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It’s all about what’s in the bottle!

Greg Sherwood

In November I returned to Cape Town for a week of business appointments in the sunny winelands of Stellenbosch. I left behind London and its crisp clear blue skies only to return to a mass of storm clouds. My colleagues tell me that more rain fell in the week I was away than over the whole of the long British summer! But the horizon was stormy for other reasons too. While in South Africa, the “Sauvignongate” crisis, as I like to call it, broke onto the international airwaves.

While much has already been written and hypothesized in the media over a very short period of time about the addition of fruit essence into Sauvignon Blanc to enhance the flavour profile into a more cool climate style, I did manage to get the “low down” from several of South Africa’s top winemakers and vineyard owners in warmer Stellenbosch, the area primarily at the forefront of SA wine writer and wine personality Michael Fridjohn’s initial stirring allegations. I don’t want to rehash the accusations, but manipulation of wine is a wide spread phenomena in the world of wine. It takes place every day with chaptalization to raise the alcohol and add mouth feel, the addition of tartaric acid to correct imbalances, and in the new world, with the use of wood chips to “flavour” the wines.

However, I do find it particularly interesting that as a winemaker, you are allowed to throw all sorts of timber into your grape juice without anyone blinking an eyelid, yet the mere suggestion of adding a smidgen of natural fruit essence from passion fruit, melon, or gooseberry is enough to shake the wine industries deepest foundations and, some say, risks bringing the whole house crumbling down!  I can’t help but feel that this whole story is yet another good example of journalists and wine writers, many of whom are pressed to come up with something actually interesting or “new” to write about, letting their minds run a little too free and wild. The prospect of writing yet another review for a super market wine brand pales into insignificance alongside a juicy story like “Sauvignongate”!

In the Cape, winemakers or more precisely vineyard owners, with whom the moral responsibility of transparency ultimately lies, have correctly been quick off the mark to dispel the rumours, seeing as all the reports and related articles have been written from such a “matter of fact” stand point, despite being based on nothing but speculation. Mike Ratcliffe, Managing Director of Warwick Estate in the Simonsberg was adamant that every wine industry had the odd unscrupulous wine maker doing the unmentionable, but scoffed at the idea that it was a wide spread problem deep routed in South Africa’s burgeoning wine industry.

You only need to look at Warwick’s sensational sell-out Sauvignon Blanc “Professor Black”, to see what is possible with suitable terroir. After only two vintages, the wine has become highly rated and equally sought after. “The grapes have always been there, but had previously been sold off to other wineries such as Ken Forrester. Now that we have the time, focus and motivation to make an estate Sauvignon Blanc worthy of the Warwick label, we intend to develop it to the full and push quality levels as much as possible. More new plantings are already being planned.” Mike Ratcliffe said. When I sat down to taste the 2003 Sauvignon and also the new 2003 Chardonnay (just bottled that week), wine maker supremo Louis Nel was hard at work planning for the 2004 vintage already. No doubt another blockbuster Sauvignon Blanc on the way if the healthy flowering I witnessed was anything to go by.

The general assumption that South Africa is too hot to grow top Sauvignon Blanc is preposterous. Yes Stellenbosch is a warm growing region, but within the terrain, there are numerous cool climate sites with low average temperatures. Driving through Warwick’s vineyards with Mike in his 4´4, we observed a several degree temperature change from the lower vineyards near the winery compared with the higher sites. Factor in the cool sea breezes and cool night temperatures, and there is definitely a strong basis for producing cool, aromatic, grassy Sauvignon Blanc with a retained zingy acidity and a touch of tropical ripeness á la New Zealand.

Similar comments were echoed at several other wineries I visited including Morgenhof Estate, another contender for top Sauvignon Blanc producer. Their vineyards are just down the road from Warwick Estate and similarly situated on low, medium and higher slopes in the Simonsberg area. The temperature differences from one block to another higher up is marked. No problem seeing where Rianie Strydom gets her quality fruit from either. I attended their harvest in February 2002 and witnessed the first few warmer plots of Sauvignon Blanc being vinified. Other large swathes of vines situated higher up on slightly cooler sites were still several days or even weeks away from full physiological ripeness - the clever blending of these varied plots creating complex, grassy, zesty Sauvignon Blanc at its best.

If hypothetically more than a few producers in South Africa are actually meddling with nature’s end product and adding a bit of their own characteristics via essence, you can be absolutely certain that the practice is even more commonplace in other New World countries with similarly warm climatic characteristics. Australia and California are only two nations that spring to mind. I have never read a report of such practices being investigated in either of these countries, both of which have many growers that struggle to produce top flight Sauvignon Blanc on a large scale.

As SA wine guru Dave Hughes pointed out recently, these same essence and additives are freely available and have been on sale for many years within the wine industries of USA, Australia, South America and New Zealand. Few would be brave enough or silly enough to stand up and accuse their large and powerful industries of widespread shenanigans without substantiated evidence!

Fortunately for all, the Wine & Spirits Board in South Africa has announced a program to start randomly testing wines in 2004, which will no doubt quell any further concerns from foreign buyers. As for every day consumers in the UK, their minds will no doubt be more concerned with their New Year’s detox!  

see also: Jamie Goode's piece on adding flavour: a new South African wine scandal

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