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Adding 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 been cheating.

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.  

see also: wineanorak's guide to South African wines

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