Greg Sherwood MW: Why Does the SA Wine Industry Have So Many Hang ups about Icon Wines?

By , 24 July 2019



It’s a night I remember all so vividly. A Monday evening at the One & Only Hotel in the Cape Town Waterfront, the night before the Cape Wine 2015 Wine Fair kicked off. I had been asked to moderate the “Kingdom of Cabernet” panel tasting consisting of 20 elite Stellenbosch winemakers presenting their wines in regional terroir flights to an audience of wine trade, journalists and international dignitaries.

For starters, I did not realise I would be presiding over a room of 100s of guests and a panel consisting of some of South Africa’s most legendary producers like Johan Malan, Jan Boland Coetzee, Etienne Le Riche and Andre Van Rensburg. Also, considering the sensitivities and scepticism older, more established classical regions like Stellenbosch, Constantia and Paarl were overtly expressing at the time towards the new Swartland “Young Guns” brigade, I expected the tasting and accompanying debate to be charged and a little bit fiery as Stellenbosch’s finest attempted to wrestle back the attention, hype and prestige they had naively allowed to dissipate over the preceding years.

Laurence-Graff-ReserveHowever, what I did not expect to emerge from the evenings debate was the undercurrent of faux-anger and bitchiness expressed by many members of the audience in regards to some of Stellenbosch’s newer deluxe wines like Delaire-Graff’s Laurence Graff Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (£250pb at the time) and De Toren’s Book XVII (£180pb at the time). These were wines, I hastily pointed out, that we would look back on and praise for their brave and overt ambition to break glass ceilings in an attempt to compete with some of the world’s other great icon brands. After all, South Africa deserves to be part of this club as well. Almost five years later, the debate simmers on as to exactly how the South African wine industry should set out its stall with regards to its icon wine offering.

From my perspective, as someone operating daily in the top end of the fine wine trade in the UK, much of this home grown antagonism towards South Africa’s newer (and more established) top-end wines appears to stem from a fundamental, deep-rooted philosophical stand point that inherently rejects ultra-premium fine wine category sitting at the top of a hierarchy, what these wines stand for and the perceived “obscene” prices charged for these wines… in a comparable way to rejecting the hierarchy of a social class system.

While I have no interest in supporting or promoting an ideological class system, I have always supported the idea of everyone having the freedom allowing them to strive to be the best they can be and creating the best wine they can conceive. So has a subtle misty haze of wine socialism descended over our industry? Are we now expecting producers to only “make wine for the many, not the few” to borrow a fine Corbynista Labour Party socialist mantra?

Perhaps after more than a decade of global economic austerity some of the sheen, gloss and cultural acceptability of overt conspicuous consumption has been eroded to the point of possibly even being frowned upon by the new millennial wine consumers?

In a more conciliatory note, I’d like to call on all producers, journalists, commentators and consumers to open their eyes to the difficult realities of conceiving and creating an ultra-premium wine that stands alongside other great wines of the world. These are the wines that allow the entire industry to push boundaries and discover new levels of excellence, forge paths through unchartered jungles and ultimately plant the flag of South African greatness at the pinnacle of the global landscape.

Nevertheless, let’s not pretend that these icon wines are made for the many! Whether originating in France, California, Australia or South Africa, these wines are made to appeal to a tiny well-heeled consumer niche within the world of fine wine. Perhaps we should all aspire to join this elite, not destroy it! 

  • 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.


3 comment(s)

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    Billabong | 2 August 2019

    The good news is that SA wine critics like doing blind tastings. We all know that may of these super premium wines, don’t even beat their baby brothers when scored in such a way. So feel free to pay the premium if you will, but most of the serious wine drinkers will pass, and buy solid performers with long track records, and good ratings in the blind tasting events. Paul Sauer, Rubicon, Rust en Vrede Estate Red, to name just three from the 2015 vintage, will probably blow most of these wines away over time. And all for less than a quarter of the price.

    Kwispedoor | 24 July 2019

    Hi, Greg.

