Greg Sherwood MW: Time for SA wine commentators to move beyond cultural cringe

By , 12 August 2020



Like a bad rash, some things never seem to want to go away. During this Covid-19 pandemic, I have had much to occupy my mind, but now that we are finally moving towards an almost negligible infection rate in the UK with an R-rate below 1.0, that’s surely the cue for the woke main-stream media (msm) to start ramping up its relentless and obsessive coverage of this diminishing pandemic with one eye on how this story will eventually become so dull and irrelevant that they will have no choice but to cease their incessant and dogmatic reporting and actually start to cover some real news worthy stories once again… unless they can convince us all that another deathly second spike is on its way and that we are all basically doomed. Of course the temptation certainly exists to drag this pandemic tale out so long that eventually, like a really bad series of Dallas, Neighbours or Days of Our Lives, even committed viewers will plead and beg for the story line to be humanely euthanised.

Of the more than 16 500 wines tasted at DWWA 2019, only 148 wines received a Platinum medal, including six wines from South Africa.

It’s certainly a stroke of luck then that I have had this year’s slightly re-scheduled Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA) to focus my mind and give me some genuine intellectual tasting stimulation after almost five months of zoom tastings and digital wine producer speed dating. I can’t quite recall when I actually started tasting for the DWWA but it almost certainly must have started in the early to mid-noughties when I was finishing my master of wine studies. During this rewarding time of judging primarily South African wines, I have enjoyed the tutelage of influential characters such as the late John Avery MW, Lynne Sherriff MW (and Cape Wine Master) as well as a wealth of other wonderful ex-colleagues who chose to make the annual South-North trek over from Mzansi to the UK including the likes of top Cape sommelier and SASA-founder, Higgo Jacobs and influential wine journalist and wine reviewer Fiona McDonald, a noteworthy past Wine Magazine editor. This year however, I myself broke new ground and agreed to assume the greatly prestigious role of DWWA Regional Panel Chair for South Africa.

After watching the slow-motion train wreck of the local South African wine trade sales ban over the past months, I have at least been mildly encouraged and impressed by the notable level of producer participation in many of’s own blind tasting competitions including latterly, the Cabernet Sauvignon Report, Cape Bordeaux Red Blend Report and Merlot Report all sponsored by Prescient. I suppose if you cannot market and sell your wines locally, why not try and earn yourself a notable gong either locally or internationally at the DWWA or indeed at one of the other large popular wine awards competitions including the International Wine Challenge (IWC) or the International Wine & Spirit Challenge (IWSC).

But as I mentioned earlier, like a bad rash, some things never seem to want to go away. This time however I am not talking about Coronavirus but instead the bottomless flagon of the scoring and score inflation debate. When any of the major global wine competitions have released their annual medal results, for at least the past 10 years, South African wines have unquestionably played a major starring role and have been one of the most rewarded country categories across the board. This fantastic trend has in reality simply mirrored the greater home grown success stories of many of the smaller as well as larger producers who have been striving relentlessly to improve their own overall wine quality. In 2019, over 16 500 wines were tasted from around the world with the DWWA  top scoring wines from South Africa showcasing not only the versatility of the country’s terroir with 95+/100 point wines from Stellenbosch, Swartland, Elgin, Ceres, Cape Agulhas, Paarl and Cape Town, but also the skill that goes into making both top-quality blends and single-varietal wines of note. Of the 148 wines from around the world that received the coveted Platinum medal, selected from the best of the regional gold medals, South Africa represented merely six of these gongs. These wines were all tasted blind of course.

Yet incredibly, whenever South African wines are reviewed individually by international critics of note including Neal Martin, James Suckling, James Molesworth, Tim Atkin MW or even myself on occasion, the siren cry that rings out from sectors of our own industry is that our very top wines are somehow being misrepresented by the scourge of score inflation. This is indeed a fake news battle I have chosen to fight for over 10 years and just when you think the campaign might be over and the war is being won, the scathing mocking of the “improbably high scores” rears its nasty head yet again. I will concede that as an industry collective, we have finally moved past the overt gasps of “cultural cringe” that Tim Atkin MW refer to all those years ago in defence of his supposedly implausibly high South African wine scores featured in his annual South African Wine Report, however, we are yet to truthfully embrace our true industry self-worth in a meaningful way. Until we all start to honestly believe that our finest wines are really worth the hard earned accolades and gongs they are annually awarded, we are going to be forever scratching away at that little chip on our shoulders… or is it perhaps a psychological rash? Either way, September 2020 will not only see a phenomenal slew of new gold medals for South African wines at the DWWA 2020, it will also see at least one if not more 100 point scores awarded by Tim Atkin MW in his forthcoming South African Wine Report. Perhaps time for South African wine quality sceptics to book some extra therapy sessions with their shrinks?

