How export approval can hinder the sales of natural wines
In Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, some natural wine growers have been prevented from exporting their wines, even though they have buyers waiting: but this could be about to change

Imagine the situation. You’ve made a wine. Because you work more naturally, the wine is a little unconventional, but you have a loyal customer list who love your style. And you’ve just landed an export order. But there’s a problem: in order to sell your wines abroad, you need export approval. And that’s contingent on the wine passing a tasting panel. They don’t 'get' your wine, and they refuse export permission.  

This is just what happened to Jamsheed, a small (2500 case) producer in Australia’s Yarra Valley, last year, with their single-vineyard Cabernet Franc, called ‘Mon Petite Francine’. Weighing in at just 12% alcohol, this is ever so slightly cloudy, but has lovely fresh, sappy cherry fruit with lovely perfume and a textured palate with a bit of spicy bite. It’s deliciously drinkable, and full of interest. But while this wine had been selling well locally, it was refused an export licence by Wine Australia, and so couldn’t leave the country.

It turns out that Jamsheed’s Cabernet Franc is just one of a number of interesting wines in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa that have been refused export permission, even though there are customers waiting.   

Gary Mills, who owns Jamsheed, recounted this experience. ‘The 2011 Mon Petite Francine is a new label, born from a love of Loire-style reds. The wine is presented as a nouveau-style red for early consumption and has been selling very well in Melbourne.’ Mills has recently started exporting to Japan, and has an agent in Tokyo called Jeroboam. He sent samples to Tokyo which were tasted by the Jeroboam crew, Ned Goodwin MW and Kenichi Ohashi of the Somersault group. ‘They requested a five dozen allocation of the franc to be added to the larger shipment,’ reports Mills. ‘Export laws state that any shipment over 100 litres and or $2000 value must attain export approval. So my five dozen $11.50 AUS$ FOB wine—total value $690—was sent for export analysis. This cost $200, was couriered to the AWBC (Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation) for $67, and was tasted and rejected, and therefore pulled from the pallet at the docks at my expense and shipped back to me at my expense—yet to be determined.’

But the wine was rejected by the AWBC on the grounds that is was cloudy/turbid and mouldy. ‘Yes, the wine is unfiltered and unfined,’ says Mills, ‘but it is not mouldy. There is a mushroom/forest floor tone that would not be out of place in a Yarra Pinot Noir. It is not a perfect wine by any means—that being half the point—I'm not interested in producing technically correct wines but rather a unique site/terrior-driven tasting experience. The wine shows freshness, vitality and has piqued the interest of everyone who has tasted it.’

But all has not turned out badly for Mills, at least this time. The story of this export approval has led to a lot of discussion on social media. ‘The unexpected bonanza for me was the outpouring of support, both on social media and local physical purchases, from that moment,’ he says. ‘In the proceeding days I sold almost 20 dozen of the wine alone on sympathetic purchases and a further large amount to existing customers. As a result the wine will sell out before the end of September!’

James Erskine is another Australian winegrower who has hit a roadblock trying to gain Wine Australia export approval. Like Mills, he has made wines that have export orders, but isn’t allowed to ship them. His project, Natural Selection Theory, is a group of four winegrowers looking to make natural wines produced with a minimal level of electricity and no additions bar sulfur dioxide at bottling. 

One of the wines they have made is called the ‘egg’ project, which is a full skin-fermented white from Semillon grown in the famous Hunter Valley Brokeback vineyard. ‘Since Hunter Semillon is the only true wine style Australia can call its own, we thought this the best place to start on our anti-terroir project,’ says Erskine. He explains that this project allows the group to experiment with the effect that fermentation vessels, skin contact and external energies (such as poetry and sound!) can have on a wine. Each wine comes ‘bottled’ in a one litre egg-shaped clay vessel (a smaller scale version of the clay vessel used to ferment the wine).

