined its importance in selling their wine brands internationally.

4. Trade buzz – There is a bit of chicken and egg when it comes to this one but certainly without a trade buzz, there is no hype, and without hype, there is no clamour to secure new allocations vintage after vintage.

5. Terroir – This factor is inherently tied to a wine’s quality, its unique story and certainly to a degree of trade buzz. Also, a vineyards location and broader terroir features will undoubtedly influence the cost of a fine wine. A wine made from the unique Skurfberg vineyards will be automatically compelling, whether it’s an old vine Chenin Blanc from Chris Alheit or a Sauvignon Blanc from John Seccombe of Thorne & Daughters.

6. Price – Whether a wine is launched at a high price and is required to prove its worth to consumers over time or starts out more affordable but then appreciates in price organically as demand and collectability grows, price will always remain a key feature in the general make up of a fine wine. However, in South Africa’s unique circumstances, it is generally agreed internationally that our finest wines currently represent some of the best value for money (quality relative to price) on the market.

7. Consumer demand – Like trade buzz, there is an element of a causality dilemma at play when examining consumer demand. Inevitably, certain factors must come together to create consumer demand initially, whether quality, finite supply, critical scores or trade buzz. But once a wine passes a certain tipping point, mere consumer demand itself, regardless of what it was originally based on, can make a wine even more compelling to the market.

8. Social media / online presence – Call it the rise of the Instagram winemaking generation or just simply being media savvy, a well-managed brand strategy through multiple social media channels can help build brand equity, convey a wine’s unique story and create greater international consumer demand.

For what it’s worth, the Oxford dictionary defines the adjective compelling as evoking interest, attention, or admiration in a powerfully irresistible way. Also enthralling, captivating and gripping. I’d say that pretty much describes the current South African fine wine offerings from our top producers with pinpoint accuracy!

  • 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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  • Angela Lloyd28 October 2021

    Greg, maybe consistency was implied alongside quality in your first defining factor but I’m sure you’d agree those producers you mention (I’d add Restless River to the list!) wouldn’t have such appeal if their wines weren’t consistent or better quality every year.

    • Greg+Sherwood+MW28 October 2021

      Yes Angela, the quality headline would cover consistency. In reality, South Africa’s top wines – and my small list was not supposed to be complete or exhaustive, merely representative of just some of the allocations that normally arrive all at once – are indeed getting better every year not merely maintaining quality. Producers are maturing, continually refining their styles and pushing the boundaries of quality every year, vintages permitting. People buying our top producers wines can expect to be impressed every vintage. This definitely makes these brands very compelling.

  • Greg+Sherwood+MW27 October 2021

    Jean Smit makes great wines but I have only tasted the maiden releases. I’m sure the new bunch are cracking too. Small quantities with quite narrow distribution in the UK through retailer / Importer Lea & Sandeman… a relationship which i coincidently helped facilitate. They tell me his wines are selling very well.

  • Mike27 October 2021

    Interesting Greg. You must be the only retailer of fine SA wine not (also) shouting about Damascene this month…

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