A matter of opinion

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.

Seal applied to every certified wine, including details tracing its history back to the vineyard
Seal applied to every certified wine, including details tracing its history back to the vineyard

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.

Certification faults 001Each 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.

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5 thoughts on “A matter of opinion

  1. The WSB has moved substantially to accommodate new styles of wine – far enough, I’d say, to give hope that some of the problems you allude to can be sorted out. So I’d disagree with you that the system hasn’t marched forward – well, it’s certainly taken many steps forward.

    A crucial element of the regulations that you don’t refer to, Angela, is the phrase “with regard to age, cultivar and type” at the head of the lists of unacceptable qualities. Going by that, presumably, with regard to your one example, a young cab is allowed to be tannic and astringent, while an old one wouldn’t be, nor would a young rosé. Anyway, there are surely very few of those unacceptable qualities on the list that should be allowed in avant-garde styles of winemaking?

    Things like turbidity and haze are, of course, undesirable in most types of wine and evidence of sloppy winemaking, while, yes, they are acceptable, to a degree, in some types. One answer, then, would be for the official description of “skin macerated white wine” to include this possibility, rather than scrapping the whole system. Personally, I like authoritative controls over quality – but, as you show, they do need to change occasionally, and they do need to be sensitively and intelligently implemented, with as little subjective judgement as possible.

    It’s a great pity that some interesting and (to many winelovers) valid wines are still falling at the hurdle of the test, and those winemakers need support in getting the authorities to accept that what are generally faults are not always so. Already it has been officially recognised that, eg, degrees of maderisation and oxidation is a vital part of some styles and should be accepted.

    But perhaps there are other reasons to drop the sensory tasting aspect of certification – it might simply be unnecessary in today’s market.

    1. Tim, the point I’m trying to make here is that the tasting system, rather than the whole certification system, hasn’t evolved with the times. What is young and what is old with regard to cabernet and the level of tannin and astringency; to some, the tannins in a 2010 cab might be sufficient to fail it – and there are still 2010 cabs being certified; to others they’d be perfectly acceptable in a wine designed to age. The point is, it’s a personal opinion. As you well know, blind tastings, which these sensory tastings are, inevitably throw up some ‘wrong’ results, due to their subjective nature. The only way to avoid that is to do away with this tasting and use lab reports to aid certification. If the sensory tasting remains, that table of unacceptable quality characteristics needs a careful re-look (I do see it was amended this year, though not sure how).

    2. Tim, do you (a) think there is a/are problem/s with the current system? and if so (b) what would your solution/s be?

  2. David, I’m sure there are problems, but what I’m saying is that the WSB is actually trying to improve the system thanks to the patient input of various winemakers, and it might be better to proceed along that path rather than throw out the system entirely (though, as I said, it could be argued that it is unnecessary given an alert market). Perhaps constructive feedback from Angela’s example winemaker might be useful? A proposal that some leeway be given on certain factors – eg, turbidity in skin-contact wine?

    It’s clear that for a tiny-production wine, handing over three bottles again and again for examination is a real problem, for example, and surely unnecessary. The technical examination has already been done with the first submission, and maybe even a second bottle isn’t needed in subsequent applications.

    It also occurs to me that perhaps if a winemaker is aware that a wine could cause some consternation (eg, it is turbid), there could be provision for the examiners to be made pre-emptively aware of the winemaker’s explanation of this “fault”?

    But I don’t really know enough about what problems winemakers are finding with the system these days to answer your question fully.

    Incidentally, I wonder why this particular wine is turbid. Lack of clarity is not a necessary consequence of skin contact. I have before me right now a glass of Craven’s 2014 “100% Skin Fermented Clairette Blanche 2014”, which is a perfectly clear orange-gold, if not brilliantly so. Perhaps some sort of explanation of why a wine is turbid could convince the panel of judges. Given entrenched and near-universal expectations of wine, there is every reason to look a bit askance at turbidity. I don’t much care about it, but would, given the choice, prefer the wine in my glass to be clear. For historical if no other reasons, it is more aesthetically appealing. I suppose there might be those who find turbidity attractive precisely because it defies established aesthetic standards and suggests “authenticity” to them in a way that it doesn’t to me (most wines I consider “authentic” are not turbid). What I’m saying, in this example, is that perhaps the winemakers should have tried a bit harder to avoid turbidity, given that it is not a necessary consequence of skin contact. Maybe they couldn’t and it is sometimes inevitable – if so, it would be good if the WSB’s certification process could allow for this opinion/information to be available to the judges from the outset.

    1. Thanks Tim. looking forward to discussing this in person with you. By the way, that perfectly clear 2014 Craven Clairette also initially failed due to turbidity.

      My issue is with the implementation of “authoritative controls over quality” – who should be given authority over quality? The most conservative faction?

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