Greg Sherwood MW: Where does South African wine sit in the global fine wine hierarchy?

By , 11 August 2021

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Wine regions of the world. Source: wine-searcher.com

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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  • William Murray12 August 2021

    Many thanks for a fine article and continuing to fight the good fight for SA wines.

    A very brief background to myself: in my 20’s and early 30’s, and as a young South African, I took a great interest in our wines at the time (‘80’s – early ‘90’s). I then came to Japan in 1996 (I am still in Japan) and SA wine pretty much dropped off the radar for me. In the last year or so, my interest in SA wine has been rekindled, and thanks to writers such as yourself and websites such as these, I am able to get an in-depth look into what SA wine has become – many thanks for that. And I must say, I am pleasantly surprised.

    Fortunately, we can get many top SA wines over here, and there seems to be a healthy demand for it. It is also highly regarded in Japan. Also keep in mind that we can pretty much get any wine we want over here (all the Bordeaux 1st growths and top Right Bank offering, DRC and friends, all the best Sauternes, Rhone, California, South America ANZ, etc., etc.). My point here being that SA wine is up against these other offering and can still hold it’s own.

    This of course makes me wonder why sales into the UK is always used as the yardstick for how SA wines are doing “overseas”. And Greg, I do understand that you are a buyer in the UK and therefore that is your point of reference. But it would be very interesting to get a measure of the other international markets to get a fuller picture of how SA wine is doing globally.

    • Greg Sherwood12 August 2021

      Thanks for your comments. I think the UK is referenced as the benchmark for SA exports because it’s still the epicentre of the world fine wine trade (despite Brexit and Covid etc) and is simply South Africa’s biggest market. It is also a tough market and a very competitive market.

      However, I do love the complexity and sophistication of the Japanese market. A lot of SA producers, especially the sushi-loving young guns, have put a lot of time and effort into promoting SA wines in Japan. As a result, SA wines have a bit of a unique kind of cult following … a bit like the rugby Springboks do as well. It’s certainly a very fascinating premium market for best wines of the world. I’d like to write a future column on Japan but need to do a few more producer interviews first to nail down the finer details!

      • William Murray13 August 2021

        Cheers Greg, I am sure you have plenty of your own resources, but if its’ any help, this is a good online retailer that specializes in SA wine:
        https://af-liquor.com/

        And here for other SA and everything else. You have probably heard of Rakuten – it is like a Japanese Amazon: https://www.rakuten.co.jp/

        These will give you a good idea of what we can get over here.

  • Gilles P11 August 2021

    I am you you mentioned in your comment some of the best names from Chile, California, Argentina (of course some more could have been added). From my perspective, these names have provided me with much greater emotions than any SA wines I have tasted in the last 20 years (and I have no doubt have tasted the best names). Live Ex is also a good proof that SA wines are not yet part of the game. I also think you need to look at wine connoisseurs choices from Asia, America and Europe to get a different perspective than the UK only. Not all of us are wine snobs. We just see it as it is despite the undeniable progress achieved by SA wine producers over the last 20 years.

  • Greg+Sherwood+MW11 August 2021

    Davy, sadly that is the way of the world and snobby wine consumers Won’t ever change fully because that type of shallow snobbery is worn like a badge of honour by those making the pronouncements.

    But the French have had 700 years in Burgundy and 175 in Bordeaux to convince punters and fine tune their offering and premium marketing message.

    I personally respect all the Chilean and Argentinian producers I mentioned in my piece and of course Californian wines are one of my great loves. But anyone who poo poos a top Californian classic from Ridge, Heitz, Montelena, Dominus, etc obviously knows not of what they speak!

    I’ve always said we are living in the halo years of “cheap” premium SA wine. It surely cannot and will not continue. So indulge and enjoy SA’s finest while we can all afford them. Price rises are on the horizon as the world increasingly starts to chase all the top wines!

  • Davy Strange11 August 2021

    Great article, Greg! South African wines have increased in quality leaps and bounds since I first encountered them. However, I am not sure how much of a quality niche specific to them is being carved out in peoples’ mind.

    A lot of quite knowledgeable people I know still lump South Africa into the ‘over-ripe and soupy’ category along with Australia, California and the rest.

    No matter what wonders I show them, beautifully minimalist wines of class and style, that they say they love, next day it is back to “There is no way a South African wine can be as good as a French one!”

    Perhaps I just need less ludicrous friends!

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