Bulk wine exporters who fail to keep an eye on the bottling and labelling of their products once they have reached distant shores, may soon be refused certification for wine exported in bulk.

The Department of Agriculture has proposed regulation changes that will put an end to suspect bottling and labelling practices overseas, and their negative effect on South African wine markets.

The Liquor Products Act already provides for the prosecution of habitual transgressors and changes are being formulated to prohibit them from using certification claims regarding origin, vintage and/or varietal on future bulk exports.

Bulk wine exports are monitored by the Department regarding chemical analysis, sensory evaluation and label check on a factory sealed and labelled control sample returned from the importing country. Quarterly reports are then forwarded to exporters for follow-up action in cases where bottles failed to meet standards.

The Chief Plant and Quality Control Technician of the Department of Agriculture, Leon Pienaar, said the Technical Committee of the Wine and Spirit Board recently rejected 55 out of 268 samples, which had been bottled overseas and submitted for sensorial evaluation. As the same wines had earlier passed the minimum standards for bulk export, there is concern about the deterioration in their quality after export.

Some of the wines were over-matured, oxidised, corky or mouldy, showed volatile acidity or lacked varietal character. Thin and watery wines were also found, possibly due to overzealous stabilisation that stripped products of whatever character they had left.

Chemical analyses of seven bottled and labelled control samples returned were not comparable with the original analyses of export samples. Pienaar attributed the variances to dilution, blending, the addition of sugar and “unhealthy” cellar practices.

Pienaar said although there was a marked decline in labelling errors because his office had more direct contact with bottling companies in importing countries, fraudulent “errors” still occurred.

Examples of these are:

What had been certified as Cinsaut/Pinotage was later found to be labelled Pinotage/Cinsaut. Similar reversals were detected on Cinsaut/Merlot, Cinsaut/Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc/Sauvignon Blanc.
A wine exported as a Dry White was labelled Chenin Blanc.
Wines certified as Geographical Region Western Cape were adorned with maps that highlighted Stellenbosch or Paarl.
Some that were certified without a vintage, nevertheless appeared on the shelf with a vintage on the label.
Red wines certified as 2000’s were sold as 1999’s, while the Department also came across the reverse for white wine.
Wendy Jonker, the Department’s Assistant Director: Liquor Products, cautioned producers to sever links with agents or bottling companies who are repeatedly caught tampering with products or who fail to maintain their quality during bottling. Through tighter monitoring after 1999, the Department had acquired error profiles and where a bottler had developed a bad reputation, his South African bulk supplier were required to furnish a higher percentage of control samples than the mandatory 10%. Some of them were on a full 100%.

“At the fee of R500 for every three-bottle sample that has to be returned to us from abroad, this requirement already constitutes a form of penalty, but these exporters now face the rather grim reality of losing their chance to ship certified wine in bulk altogether,” said Jonker. “They may soon be forced to bottle everything in South Africa and have it certified by the Wine and Spirit Board prior to shipment. Failing that, they will face the only remaining option, to export their wine as Dry White or Dry Red, completely devoid of wine-of-origin claims. These regulations are in the pipeline.”

On the other hand there were also the cautious bulk exporters who voluntarily submitted samples of each consignment bottled overseas. “They will phone us and ask, ‘Hey, when do we get the report on our bulk samples’ They regard it as a reliable form of quality control,” said Jonker.

Pienaar also pointed to the fact that their Department was keen to give positive feedback where it was warranted. Citing the example of a Sauvignon Blanc exported to La Chaise Beaucaire for the French Club des Sommeliers, he said the chemical analysis of the control sample returned was exactly the same as that of the export sample.

“The Technical Committee of the Wine and Spirit Board commented on the exceptional quality of the wine during the sensory evaluation. In such cases we inform and congratulate the guys overseas.”

South African exporters were generally following the International Wine Office’s (OIV) Good Practice Guide for Bulk Wine Transportation. This code applies to the handling of wine in bulk and contains recommended minimum requirements “to ensure acceptable cleanliness and freedom from any defect (particularly oxidation) or contamination which could adversely affect the characteristics or quality of wine being carried”.