  • 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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19 comment(s)

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    Bruce Ellison | 14 August 2020

    Thanks Greg for another good article. No doubt, SA producing some world class wines – and with the increasing nature of the global market and wine evaluation, objective judges are evaluating them fairly against their peers. I don’t see a reason for local judges to be defensive – their job is to call it how they see it. As a customer my choice is to identify whose Palate i resonate with. Noting Scoring isn’t perfect – whether it’s Johnson’s 4 point, wine’s 5 point, 20 point vs. Parker’s 100 point scale – and Scoring “perfection” is also largely impossible for most – is 5/5 is perfect? Either way, there’s room for personal opinion on style and quality. ultimately I remember my first ever wine tasting, held with hugh Johnson, nearly 40 years ago, and I remember his opinion being to work out ones own palate. In the modern World, We have a plethora of wine choices.

    my brother in law perhaps enjoys his classic Bordeaux classed growths most.. but also loves local Thelema and other versions. I suggest its hard to cast off the “branded benchmark”, when visually comparing new world versions against old world “icons” – especially when those wines created the taste flavor category, that one compares the wines to. Perhaps it’s why Tim James article on world class SA whites and particularly Chenin was relevant. In effect, SA has effectively created a new style of dry chenin 👍 ultimately this innovation shows the confidence required to “win”, Ie create a product that one can enthuse in terms of quality, terroir, and flavor. That said, SA has produced some amazing wine for many years – May’s move to Glenelly would show practical producer belief. What SA has lacked overseas on one side was branding- and to be fair one should expect this, it took time to shake off the cooperative and volume driven past, and then in recent times, a limited supply of its best wines to enable a global supply – those who have cellared SA’s top wines know their value. Overall, as a SA region, we’ve definitely heading in the right direction. The critics such as yourself have an increasingly important role in “guiding the market” in what has become a media driven connected world. Whether it’s good for my ability to afford these wines earning Rands Is a different matter.

      Greg Sherwood MW | 14 August 2020

      Love your comments Bruce. It is certainly an interesting wine world we are living in! Keep drinking the best! Oh… and for God’s sake give your mate a bottle of Paul Sauer! Not those dodgy Cru classes!! 😉

    Stewart Prentice | 12 August 2020

    I hate scores as a rule but they do serve a purpose. A real bad score vs. an unreasonable price is a prudent reason to look elsewhere. I am though reminded that scores are not absolute. A 100 for a particular style of varietal (hope i used the correct word instead of variety) cannot be usefully compared on rating basis alone. In other words, it is all subjective but given credibility by experience and skill; track record of both the critic and the wine.

    Tim James | 12 August 2020

    There is of course no inherent connection between being opposed to score inflation and cultural cringe. It’s also something of an easily disprovable myth that South African-based critics and commentators are resolutely pessimistic about local quality in general compared with the foreigners. (Sometimes they/we/some of us just dislike the occasional self-congratulatory raucousness and obvious self-interest of some critics .) If you look at coverage in the last few decades I think you’ll find that in most cases the first high scores for specific local producers, and recognition of local improvements in general, came from local commentators – including coverage in the international press: I myself awarded both a Sadie Palladius and a Vergelegen White 18/20 points in a World of Fine Wine comparative tasting in 2008.

    And do please have a look at the ratings in the annual Platter Guide, which is not, and never has been, behind the international contingent that Greg applauds in recognising the improvement in Cape wine, especially in terms of number of awards of its top rating.

      Greg Sherwood MW | 12 August 2020

      Thanks Tim. You were certainly early doors on Sadie wines and many others without doubt. And yes, Platter sometimes comes in for a bit of stick, undeservedly in my opinion, but for me remains the greatest singular assessment of a national wine industry any where in the world!

      However…. there is still Waaay too much insecurity and chips on shoulders among local wine assessment. The foreign trade just looks on in dismay and thinks… “what are they whinging about… the wines are Amazing..”

    JamesB | 12 August 2020

    Great article. I am relatively new to following the wine game but local critics seems overly harsh in their scores of our wine. Some huge discrepancies in foreign vs local scores, almost all scores are lower with local critics.

    Much like our harsh assessment of our sporting greats (think Jacques Kallis), perhaps it’s a sadly South African thing.

    While of tasting is a subjective thing of course, universal quality should come to the fore.

