Greg Sherwood MW: The ever-evolving face of SA fine wine
By Greg Sherwood, 30 November 2023
While the SA Top 20 Wineries poll conducted by Winemag might be considered a slightly colloquial bit of local South African wine trade fun, the results have interestingly also caught the eye of many UK merchants and fine wine buyers and certainly got a few tongues wagging this past week.
After all, there is nothing like the challenge of picking one’s own Top 20, Top 10 or even Top 5 of any product or endeavour, if for no other reason than the brief window of reflection, assessment and selection is an important moment in justifying long-held or perhaps newly changed opinions and beliefs. Why do I think X producer is one of the top wineries in South Africa, or why do I think Y producer no longer deserves to be there? The answers can sometimes be quite revealing about the current perceptions of newer and older producers and their relevant wine brand’s health in the international marketplace. After my last column on wine branding, I think you can guess how important and integral I think brand building is to ensure successful and ongoing fine wine sales in any market.
I have participated in this Top 20 poll a number of times over the past years and every time the final results are released, I am quite entertained by some of the pursuant commentary that emanates from mostly passive spectators and day-to-day consumers but also from a number of local market wine trade sommeliers, wine merchants and general industry players. Everyone involved in wine is of course entitled to an opinion, however, some commentator’s opinions are far more relevant and pertinent than others based on their length and level of involvement with the South African wine industry. Simply looking at the Top 5 producers of Sadie, Alheit, Mullineux, Kanonkop and Savage reveals a list of producers whose wines are now, for the most part, incredibly sought-after and tightly allocated both in the local South African market as well as in the broader international market.
For avid wine collectors and wine connoisseurs based locally in the Cape, I suspect that there are a handful of paid or ticketed events where you will be able to taste a selection of the new releases annually from those producers in the Top 5 and certainly several more from the rest of the Top 20. But let’s be honest, few average consumers, even the ones with a relatively high level of wine engagement, are going to have the opportunity to annually taste many of these rarified wines. If availability isn’t a barrier to engagement, then the cost of some of these wines certainly is.
In the UK, in a good year, a select group of fine wine merchants will crack the nod and be invited to the Fields, Morris and Verdin (FM&V) importers tasting to taste the new Sadie Family Wines releases. Earning an invitation certainly does not imply you will receive an allocation for the wines. As for Chris Alheit’s wines, he and his importer Richard Kelley MW from Dreyfus Ashby have been fairly generous in serving the full range of wines for the trade for the past few years, however these wines are no longer poured at any London-based event and eager commentators and buyers must now make the two-and-a-half-hour train journey north to Huntingdon in Cambridge to encounter the new releases. Once again, being able to taste the new wines is no indication you will receive an allocation of any of the wines. Allocations are now strictly tied to wider purchases from the importer’s portfolio.
For the delicious wines of Mullineux and Leeu Passant, UK importer Liberty Wines has done a fairly sterling job spreading the stock thin and wide with few merchants now receiving an allocation of more than a handful of cases of either the white Chenin Blanc or red Syrah single terroir releases. Fortunately, both the Signature Mullineux wines and the Kloof Street wines are still available more freely at the moment. For grandee Kanonkop, South Africa’s very own first growth producer, they have been represented in the UK by Seckford Wine Agencies since the 2015 vintage and are now also forced to allocate the Kanonkop Paul Sauer very tightly across the fine wine market. Their Cabernet Sauvignon also can’t be said to be ‘on tap’ either but certainly still has a greater availability for followers of the wine.
Finally, from the Top 5, Duncan Savage’s phenomenal range of wines have probably seen some of the greatest changes in demand and availability over the past five years, moving from being available in fairly generous quantities to this year becoming very tight allocated by his UK importer SWIG wines. Even those fortunate to have been following the wines since his maiden releases in 2011/12 will have also seen their plentiful allocations dwindle as the available stock is slowly but surely spread thinner and wider in the market in order to cope with ever increasing fine wine collector demand. Winning Tim Atkin MW’s Wine Maker of the Year award in his South Africa Report 2022 was merely the icing on the cake for Duncan’s years of hard work.
Interestingly, some commentators and Twitterati have taken issue with some of the selections in the Top 20, instead questioning why certain producers like Vergelegen, Stellenrust, Stark Condé and Paul Cluver (to mention just a few), were not featured in the line-up? But of course, for the 25 wine trade individuals that contributed their selections to the number crunching process performed by Winemag.co.za, 16 being locally based individuals and 9, including myself, being based in the UK or Europe, we all had to weigh up multiple factors that we feel influence a selection process such as this. One entertaining accusation thrown at the organisers was that “the majority of (the) panel have a vested commercial interest in the wines made by the Top 5, so it is hardly objective.” I am not quite sure what ‘vested interest’ we all have in the Top 5 other than all who are economically active participants certainly wanting to get our hands on bigger allocations of these super sought-after wines?
All being considered, I am pleased Tim James persuaded the Winemag editor to resurrect the fabled Top 20 list again as it certainly stirred up a lot of positive and interesting wine conversation amongst both the local and international wine trade. The Top 20 is in no way supposed to be a Top 20 favourite producers exercise. Not at all. It is meant to be based on multiple aspects such as consistency of quality across wine ranges, critical scores and reviews, rarity value, collector value, secondary market demand, rate of sale (or in the case of the Top 5, size and availability of allocations), and international and local brand status and respect – critical factors all the wineries in the Top 20 can be considered to be championing admirably. So, that’s a wrap… until the next Top 20 in a few years time.
- 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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