A Master of Wine

Greg Sherwood MW first came onto my radar at the end of 2016. I had just discovered a wine that had floored me, and needed to know more about it. One thing leads to another, which leads to a Google, and a blog from someone who was clearly as taken as I was.

This particular wine had been overlooked by many of the world’s influential commentators, but Greg had discovered it and his words resonated. Since then, I’ve followed him closely and discovered someone who knows more about the subject than just about anyone, and happens to think that South Africa makes some of the best wines in the world.

Everyone is entitled to an opinion of course, but on the subject of wine, few matter more than his. Firstly, with those letters, MW, you’re assured that he knows his onions. Greg has put in countless hours to achieve a qualification that very few others have. Secondly, he was born and bred in South Africa and knows the country’s wine landscape as well as anyone. He’s also a Senior Wine Buyer at Handford’s Fine Wines in South Kensington, London. Quite simply, he has hundreds of influential clients. To them, his opinion matters. And that opinion translates into sales.

So I arranged to meet Greg and get his take on, well, everything from what he likes to drink to the way people shop for it. I discovered someone who is both thoughtful and insightful on all things wine, and remarkably self-aware of his role there in. He launched out of the blocks too:

“South African wine has never been in a better state than it is right now.”

It’s worth letting those words sink in. For all the talk of low prices, declining yields and unsustainable practices, South African wine has never been this exciting. And in the big scheme of things, it’s happened almost overnight.

“1996 to 2008. That might be our worst ever period. They were acidified, overripe, virused and uninspired. Of course there were obvious exceptions, the 2001 Meerlust Rubicon is one of the greatest wines to come out of South Africa, but in general, it was a bad time.”

At which point our host, Duncan Savage peaks his head through to offer coffee and this observation: “A lot of the older generation made wine as a job. They only drink what they produce. Many of them aren’t passionate about wine.”

Greg agrees: “Absolutely. There’s a new generation of South African winemakers that drink great wines from all over the world. They enjoy each other’s wines. They work together and support each other.”

Competition doesn’t have to lead to antagonism. And today, there’s a strong fellowship amongst many of the country’s leading producers. They are friends first, and seem to understand the bigger picture: That even though they’re competing for the same audience, it’s better to work together. Sort of feels like there’s a lesson there that applies to more than just winemaking.

And what of Greg’s blog? He’s been writing the Fine Wine Safari since 2016 and has seen its popularity rise exponentially since day one.

“I never asked permission. And I certainly never asked anyone to read it. I just write what I write, and if people like it, then that’s great.”

Turns out they are reading. And paying attention. A few days before we met, Greg published a story about Sakkie Mouton’s Revenge of the Crayfish Chenin Blanc. If you’re a regular reader, you’ve probably heard about it. In his glowing review, he suggested that Sakkie might be our most exciting talent since Eben Sadie. A day later, the wine was unobtainable.

This is just one example, but it’s an example of real influence. And it is largely due to his transparency. Greg tastes, drinks and sells wines from all over the world. That’s his job. His currency is credibility and his responsibility is to the wine buyer, to make sure that they return to his shop and buy from him.

There are plenty of people worrying about the future of South African wine. We need more Chocolate Blocks, better wine at scale, higher prices, bigger brands, more regional partnerships. More agreements. We need to specialize. We need to diversify. We need to hang our hat on one thing. We need that one thing to be everything.

No doubt many of these opinions are valid. And there might well be a need for strategies and bureaucrats and board meetings and pencil pushers and people pontificating on the way forward. But one thing that is certain is that we need people like Greg Sherwood. People that know wine, that buy it and sell it outside of South Africa. People with credibility who will look a someone in the eye and tell them to put down that Australian Shiraz, because just look at what I have here.

And proceed to tell a story about where it’s from and who made it and how South Africa really is the most exciting wine producing nation in the world.

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