      GillesP | 12 August 2020

      Sorry James but I beg to differ on your statement. Most of the ratings I read from this website are on the very high side of the 90 pts. In fact I don’t know anymore if they ever give a rating below 90 which I find very frustrating. I am still of the opinion that SA top wines don’t come close to the best from France, Italy, Spain, USA or even Chile and New Zealand. So if an SA wine gets a 95 pts, what should be scored a Chateau Lafite or a Chateau Lynch Bages or a Sena or Clos Apalta from Chile or a Guado Al Tasso from Italy, or a Vega Sicilia from Spain? The difference in quality is immense. That’s why I choose to follow ratings of wine critics like James Suckling or Neal Martin, or Jeanie Lee Cho or Antonio Galloni. They are far more exposed to the best of worldwide wines and turn to be more severe in their scoring.

        Greg Sherwood MW | 12 August 2020

        Sorry Gilles, you unfortunately just contradicted yourself…. perhaps unintentionally but James Suckling is probably the GREATEST score inflation offender. Unequivocally! Everything he tastes is 98 to 100. Widely accepted opinion. But… Neal Martin on the other hand… top dog and a great mate.

        But I have to disagree with your appraisal of Winemag scores (which I’m not judging for). People pick up and focus on the handful of high scores… that’s what’s good for clicks and business. I’d say Mr Eedes is mean in his scoring if anything, especially when it comes to Cabernet and Bordeaux blends from SA. He regularly scores lower than Neal Martin! 🤷🏼‍♂️

          GillesP | 12 August 2020

          Hi Greg. I must agree that James Suckling is also generous on his scoring. Nonetheless, if you do follow him on his Facefook page, the exposure of wines he taste for business or pleasure is just out of this world.

          GillesP | 12 August 2020

          Also a very straight question for you Greg. If Christian Eades rates an Alheit wine at 95 or 98 what would you rate a Conte Lafond Meurseult Charmes, or a Daguenau Silex or a Chave Hermitage Blanc ( to name a few iconic whites)?


          GillesP | 12 August 2020

          I think my point here is to highlight the lack of exposure to great foreign wines from local critics. (Understandably so given the price or the availability) therefore skewing the scoring between South African wines and foreign wines of top calibre. I think we can agree on that. It has become a very self centered exercise of scoring SA wines on their own without a balancing act versus the best of the rest of the world

            JamesB | 12 August 2020

            Hey Gilles, a great point. Would you not then argue the international critics scores, exposed to wines of all regions, would hold more weight based on that logic?

              GillesP | 12 August 2020

              Indeed. That would make sense but I don’t see it reflected on SA wines from my readings. I think SA wines are still not much top of their list and understandably so.

        JamesB | 12 August 2020

        I confess i am a complete newbie and have not had the luxury of tasting international however, why should our top wine not be of world class status? Because we got off to a rough start? Because france and italy have track record and history? We as south africans are so pained to see greatness before us.
        Again, from a complete novice perspective, i have no real debate to make other than 1. What i have tasted in Paul Sauer, Lismore, Sadie, and the fact that Neil Martin, Tim Atkin and Greg Sherwood all lavish praise on our top wines, it’s time we recognise our greatness and own it.

      Greg Sherwood MW | 12 August 2020

      Yup! Speak to any international top flight cricketer and they’ll sing the praises of the GREAT Jacques Kallis. Only a few Saffers might deny his greatness… hence my article!

    Gareth | 12 August 2020

    Cheers Greg,

    It’s always great to get an international perspective on some of our favourite wines in comparison to what the rest of the world is producing.

    Two that I particularly enjoy are the Constantia Glen Five and Idiom, which scored very well (97 and 96, respectively) at the 2019 DWWA. Did you taste these during that event or have and notes on them?

    Also, I think you might have raised some anticipation about more 100 pointers from TA.

      Greg Sherwood MW | 12 August 2020

      Thanks Gareth.

      I did taste the Idiom on my Panel last year… not sure about the Constantia Glen. There were two panels last year. The Idiom was very good. In fact I’d say it’s a wine / winery that always shows very well in blind tastings!

      Yup, we’ll have to wait and see what Tim scores 100… though at the time of mentioning that he already had 1 x 100 pointer, he still had a one more week of tasting to do including the Mullineux wines I believe! So we’ll have to wait and see, but it’ll surely be one of a handful of usual suspects! 😉

        Top Wine SA | 12 August 2020

        The six platinum winners at DWWA 2019: Beyerskloof Faith 2014, Constantia Glen Five 2015, Le Lude Vintage 2012, Nicolas van der Merwe Syrah 2017, Swartland Winery Bush Vine Chenin Blanc 2017, Tokara Director’s Reserve White 2016. The Idiom Bordeaux-style Blend 2015 was one of South Africa’s 20 gold medallists…

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