Not an “unyielding bureaucratic machine” anymore, but still subject to complaints galore… HENRY HOPKINS investigates.

Its business in brief…

The Wine and Spirit Board administers the Wine of Origin Scheme (WOS) introduced in 1973 and based on European models such as the French wine regions.
Represented on the Board are the Cape Wine and Spirit Institute, KWV representing the interests of primary producers, the Department of Agriculture and the Agricultural Research Institute.
The control function of the Board is contracted to SAWIS (SA Wine Industry Information and Systems), whose inspectors have the right to inspect vineyards and wineries to establish claims to vintage, variety and origin.
Before the official seal is granted to a wine, tasting panels taste the wine to determine whether it meets the claims on the label. The panels of five judges are drawn from a pool of at least 50 experienced and qualified tasters, representing the Board and also including prominent winemakers, researchers and academics.
The Chairman of the Wine Judging Committee is Charl Theron, the retired KWV production chief, while the Technical Committee is chaired by Duimpie Bayly, formerly technical director of SFW. The Wine and Spirit Board, chaired by Dr Jakob Deist, appoint these committees. The panels comprise 116 winemakers or tehcnical specialists, including well-known personalities like Jan Boland Coetzee, Beyers Truter and Neil Ellis, and gather at Nietvoorbij near Stellenbosch.
The tasting system works as follows:

  • Each panellist sits in an enclosed cubicle, tasting wines blind after having been told the variety and vintage.
  • If the wine is acceptable, the taster presses a green light, if not, he gives it a red light.
  • Three or more green lights mean a wine passes.
  • If there is one red and the taster has a serious problem with the wine, it is passed, but the producer gets informed of the problem.
  • The same applies for two reds, and where the tasters have consensus about their problems.
  • Three red lights mean a wine is rejected.
  • Where no firm consensus is reached about the reasons for rejection, the wine is automatically resubmitted on the morning of the following day, normally a Wednesday, for tasting by a second panel.
  • If it gets rejected again, the wine can be referred to the technical panel, which convenes on Fridays.
  • This means that a wine that is finally rejected would have been tasted by at least 15 people within four days.
  • The producer gets notified of the reasons for rejection.
  • If the producer does not accept the verdict, he or she can lodge an appeal, citing reasons why a wine tastes or appears as it does, to the technical committee, together with a *chemical analysis by the Department of Agriculture.
  • Recently, wine producers requested that tastings be decentralised and performed by a Wine and Spirit Board tasting panel comprising members of a specific region. The Robertson and Stellenbosch regions now have such panels, which are equal in status to the central tasting panel, but may only taste wines from their own regions. If in their opinion a wine does not exhibit the qualities ideally associated with that region, the wine can be referred to the central tasting panel for possible qualification as a wine of origin from a broader area, such as the Western Cape.
  • The producer pays for the analysis, but the fee is generally regarded as fair and the procedure as thorough, although some producers have a problem with the time it takes to get results back. Department officials are aware of the problem, but blame time lags on a lack of staff.
  • Bemoaning the Board…
  • If he won the jackpot he would take the Wine and Spirit Board to court for violating his human rights, says Stellenbosch grower and winemaker Frans Gentis. They should have no right, he claims, to prohibit him from calling a 100% Sauvignon Blanc exactly that on the label.

Bennie van Rensburg of West Coast Vineyards has similar complaints. Although the question has been asked by critics whether the Board is needed at all, he sees the need for a body like the WOS – to improve South African wines and to guarantee what is stated on the labels. However, with people like Mr Gentis, he objects to the last hurdle in the process, namely the right of a tasting committee to decide whether a wine displays sufficient varietal character or not. They say it is subjective, meddlesome and unfair and costs them time and the loss of valuable orders. And nowhere else in the world does a wine of origin system include this dimension.

Adding to their irritation and generally singled out as a key problem, are the apparent inconsistent results obtained by different tasting panels of the Board. Rejected wines often pass the test when they are resubmitted to a review committee a day or two later, leading to perplexed amusement, but also to financial embarrassment.

Mike Ratcliffe of Warwick Estate cited an example. In January this year, Stephen Tanzer of the United States rated their Three Cape Ladies as one of the best among the Cape’s current crop of wines (with 92 out of 100 points) in his widely read International Wine Cellar.