‘The long and the short of it is that we sold most of these eggs in Australia,’ says Erskine, ‘but we saved some for Caves de Pyrene [UK importer of natural wines] as Eric Nairoo had expressed interest after trying an egg with us last year.’ Erskine’s egg wine was rejected by Wine Australia’s tasting expert panel and deemed ‘out of condition’.  ‘It was not fined or filtered and as you know many full-skin white ferments precipitate a haze,’ says Erskine. ‘The wine was also said to be oxidised even though it has a brilliant electric green hue (with golden mid-centre) and has 20 parts free sulfur on its export analysis.’

The export approval process has caused these natural winemakers problems, but the good news is that Wine Australia seems to be listening. As of today (31 Jan 2012), the tasting panel has been disbanded. Previously, all wines had to pass a panel of qualified wine inspectors who worked in pairs on a roster basis. Their brief was to be sure that a wine was ‘sound and merchantable’ in order for it to be exported. If a wine failed this test, it was tasted the next day by new inspectors who don’t know that the wine failed the day before. If the wine was rejected a second time, the winery had the option to have the wine reviewed independently. Approval lasts for 18 months, after which the wine had to be resubmitted. In 2010/11, just 43 out of 14 569 wines were refused export approval, which implies that lots of poor commercial wines got through and some of these interesting, unconventional natural wines didn’t.

‘The standards required for Australian wines have not changed, nor have the laws and regulations underpinning the quality and integrity of Australian wine, but our approach to administering these standards will move from reliance on pre-export product inspections to a risk-based approach,’ says Wine Australia’s Chief Executive, Andrew Cheesman. ‘When the current export controls were first introduced four decades ago, Australian table wine was hardly known overseas and there was a risk that even one faulty wine could hurt our reputation. Today we are an established and respected global producer and the market leader in some countries. We have a strong culture of compliance and our risk profile has changed considerably.’

This is a welcome change, but in other countries export panels continue to cause problems for unconventional winemakers. 


Problems in New Zealand

New Zealand also has a similar system, and one high-end producer who has fallen foul of the system is Pyramid Valley Vineyards, in the north Canterbury Hills. Winegrower Mike Weersing explains how one of his wines, the 2009 Earth Smoke Pinot Noir, failed to get export permission because it has a very low titratable acidity (TA) level of <3.5g/l. ‘The acidities were low this year and pHs high,’ says Weersing. ‘In a season which combined a cool summer with a warm fall, in order to achieve full physiological maturity and greater hang time, higher than typical sugars and lower TAs were inevitable; our inclusion of 15% whole cluster, for aromatic interest, also of course pushed the pH. Finally, and most tellingly, we never make any tartaric acidic additions.’ He adds that, ‘I'm told that the original reason for the minimum TA stipulation was to prevent the importation of wines that had been watered down. A brief glance at the other figures on the wine—e.g. dry extract, yield and overall production—makes very clear that no water could have been added. What burns my ass is that if I were to open all bottles, and to add acid, then reclose and ship, the bureaucrats would be appeased.’ [Note added later: it turns out that the minimum TA is an EU requirement for importing wines into Europe, not something imposed by New Zealand.]


The South African perspective

Craig Hawkins, winemaker at Lammershoek in South Africa’s Swartland region, also explains some of the problems he has encountered. ‘Pretty much every wine that you make needs to be exported at some time or another and for this to happen it needs to be certified,’ says Hawkins. ‘The process of certification is a maximum three-strike step procedure. The wines are tasted blind before separate panels, and three strikes and you’re out, and then it is your choice to go before the Wine and Spirit Board (WSB) and pledge your case as to why the wine should be certified/ultimately exported overseas.’

Hawkins has consistently run into problems, both with the Lammershoek wines, and his own wines, Testalonga, which push the boundaries of naturalness a bit further. ‘My wines for Lammershoek always get a few strikes before eventually being pushed through, but my Testalonga wines have so far both gone the full three strikes, and this is where it gets quite frustrating, because you already have an export order in place, and the people overseas love the wine and want it, and the only thing holding it back is the individual tasters from South Africa.’

