Wine Laws Need to Catch-up with the Times

Shortly after Nelson Mandela was inaugurated, his office had a request from within the South African wine industry. The asking was that consideration be given to a national department of wine affairs overseen by a Minister of Wine. Today just the thought of a ministry with broad statutory powers sends shivers down the spine of the local wine arena – as it would have 23 years ago.

Seeing his penchant for the Saxonwold Shebeen, Brian Molefe might be chairing Wines of South Africa, with Hlaudi Motsoeneng running Vinpro and Julius Malema appointed to replace Duimpie Bayly as head of the wine industry’s wineland demarcation board.

The request to erect such a ministry was – politely, I believe – declined. And with the socio economic challenges facing a new democracy, no-one could blame the Presidency for canning the idea of a full-time department to look after the South African wine industry.

But regulation is not necessarily a bad thing. Lately I’ve been thinking of a couple of areas where South Africa’s accepted wine laws and regulations could receive a bit of forced change:

·       Adding water during the wine-making process: For the life of me I do not understand  why this is seen as just as offensive as popping a bag of green peppers into the Sauvignon Blanc tank or grinding some black pepper into a barrique of Syrah. Adding a neutral natural substance to wine is not akin to adulteration or sly manipulation. Oxygen and air have a far greater effect on the final structure of a wine, so why make pure water the scapegoat? And do the legislators really think vine farmers are so dim so as not to use alternative methods to pump-up yields and reduce alcohol? By dousing a dry vineyard the night before harvest, some 350kg of volume can be added to the total yield of a 10 ton per hectare vineyard. Sugar readings will drop by some 1,5° to 2° balling, resulting in lower alcohol.

So, why not skip all this and add some pure water in the winery where the dilution can be managed and controlled?

·       Pedigree of Varietal Wines: It is internationally accepted that a wine labelled as being of a single variety, say Cabernet Sauvignon or Chenin Blanc, can contain up to 15% of the juice from a grape other than the one under which the bottle is labelled. This means that about one glass in a 750ml bottle is not Cabernet or Chenin at all, but something totally different.

In today’s age, this seems preposterous and makes no sense at all. We in the industry are attempting to convince consumers of the magic of individual wines crafted from a diversity of grape varieties; to embrace the merits of terroir and the unique characteristics of Chardonnay and Pinotage and Riesling grown on mountain vineyards from specially selected clones. Ocean breezes optional. So how do I explain to an average wine consumer that this great bottle of Syrah with provenance and from a very special wine region might contain 15% of, say, Merlot or Ruby Cabernet?

I doubt if a reputable restaurant chef would allow his renowned coq au vin to include 15% pork. Or how about some Gouda cheese in your Roquefort salad?

What further astounds me is that when talking to winemakers about their blended wines, they are quick to note the profound influence of 8% Merlot and 3% Petit Verdot in their blends. These 15% addition of “others” can thus not be laughed off as having a negligable influence on the final bottle.

So why we are allowed to have a label that sells itself as Cabernet Franc or Sémillon, while the content of the bottle is bastardised, is something even a non-purist such as myself finds hard to swallow. 

·       Cap Classique and non-classical grapes. It is known that South Africa makes some of the finest bottle-fermented sparkling wine in the world. Superb stuff it is, and our Cap Classique producers are fanatical in their search of perfection in wine that is complex and skill-demanding, but oh so rewarding.

The brand Cap Classique reflects a few regulations in terms of lees-time on the bottle and bottle pressure. But I honestly think it is time to draw a line as to the grapes permitted in making a wine under the Cap Classique brand.

Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier are the grapes that have shown to produce the best Cap Classiques by a country mile. Take the Amorim Cap Classique Challenge as a guide-line where the non-Champagne varieties just don’t succeed in reaching the level of elegance and purity and depth of the classic grapes.

If South Africa wants to further the excellence of this category, sparkling wines made from other varieties should create their own brand and class. All grapes are created equal, however…….

If the minister was there, I’d back him on amending the above, and the drinks at the Saxonwold Shebeen would be on me – for now.

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