Wine Skulduggery – Scandals in South Africa

Last week we talked about major international wine scandals and so this week we thought we’d look at bit closer to home for some crooked dealing. The good news is though that South Africa is pretty well regulated, particularly in comparison to France or Italy, so it’s harder to pull off anything dodgy.

Bad Wine

Before the end of apartheid there were strict regulations about which grape varietals could be imported. Many farmers imported vines from Europe thinking that there were Chardonnay but the great majority later proved to be Auxerrois. Only those imported illegally, avoiding the official quarantine process, were actually Chardonnay and could be sold as such…even though the cellars would be incriminating themselves by doing so!

The wine industry in South Africa experienced impressive export growth post sanctions. Sauvignon Blanc was the leading lady and has been produced in South Africa on a significant scale since the 1980s. Suspicions were raised when, quite suddenly, some cellars started to perform very well with a cultivar not thought to do well in their area – it’s the most heat sensitive varietal. It turned out that some less scrupulous wine makers were adding methoxy pyrazine, which occurs naturally in fruit, or green peppers to achieve the vegetative flavour prized in Sauvignon Blanc, reminiscent of the Loire Sauvignon Blanc. Although neither methoxy pyrazine (used legally in fruit juice) or green peppers are actually harmful, many were understandably outraged that the wine had been ‘tampered’ with.

Green Pepper

But where should the line be drawn? Clearly adding anti-freeze is out of the question. And even harmless green peppers seems off side. But what about other additives used in wine production? Wood staves for example or fining agents? It seems there is a common, although mostly whispered, consensus that it’s ok to add either acid or sugar to the must (but not both),  wood chips can act as a substitute for oak barrels but oak essence is a clear no-no, egg whites are fine for fining but ox blood really isn’t and it’s legal to add tannin but not artificial flavourants.

Oak Barrels

Maybe if the winemaker makes a full declaration on the label should they be free to do whatever they think makes the best wine? “Ox blood and oak essence were used in the production of this wine!” Or maybe not. Taken to its logical conclusion the ‘declaration’ would allow any old nonsense; who wants raspberry essence in their wine?! For those that are interested in more than cheap plonk it’s all about the idea of the combination of man working with nature, the elements, the terroir, the annual battle to grow the best possible grapes and with them to create delicious ‘real’ wine.

There is evidence that artificial flavourants (which, let’s be crystal clear, are illegal) are available to the wine industry in South Africa. Ergo there must be a market for them and that means that some of the more striking flavours are achieved by a little scientific wizardry rather than the skill of the farmer and the wine maker. Those ‘enhanced’  wines that go on to win awards are, like Lance Armstrong, getting a lift. And, much like cycling, when the deception is unveiled (the truth will out!) it discredits the entire industry.  Regulation then, as difficult as it is to enforce and as annoying as it can be, is still valuable.

Lance Armstrong

Sources and further reading:

Wine Anorak – Adding Flavour

Afrol News – Scandals shock South Africa’s wine industry

Independent – The Anatomy of a Wine Scandal

Mail & Guardian – Silver Lining to SA’s Wine Scandal

Tim Atkin – South Africa seizes the day

Time – Watch out for bad additives

Wine Mag – The Additive Debate Michael Fridjhon

The Wine Rambler

Wine Mag – Chardonnay Longevity Review

Jancis Robinson – Pinot Blanc


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