Greg Sherwood MW: Where does South African wine sit in the global fine wine hierarchy?
By Greg Sherwood, 11 August 2021
As someone who has been buying, selling, writing about and promoting South Africa’s finest wines in the UK for the past 21 years, even I admit that some days I have to do a double-take to comprehend just how far the appreciation of South Africa’s top wines has progressed. Still vivid in my memory are times when fine wine customers would come in to buy mixed cases of red and white wines and they would specify a budget price per bottle but also that they did not want any South African wines included in the selection, not because of any political or cultural stigmas but purely because they felt the wines were not good enough. Chile? Argentina? Australia? New Zealand? Yes, no problem… as long as they were the top offerings.
Thankfully, those nightmare times are but distant memories. But these specific moments when remembered and reimagined still grate me and even make me slightly angry as so many UK consumers had generally been misled and sold donkeys for such a long time when they expected thoroughbred race horses instead. With the exception of a small handful of Cape classics like Meerlust Rubicon, Thelema, Hamilton Russell, Kanonkop, Rustenburg, Warwick, Klein Constantia etc., that kept the flag flying, pickings where fairly slim when trying to illustrate to very fussy consumers that there were indeed some exceptional quality wines from South Africa worth trying at extraordinarily low prices. Now, we are quite positively spoilt for choice in the array of styles and quality of wines we as merchants can offer, both for reds and whites.
But perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects to reflect on is how so little has changed relatively when looking at the broader industry offerings from South Africa’s competitors in Chile, Argentina and even Australia. Admittedly, all of these countries are making some exceptional wines and industry-wide quality has never been better, but in contrast to South Africa’s stylistic and quality journey that has been travelled, sometimes these countries seem to have almost stood still in comparison. The cheapest and easiest retort to my assertion could be that perhaps South African wine qualitatively had the most catching up to do and the greatest distance to travel? Whatever your beliefs, the hunger and passion to create new wines, to grow in quality, to make new icon wines and exceed anything our competitors where doing sets South Africa’s latterday top producers apart from the fine wine establishments of Chile or Argentina.
One of the easiest barometers of this kind of fine wine success can be mapped by looking at the country and regional offerings presented annually by UK merchants in the form of new pre-release and pre-shipment fine wine offers and their relative success or otherwise with consumers in the market. South African’s may be all too familiar with Tim Atkin’s annual South African Wine Report, but of course he also completes similar endeavours on the Chilean and Argentinian industries. While I am sure he would be the first to say that both of these industries are vital and dynamic with many new and exciting wines being made by a young new generation of winemakers, the reality on the ground in the UK fine wine market sees the same narrow band of icon names and brands being offered annually by merchants as well as sold on the secondary fine wine markets such as the Liv-ex Fine Wine Exchange.
The Chilean flag bearers remain almost unchanged from 20 years ago with the fine wine legions being dominated by Eduardo Chadwick’s portfolio of iconic Errazuriz wines like his Don Maximiano, Sena and Vina Chadwick cuvées together with the joint-venture wines of Almaviva from Mouton Rothschild and Concho y Toro. Add in the likes of Montes Alpha and Don Melchor, the 100 point Cabernet Sauvignon from James Suckling, and Clos Apalta from Lapostolle, a perennial favourite of James Molesworth at Wine Spectator, and you can see that these are indeed the very same names that have been grabbing the headlines for almost the past two decades. Where are the new icon wines, the next generation of collectable must-haves? Where indeed?
Argentina too sits in a very similar position where most of the dynamic fine wine plays over the past decade and a half have been made by a small number of historically iconic brands headlined of course by the famous Catena Wine stable. While the right kind of noises have been coming out of the Argentinian industry with patently some very exciting wines being produced outside of the one trick pony Malbec proposition, few if any of these wines have found real traction in the UK fine wine market.
While I am by no means trying to make South Africa’s achievements look greater and more significant by denigrating the hard work of winemakers in countries like Chile and Argentina, simply looking at the competitive landscape goes a long way to illustrate what a great job the South African wine industry has done over the past two decades in raising the status of so many new producer names into the ranks of allocated, collectable, investable, sought after fine wines of international standing and recognition. The industry at all levels faces challenging times ahead as it emerges out of the economic strife of the pandemic, but we should never lose sight of the incredible achievements our wine industry notched up already.
- 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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