flavour: a South African wine scandal?
It is likely that even anyone following wine news over the
last few weeks will have picked up on the scandal stories
concerning South African wine. A well-respected SA wine journalist
has blown the whistle on producers who have been adding artificial
flavourings to their Sauvignon Blanc. How else, reports ask, could
Sauvignons from such warm vineyard areas have these distinctive
grassy, gooseberry-like characteristics? These flavour additives
are synthetic versions of the compounds found naturally in such
wines, so they are very hard to detect and police.
Of course, if anyone has been adding flavour additives,
itís wrong and could damage the image of the Cape wine industry
very badly. Wine is seen as a natural product whose flavour
derives from the grapes and traditional winemaking techniques. It
would lose a lot of its appeal if people thought that the wine was
being manufactured so blatantly.
However, thereís one big problem with the story as it
stands. We donít have any names, and we lack any evidence. The
real scandal is the way the press have responded to this story,
and the way it was broken in the first place. As a wine
journalist, you hear a lot of gossip. Sitting round the table
chatting to winemakers there are all sorts of juicy titbits of
inside info being disclosed. But these are not stories. Itís
poor journalism to go to press without solid evidence and names.
You donít risk casting a cloud over the entirety of a nationís
winemakers by publishing a generalized accusation.
And the press are also guilty of seizing on this story and
circulating it in the absence of names and evidence. It is being
discussed as a fait accompli. Rumour has become fact. From
now on whenever journalists try a grassy aromatic SA Sauvignon,
theyíll be thinking, ĎIs this for real?í. This story is a
non-story and should have been allowed to die, or at least writers
should have held fire until they had some solid evidence when it
really would have been a big story. As it stands, they have just
cast a cloud across the whole industry and damaged innocent
reputations of innocent producers as well as any that might have
Of course, this also raises the deeper question of what
constitutes legitimate manipulation of wine flavour. Iím sure
that everyone would agree that bunging flavour chemicals into a
vat of wine is wrong. I suspect, however, that there exist
widespread disagreements about other manipulations. In industrial
winemaking the choice of yeast strain is important in imparting
specific flavour profiles to wines. Some people object to this,
but theyíd probably be happy about manipulations such as leaving
the wine on its lees (dead yeast cells) or lees stirring, both of
which can affect flavour.
Oak barrels are a traditional element of winemaking, and
can add flavour both directly and by allowing a limited but steady
supply of oxygen. But is it legitimate to use oak chips and
microoxygenation to achieve the same ends? And then we have
reverse osmosis to concentrate must or later on to remove alcohol
(new and controversial), and chaptalization to increase the sugar
content of the must (old and widely accepted).
Itís hard to be dogmatic about whatís right and
whatís wrong in winemaking. To a large degree, we canít
consider all wines alike in this respect: some are being
marketed as artisanal, traditional, finely crafted estate wines,
whereas others are clearly sold as mass produced branded plonk
with no lofty pretensions.
Back to South Africa. Journalists on the ground there need
to get to the bottom of this fast, and come up with names and hard
evidence. They should stop making generalized allegations. The
industry there should be regarded as innocent until proven guilty
Ė itís only fair. Good producers will be damaged by these
sorts of reports, and the cheating producers will be given warning
to cover up their tracks. As for regulation, in many French wine
regions shops arenít allowed to sell sugar to winemakers without
these sales being recorded and notified to the local authorities,
to reduce the risk of illegal chaptalization. Surely sales of
flavouring chemicals in South Africa could be similarly policed.
It would be a start.
also: wineanorak's guide to South