There can be few wineloving South Africans who aren’t aware of the positive and enthusiastic reviews of our wines from the foreign media. Given they are exposed to the whole world of wine on a daily basis, for South Africa to gain so much attention is noteworthy and encouraging.
As all those who feel the glow of that praise are aware, this is no time to rest on their laurels; the journey to better, more interesting wine never stops. If anyone hesitates, there’ll be someone else, another country, eager to fill the gap. It takes a team effort to maintain the momentum; our viticulturists and winemakers can’t make the journey alone, they need the backing of those who write and administer the rules and regulations.
Recently, thanks to urging and input from Swartland producers, new classes of wine with their specific requirements have been officially added to the regulations of the Liquor Products Act. I say ‘officially’, as styles such as Skin Macerated White, Méthode Ancestrale and Extended Barrel Aged White/Gris have been available but not under those names; in fact it was from practical experience of making these and the other permitted styles that the specific requirements were drawn up.
What those requirements are is not germane to this piece, apart from the fact that each and every one has to be certified. One of the main stumbling blocks to certification for those who veer from the safe but often boring route of wines that meet all requirements to gain that bus ticket lies in the sensory examination by the tasting panel of the Wine & Spirit Board.
Each of the five members of this panel sits in an individual tasting booth, unable to see or talk to any of the others. The decision to press the button for the green light (pass) or that for the red light (fail) is his or her’s alone. As is obvious from the list of ‘Unacceptable Quality Characteristics of Wine’, so many decisions are subjective; if I were on the panel, I know I’d fail many wines for ‘Excessive wood or vanillin character’ – yet how many have been failed for that? And, for goodness’ sake, how can a young cab be failed for ‘Tannic, astringent’, when that’s precisely what a young cab should have?
But back to the new styles, which in themselves encourage more extreme winemaking: lower alcohols, older oak only, no fining or filtration are pretty much the norm. But these can leave the wines open to some of those ‘Unacceptable Quality Characteristics’. Skin-macerated whites in particular, can result in turbidity or haze.
A winemaker friend, who produces this style, has no problem with turbidity when it is a protein haze provided the wine is stable, something that is checked in the lab before bottling. As my friend comments, ‘Fining can help to stabilise wines against these issues, but for quite a few of us we simply don’t care. The sensory quality is generally unaffected by such haze or turbidity.’ I should point out this is a summary of a much more detailed explanation.
Even with the lab report confirming the wine is stable, it’s failed by the tasting panel and, like many of the other unacceptable characteristics, the decision is a matter of the individual’s opinion.
What needs to be born in mind today is that winemaking skills – aided by better viticulture and fruit – have improved enormously. The purpose of the sensory examination was a much more useful tool in catching dodgy wine when those skills were not as sharp.
I have known too many winemakers whose wines have failed the tasting simply because of this subjective system rather than being faulty. It’s frustrating on several levels: many of the wines are pre-sold, so there’s a ready body of consumers who are willing to vote with their wallets – can there be better judges? Receiving the red button is also an expensive exercise, especially for small scale producers; each submission for certification requires three bottles, which might seem nothing for the Distells and KWVs of this world, but when your total production is four hundred bottles, every one sold has a bearing on your continued existence, especially for those with limited or no backing.
While our wines have marched forward, the system hasn’t. Time for a total re-think, if not scrap the sensory tasting.