    You say that the bitchiness was expressed by the members of the audience – wasn’t it mostly consumers then that ‘pushed back’ a bit? As a consumer, one is concerned with what quality and value you can get, not with how much you can possibly fork out from your hard-earned cash in order to elevate the industry’s international image. So, if a brand new wine is launched at, say R2000, a consumer would ask him/herself what other wines they can buy for around that same price. The answer would be quite a few nice bottles, of course, like three bottles of 13-year old Viña Tondonia and a bottle of Paul Sauer, for example. Or eight bottles of the gorgeous Swerver Red that Christian has just reviewed. Or three bottles of Porseleinberg, with R200 change left. I can go on and on with examples here. Though of course there will always be a market segment that spends to impress that can be tapped at the top end, which means at least some of the R2000+ new releases will always find a degree of traction.

    The other question that a consumer would ask, is if the new wine is that much more worth than another expensive wine (but reasonably so) like, say, a Paul Sauer. When a wine becomes more and more expensive over time (like Penfolds Grange or Vin de Constance, for example) because of consistent quality plus supply and demand , I think even consumers that are sad that they can no longer afford it, will belatedly accept it. But when a wine is launched at three times or more than the price of a Paul Sauer, which has a proven track record for quality and age-worthiness, surely it’s the rational consumer that is the sceptic one? The one that asks if it’s worth three times the cash, even though it has zero track record?

    Start a premium wine at a high, but reasonable price and then let the quality of your product (and supply/demand) drive the price from there, I say. But this generally takes time and not everyone is willing and able to play the long game, even if it usually is the better kind of game regarding fine wine stakes. If Eben Sadie left the Ouwingerdreeks wines’ pricing up to supply and demand, it would have been a whole lot more expensive by now (thanks, Eben 😁) and a good case in point .

    So I’m not so sure at all if the wine industry has as many hangups about this as you say, Greg. What I see, is the opposite – a proliferation of brand new super expensive wines hitting the market during the last few years, and it’s not slowing down. To me, this indicates that the industry is investing in this strategy and riding the wave.

    Colin Harris | 24 July 2019

    Hi Greg

    I think that a lot of that bitchiness (I was there that evening, it was a great tasting) was because a wine like De Toren’s Book XVII is such a cynical wine – the wine isn’t priced high because it is a particularly good wine. It is so Parkerised (a polished, sweet and ripe showstopper) and such an obvious attempt at making something that gives the impression of luxury, without it actually being a luxury wine.

    And therein lies the crux for me about high prices – the cynicism by some who punt a brand new wine, without any form of track record and expect clientele to fork out thousands for it. Or the cynicism where you create a wine like the De Toren where it isn’t a particularly good wine at all and by trying to manipulate the market by only issuing it to “wine club members” at exorbitant prices – thereby cynically creating artificial demand.

    That Cab Franc from Elgin Ridge “the” also springs to mind. A number of years ago there was also some or other red wine from Bilton that was put into 300% new oak to justify charging (at the time) a record high price. It is cynical and aspirational pricing without anything to back it up except experimenting on their customers – seeing whether the market will accept the price.

    In my mind, the only estate in recent times who has managed to get it right in terms of pricing strategy is Klein Constantia and the Vin de Constance. It is our one truly icon wine and they didn’t just whack the price up from R370 odd a few years ago to the R1100 they ask for it now in one go – they moved it year on year to get there without getting ridiculous with 500% increases in one go.

    I think you will find a lot less resistance from the crowd in that room if a Kanonkop, Meerlust, Hartenberg, Rustenberg, Tokara, Thelema etc come out with wines at those prices – there’s a history of high-quality wine production, decade after decade. Not some once-off “let’s see how much we can make” wine. In fact – look at Tokara’s Telos. It is pricey at R4k, but it has been accepted by the market without people grumbling because 1) there’s a history of quality from the producer 2) the wine is actually a high quality product worthy of the price.

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