However, Hawkins is sympathetic to the tasters who refuse his wines export licences. ‘In all fairness, they have not tasted many skin macerated/long lees contact/no added sulfur dioxide white wines and thus anything different is immediately put down as a fault, and failed.’ So he had to go before the WSB and argue his case. ‘I have heard from numerous wine growers who have had similar problems of how backward and narrow minded the WSB were,’ says Hawkins, ‘but things are changing and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the majority of them were very open minded.’

‘I had to go in front of the Board with letters from people like Doug Wregg (Les Caves de Pyrene), Dirk Niepoort and my importer in Norway (Vinarius). This is your last chance: if you are rejected here then that’s it, you cannot export the wine in any way, and the wine is basically lost to anyone outside of the country. The board consisted of mainly wine makers themselves, my old university professor—pretty much "the old guard"—and you have to sit down around a table and discuss the wines, the winemaking method, and what you are trying to achieve. No one has tried to export or make skin macerated white wines commercially here, so it was something new for them. The panel accepted the wine, and I was extremely impressed with the way they were open to accept new things. I think this bodes well for the future of the South African wine industry.’ But Hawkins is honest enough to admit that if his wines had been rejected, he might be ‘singing a different tune now.’

Tom Lubbe, who makes the Observatory wines, had a less pleasant experience at the hands of the WSB. ‘In South Africa you have to get a wine passed by the WSB once a year, so even if we did get a wine passed the first time it would usually fail the second year (or vice versa),’ he explains. ‘The wines were often failed for being "oxidised" and then at the next tasting "reduced" (a month later). Lack of sulfur dioxide was also a formidable danger to Brand South Africa I was frequently told, as was a dangerous lack of filtration and fining. One time an Observatory wine was turned down for the crushing reason of not "tasting like a South African wine". In the end I was submitting wines for full microbial analyses with 2 week and 4 week incubations before submitting to the WSB. No problem was ever detected in these analyses and the wines were always pronounced strangely stable but this did not seem to help.’

Lubbe adds, ‘As far as I could tell the main goal of the WSB was to supply endless rivers of £4.99 "trouble-free" plonk to English supermarkets, or any other supermarkets willing to go big,’ but he also admits that he might be biased by his bad experiences.



It seems that while these export panels are well intentioned, they can have the undesired effect of stifling creativity, and something needs to be done about this. ‘Surely a purchase from an importer is enough to satisfy that the wine is “saleable”!’ says Gary Mills, and he has a good point. ‘My beef is not with the process as a whole. The approval process is quite streamlined and accessible as a procedure. The tasting panel is where it gets a little murky.’ He thinks that the exclusive use of winemakers with show judging experience might work against wines that are a bit out of the ordinary. ‘What is their reference? Why should an export sale be derailed by a single subjective opinion?’

James Erskine made two suggestions to Wine Australia as to how they might improve their processes. ‘First, wines submitted to the expert tasting panel should be offered the option of providing a written introduction so that the tasters can be aware if the wine is produced in an unusual fashion and what they might expect to see. Second, we would be happy to organise a tasting together with ourselves and one of Australia's top sommeliers to showcase some of the more unusual styles of wine that are produced and revered today as Aussie winemakers are travelling more and more and bringing home ideas and beliefs.’

Erskine thinks that with the natural wine revolution gaining traction, that ‘there will be many more challenges to come for the tasting panel of Wine Australia.’ He also thinks that these new, interesting and diverse wine styles could be good for Australia’s image abroad, if they can get past the export panels. ‘As we all know, “Brand Australia” could not be any more deflated right now and shutting down wines which don't fit "the" mould will not allow Australia to move forward as a great producer of unique wines which should sit comfortably on the table against any great producer. We just have to break away from the homogenous mentality and national cellar palate for acidification and clean wines which we have.’

Fortunately, in Australia, people seemed to have listened, and the demise of the tasting panel is unlikely to unleash a tidal wave of bad Australian wine across the world. Perhaps New Zealand and South Africa should follow suit?

Published 01/12 This is a modified version of an article that first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International  
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