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Long read: Museum Wines’ MD Daniel Grigg shares his passion for South Africa

Published:  12 August, 2021

Long a champion of The Cape, Daniel Grigg gives the lowdown on why the wines make commercial sense and what more needs to be done to communicate its vinous cornucopia. 

Both from a passion point of view and commercially, why do you champion South Africa?

My personal journey with South African wine has been somewhat tumultuous. My first role in the industry was part time in a wine shop whilst at university. We sold the Miss Molly range which, over a decade later, I introduced to the Museum Wines range when we became their UK agent.

Following that role I worked for Majestic whose South African range put me off the wines from the Cape, although perhaps that says more about them as I don’t think their offering has improved at all. I found the whites uninteresting and the reds were easily identifiable as South African, they all smelt as though they’d been on fire with no discernible varietal characteristics.

It’s been six years since I left Majestic and, while those examples still exist, South Africa is now rewriting the script, from ‘that’s a good South African Chardonnay’ to ‘that’s a good Chardonnay’. And they’re really performing on a global scale against equivalent wines from both the New and Old World, while often offering a far more modest price point.

However, it’s not just the quality of the wines that has me at its mercy – it’s their balls! The Cinsault revolution wouldn’t have happened in North America, nor would the rise of the white field blend (often labelled with no mention of cultivar) have happened in New Zealand. South Africans don’t play it safe by planting Sauvignon Blanc if something else will work better – it’s their integrity and the fact you can taste their pride in the wine.

Commercially, they offer gap fillers in on- and off-trade lists when you want something a bit more off-piste than the stalwarts of Cabernet, Syrah, Chardonnay, etc, but crucially they offer value at every level.

We’ve just quadrupled our normal order volume for Black Elephant’s ‘Two Dogs, a Peacock and a Horse’ Sauvignon Blanc as it’s mopping up the demand that the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc crisis cannot supply. I’ve been trying to get my on-trade accounts to delist our bulk shipped Marlborough offering for years in favour of this – they all agreed the quality is better but it was the same price and “no-one would pay that for an SA Sav…”. Now that the NZ wine has gone up 20% (and may well run out anyway) it’s a different story.

Yet the same [good value] is true at the fine wine price points. South African Cabernets, Syrahs, Pinots and Chardonnays at £40-£60 would command double if they were from North America or Australia. Why? Exchange rate, cost of labour, things you cannot taste. In fact, we’re about to release a SA vs Rest of the World blind, virtual tasting experience to prove it.

The Cape industry has been having a rocky and twisting ride, what would you say are the major challenges it faces in the immediate future?

While South Africa remains on the restricted travel list for the UK and rest of the world the impact on their wine tourism and hospitality sectors will be huge; this compounded by domestic alcohol sales bans meaning they have two key revenue streams cut off with no support from the government. That’s why export is so key for them as it is their lifeline. We imported twice as much in 2020 as we did in 2019 due to the demand from online sales and we’ll do more again this year with wholesale back open.

Consumer knowledge of the quality of premium SA wines has been growing, but what more needs to be done to get this message out there?

Keep banging the drum! Wine aficionados and enthusiasts are sniffing these wines out for themselves, but we need to reach the mainstream masses diligently buying the same wines from Waitrose, Majestic, wherever – these are the customers who we need to teach that there is more to SA wine than Meerlust and Bellingham. They’re dinosaurs from the 90s and our range is the meteor hurtling towards them.

In a recent SA feature on Jancis Robinson’s website 47 wines were reviewed and 19 of them were ours, claiming the top spots in the white, rosé and red sections. That says a lot but we need to get that message out to customers who aren’t subscribers to her website or even dedicated winos. Eight of the wines ranged from £12.99 to £24.99, including the top rated white and rosé, so not out of reach for the general wine buying public.

The most effective way to do this is through television, not advertising but being featured on The Wine Show or Saturday Morning Kitchen with a recommendation from a trusted source. We deliver nationwide and carry sufficient stock to cope with a large influx of orders, there’s no reason for them to keep plugging the dross from Sainsbury’s and Laithwaites.

Looking ahead, what for you are the most exciting ongoing or new developments on The Cape?

Rosé and fizz. With European examples becoming worse value thanks to the big bad ‘B’ someone needs to step in and I don’t think there’s another country in the world producing Provençal style rosé and traditional method sparkling as good as the South Africans for the price.

Furthermore, while there has been a buzz around SA for some years now we’re nowhere near the peak. This is just the beginning and I for one am incredibly excited to be among those leading the charge.

Any other thoughts on selling SA in the UK?

It’s getting easier! If six or seven years ago you’d told me my Montrachet customers would be paying £50 for Stellenbosch Chardonnay instead, or that we’d have red trousered, yellow socked men whose baldness was only rivalled by that of the tyres on their Land Rover Defender leaving our shop with cases of Swartland Cinsault I’d have wagered to only drink Prosecco (without the amelioration of Aperol) for the rest of my life if it came true… thankfully no one did, as I’d have lost…