Greg Sherwood MW: What Next For White Blends From SA?
By Greg Sherwood, 11 November 2020
It seems that every time I sit down to pen this column I promise myself that this time, it will be the last time my writing is tainted by the monotony of the Coronavirus pandemic and I can get back to my usual free-thinking machinations about the ups and downs, pros and cons of the South African wine industry. Hell, all I can say is that they aren’t making this gig easy for me! Yet again, we are in the midst of another one-month total lockdown in the UK that is more akin to the draconian measures enacted back in March 2020 than to any kind of shortened “circuit-breaker” policies previously floated. To give you just a small idea of the feeling and sentiment of people in London towards this new decision, it is incredibly telling that almost every high-end restaurant became almost immediately fully booked within hours of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to announce another lockdown starting at midnight last Wednesday, 4 November. There is certainly an appetite, just not for more short-sighted, economically damaging lockdowns!
So needless to say, this week has been all about meeting suppliers and clients over long “business lunches”, the one apparent loophole discovered within the UK government’s “no mixing of households indoors” policy dogma. Today’s topic of conversation over lunch was particularly interesting with my clients’ revelling in the hysteria of the latest round of new fine wine releases from South Africa with considerable attention being directed towards the incredible phenomenon of not only the premium old-vine Chenin Blanc wines but also South Africa’s unbelievably high-quality white blends. Half of today’s guests were very familiar with South African wines, the other half a little less so. But what everyone had in common was the total and utter belief in the eye-watering quality of white wines coming out of South Africa now together with a steadfast fascination at the unrelenting demand spreading through the connoisseur wine community here in the UK. There genuinely seems to be a belief that South Africa’s finest white wines and white blends are every bit as good as the iconic white Burgundies that we were consuming over lunch, yet available on release at a mere fraction of the price in comparison.
For South Africa’s finest wines to turn this philosophical corner and become genuinely collectable is such an important moment in the evolution of the South African fine wine scene in the UK. Securing allocations and dividing up these allocations (that one hopefully receives) among one’s best clients will only become harder and harder as time goes by primarily because there is still such a large body of consumers and fine wine drinkers out there that genuinely have no grasp of how big the demand for some of these wines has actually become. Personally, I like to call them “spreadsheet wines” – wines that I can sell by merely deciding which of my clients are sufficiently deserving of this or that specific vinous treat. At this early stage of evolution, a client’s long term loyalty to a specific wine still comes into play and still tends to influence the end-decision of which wines they do or don’t get. However, like a fast train coming down the track, it is clearly evident that it is only a matter of time before other “qualifying criteria” are going to have to be taken into consideration when deciding final allocations. Total yearly spend, as well as the frequency of purchases, are the obvious two criteria most merchants site when laying out allocation principles. Loyalty to not only the wine brand but also the said merchant is also certainly a second major consideration. It’s always awkward, it’s sometimes unfair, but this is where suppliers find themselves when the wines acquire such an incredible level of demand.
One possible way around this quagmire is to keep abreast of all the new raw talent coming out of South Africa, something I have specifically spent a lot of time focusing on. Offering up time to meet and greet or lecture the young students at Elsenburg wine college has always been a particularly rewarding pastime with the top talent, in turn, often keen to repay one’s efforts when they eventually hit the market running with some new exciting wines. While I can personally think of a long list of exceptional next-generation winemakers worth keeping an eye on, one, in particular, has captured the attention of the broader wine market both at home and interestingly, abroad. Young Sakkie Mouton of Revenge of the Crayfish Chenin Blanc fame is a particularly bright young talent that I have been following since his maiden barrel of uncertified 2018 Chenin Blanc became a cult wine a couple of years back. Today, the evolution of his own personal journey and brand continues with a serious amount of excitement growing in the market around the release of his new esoteric white blend, the Full On Misfit Blanc 2020. While I write this, I am sipping on a glass of this intriguing wine made from a blend of Chenel (the Chenin Blanc / Ugni Blanc cross), Colombar and Sauvignon Blanc from grapes sourced from his familiar home town vineyards around Vredendal, Lutzville and Koekenaap up the West Coast. What I specifically admire about Sakkie is his unwavering and unrelenting mission to do things his own way without copying or mimicking anyone else out there which is definitely easier said than done! This is the true value of real talent combined with independent thinking and a hunger to follow his own dream while simultaneously being humble enough to be guided by the sage advice from an older generation willing to share their own experiences and expertise.
For me as a commentator and outside observer looking in, it is hugely exciting and encouraging seeing a new young talent reinterpret and create their own take on the classic Cape white blend. In essence, the strength and uniqueness of this category is that there are NO hard and fast rules and anything goes so long as what is put in the bottle reflects the high-quality standards trusting fine wine consumers have come to expect.