Last year, about one third of South Africa’s total exports of 138 million litres was shipped out in bulk. Although on a par with the previous year, the SAWIS statistics show an increase of 41% percent in bulk exports to the UK, mainly white wine. During the first half of 2001 significantly more bulk wines were exported to the UK than in the corresponding period last year – with a notable increase in blanc de noir and rosé wines, mostly in bulk form.

Scandinavia ordered 72% more bulk wine from January to June this year than during the same period last year, Canada 31%, Belgium 22% and Germany 9%.

“I think some co-ops were in a bit of a panic,” commented George de Ridder, a South African negociant who also deals in bulk exports, besides his own bottled Ridder’s Creek range. “When large wholesalers started cutting back, offering very low prices while the production cost per litre was running at a minimum of R1,50, some smaller producers with limited marketing experience got the message and decided that bulk was the ‘higher income’ option.

“Even now there are still fairly large volumes of bulk wine available. We get calls nearly every day from co-ops telling us they have a few tanks available and asking whether we are interested. Exporting in bulk may, to a limited degree, become an alternative for the local bulk wine business, but one must keep account of the fact that international wine buyers know all about the exchange rate and some are reluctant to allow higher margins on this side. But then, after all, we need to focus on quality, not the exchange rate, to get better prices for our products.”

Cancellations or delays frustrated some co-ops and private producers, who initially tried their hand at large, packaged export orders.

South African winemaker Jean Luc-Sweerts explained their predicament. “Who can blame a co-op that has seven of its ten containers, with fully packaged wines, still sitting on the floor because its agent told them to hang on, while big customers who indicated that they might take more, are looking for bargains from the new European harvest In the meantime those wines are getting older and may be harder to sell. The co-ops may get tired of playing cat and mouse and may well decide to go bulk next time and collect their money – thank you very much – as soon as the wine is shipped.”

But Leon Pienaar hopes that there will soon be more bottled exports and that the quality will increase together with volumes as new, export-directed plantings come on stream.

While it has been much cheaper to bottle in England, France and Germany, the exchange rate wiped this advantage off the books. But will South African bottlers be able to cope with the increased volumes and what about the other alternative, the foil bag or papsak

“I think the government will kill the papsak with excise duties,” said an industry observer.

Some bottlers have no doubts about the future. “I trust – in fact I’m positive – that the bottling co-operatives and companies will be able to handle everything that comes our way,” said Etienne Buhr, general manager of the new Paarl Valley Bottling Company near Wellington.

He admitted that it was cheaper to bottle overseas up to three years ago, when the rate in France, for instance, dipped as low as R9,19 per case. “But the exchange rate has changed the picture quite dramatically. Current European prices exceed the R9,19 mark, while we can offer rates as low as R7,19 to clients with requirements larger than say 200 000 twelve-pack cartons.”

Currently, four large bottling co-operatives and companies are vying for customers in a business that grows between 10 – 20% a year. There have been shifting allegiances and rumours of a new bottling company at Vredendal.

At about 1,8 million cases a year Stellenbosch Vineyards (previously Stellenbosch Bottling Company) still handles the largest volume of wine on four lines. The ageing Breërivier Bottling Co-operative near Worcester is next at around 1,3 million cases, while Paarl Valley Bottling Company has increased its orders from roughly 735 000 cases in 2000 to this year’s 1,2 million. Rostberg, which mainly handles bottling for Vinfruco and African Wine & Spirits, runs two smaller lines near Stellenbosch.

PVB’s two fully automatic lines can handle 100 000 litres per day and two new lines will come into operation soon. “We’ve budgeted for growth of 20 percent over the next year and we’re aiming for 2 million cases. That’s massive and implies that, besides new business from companies that have previously been bottling overseas, we will also be taking a larger slice of what’s been done locally,” said Buhr, whose optimism is based on their timely investment in self-labelling machines.

“The premium sector has been growing in that direction and the other bottlers may not be able to install or to get familiar with self-labelling lines fast enough in order to cope with this trend.”

One industry observer thought they could. “As long as co-ops and large private wineries come together and develop strong brands to capture economies of scale, they will simultaneously be able to centralise and upgrade their bottling facilities to a larger extent. This is already happening. But, of course, there will always be a place and a destination for bulk exports too.”

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