“Immediately orders poured in from the United States. We submitted the wine for certification, as we were about to export a lot of it. The Board turned down almost the cellar’s whole range, including Three Cape Ladies and the Warwick Trilogy, for being ‘hazy and cloudy’, and the Cabernet for not displaying ‘sufficient varietal character’.

“We complained and re-submitted the wines and, funnily enough, a few days later, the wines were all passed as being in perfect order.”

Ratcliffe explains that they do not subject their wines to filtration, but rely on egg fining, “which does not leave the wines crystal clear, but gives it character and body.”

According to him the Board applies its standards across the industry and does not make any distinction between the so-called “boutique estates” and co-operatives when certifying wines. There is no distinction between wines voluntarily not subjected to filtration and those that are cloudy because of microbiological faults.

As to the insufficient varietal character, he claims that “the wine would have stood out among 100 Cabernets as being distinctly Cabernet.”

“We’ve had similar experiences,” said Bennie van Rensburg of West Coast Vineyards. “Wines get turned down one week and the following week they are approved. Once we submitted the same wine under two labels on the same day. The one got approved while the other was rejected. When a wine gets turned down, a container may miss the ship. You lose a week’s business and you never catch up again.”

Frans Gentis, who markets his wines under the Azure label, experienced the frustration of having his Sauvignon Blanc turned down three times in a row, losing a potentially lucrative order from a South African restaurant group whose wine tasting panel had already selected it for their wine list.

“The Wine and Spirit Board told me the wine did not exhibit enough Sauvignon Blanc character, but that I could get it certified as a ‘Blanc’ from the Stellenbosch region. We laboriously blotted out the ‘Sauvignon’ with a pen. The client lost interest and I lost about R10 a bottle.”

Gentis does not question the integrity of the WO system, or even tasting for varietal character in export wines. Like most other producers, he has a high regard for the way the South African Wine Industry Information & Systems (SAWIS) goes about their control function. SAWIS is under contract to the Wine and Spirit Board to inspect vineyards and wineries regarding variety, vintage and origin, a function previously performed by KWV, when it still had statutory powers.

“But once it has been established that claims to variety, vintage and origin of the wine are correct on the label, why the irritation of having a tasting panel tell you that you are not allowed to use the variety on the label All because the taste does not correlate with their opinion of what is organoleptically acceptable for a specific variety, ” complained Gentis, who added that he was even willing to forego the Wine of Origin seal as long as the Board also had no further control over his label.

Johan Haasbroek, Manager of La Bri near Franschhoek, also bemoaned the Board’s recent refusal to let him use the cultivar name on his 2001 Sauvignon Blanc. WineLand learnt later that the wine was passed the second time around.

“I stand to lose R20 000 if I’m not allowed to use the labels,” he said at the time, and explained that winemakers had no real alternative to having the labels printed as soon as the alcohol content had been finally established, which normally gives them a lead time of only 14 days before the wines get submitted to the Board.

“Should a wine get turned down, larger cellars are in a better position to ‘doctor’ the wine, like blending it with wine from another tank, as long as they manage to keep the alcohol at the same level. However, that opportunity does not exist for smaller producers, who may be so desperate that they will eventually resort to irregular means. We don’t want that to happen, but I know of a few very desperate guys,” he said.

It has been suggested by some producers that the tasting panels are insular in their judgement and that someone who has been on the panel for the last 20 years may have lost touch with varietal trends worldwide.

Ratcliffe complained that the Wine and Spirit Board is faceless. “Who do you blame for screw ups”

Smiling ruefully, Charl Theron and Duimpie Bayly (one of the first Cape Wine Masters) admitted that they were getting an earful of complaints. But they believe that the Board is more transparent than ever and eager to streamline procedures.

And, they say, there’s nothing amiss with the Board’s communication. Recently, workshops were held with producers to iron out difficulties. Part of a new procedure being considered is to allow multiple batches to be bottled from the same tank, without the burden of having to submit a sample for every order, after the initial granting of the seal of origin. There may be random checks to satisfy the Board that subsequent batches contain the same wine and errant producers may lose their export permits.

“But we are here to approve wines, not to turn them down. We are here because the industry appointed us to maintain a certain standard and to keep them abreast of EU requirements,” argued Bayly.

The WOS rests on three pillars – origin, vintage and cultivar. His defence in favour of a sensory analysis is based on the opinion that cultivar and cultivar character are so tightly intertwined that the one cannot exist without the other, hence the necessity for sensory analyses to prove that a wine also exhibits the organoleptic characteristics usually associated with it. And, he claims, the large majority of producers and consumers are in favour of this extra measure.

He also denied allegations that the Board’s tasters are not au fait with varietal trends, pointing to their experience and regular visits to overseas countries, apart from regular workshops where foreign wines are tasted, judged blind and discussed afterwards.

“And anyway,” he said, “tasting for cultivar character is only part of the sensory analysis, by which we also turn down thin and watery wines or ones with obvious colour or taste problems. Cloudy or hazy wines are turned down as a matter of course. Panellists are obviously unaware of the identity of the producer or whether wines were intended to be unfiltered. The cloudiness or haziness could be due to a microbiological fault.”

“You’d be surprised how many mediocre wines are submitted for the WO seal,” added Theron. “I’ve found much better ones amongst ‘papsak’ wines.”

Bayly ascribed many of the problem cases to haste after a lucrative export order had been received from overseas clients.

“Often wines get rushed through the stabilisation and bottling processes. Samples get to us still suffering from ‘bottle shock’. When a wine gets rejected, it may miss a shipping date, that often results in an export order being lost… and obvious resentment towards us. Sometimes producers conveniently forget that we are only the last link in a long chain of events.”

Defending their emphasis on varietal character, he said that while a producer may use grapes from the best ‘blue label’ plant material, many seem to have a knack of vinifying the best qualities out of the wine. “Then we get thin, watery wines with little resemblance to the varietal stated on the label.”

Mike Graham, winemaker of Stellenbosch Vineyards and a member of the tasting panel, said he believed in the Board. “I would not sacrifice my own time if I did not believe in it. The composition of the Board is perhaps questionable, but once again, finding free volunteers is difficult.”

KWV legal expert Willie de Klerk also came up in defence of the system. He said as far as he was aware a mere 5% of wines were turned down due to quality problems and that only part of this (less than 1%, it was claimed) was finally ascribed to insufficient varietal character.

De Klerk pointed out that the WOS only requires 75% of the variety that is stated on the label. “Where 25% of a flavour-prominent variety like Muscat is used to make up the balance, it may mask the variety stated on the label to the extent that the information may be regarded as misleading.”

According to Bayly, this is particularly the case with varietals like Sauvignon Blanc and the Rieslings. Problems are also encountered with certifying sparkling wines made from specified varietals.

Johan Haasbroek of La Bri agrees that Sauvignon Blanc often enters the firing line. “They (the Board) seem to prefer the ‘hyper grassy’ New World style,” he said. “But not all of us make that style or want to make it.”

Bayly and Theron argued that the system is based on European models (France and Germany in particular) and that Australia has a similar screening system for export wines*.

A salient feature there is that when there is doubt as to the suitability of wine for export, the inspectors are urged to consider carefully the price and quantity before reaching a decision, and, if necessary, to seek further information. This entails information with respect to price and quantity to enable inspectors to make ‘commercial judgements.

This is in line with a suggestion by Bennie van Rensburg that the South African Board should ‘think commercially’ before making judgements.

“The £2,99 wines in the UK only have a given quality, yet they form 50% of the market. So why don’t we only ensure that our wines meet the demands of certification and are chemically correct and free of contaminants, once the clients, who know what their customers want, have approved them Sometimes wines are rejected because of the very characteristics that the customers thought their buyers might like… that ‘something different’.”

Instead of two or three different panels that may contribute to the existing inconsistency and confusion, Van Rensburg suggested one panel of five judges, of whom three should be permanent, salaried appointees, with the other two rotating.

Bayly thought the South African procedure was more efficient and definitely not the unyielding bureaucratic machine of the past. “We are working on ideas to make it more dynamic and better suited to the needs of the industry. It will work best when there is a will to see it work. I think that stage is not too far away.”

Haasbroek would like to see this happen. “We’ve become too lethargic. Over many years we’ve started to adopt an attitude of ‘Oh well, that’s part of the system; nothing much you can do about it.’ But abroad, our industry’s service component is seen as lacking and a lot of that hinges on time wasted to get wines approved for export. This is causing damage.”

*Although Australia has no WO system yet, they are apparently considering regional demarcations for areas like Coonawarra’s famed terra rossa (red soil) region.

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