A strange episode in the history of sherry

Of South African “sherry”, that is…. It’s a story that I came across in the archives, while trying to understand what was going on in Constantia in the early 20th century. Groot Constantia, you might know, had gone insolvent (collapsing along with most other wineries in the area), and had been bought by the government of the Cape Colony in 1885.

That was the year before phylloxera was discovered in Cape vineyards, and pretty soon those in charge of the government farm had to spend a lot of their energies in producing millions of American vines to provide rootstocks for replanting the winelands’ ravaged vineyards. But the viticultural school and wine research establishment that had been envisaged for Groot Constantia also proceeded and did valuable work for some years.

One of the ultimately less successful experiments, but which gave rise to temporary hopes for a new direction for the depressed wine industry of the time, concerned “sherry”. And it was all due to a presumably convincing visitor from Spain, one Senor de Castro-Palomino – about whom I haven’t been able to find out anything more. The experiments had the object, reported the Farm Manager in 1898, “of converting our heavier types of white wine into wines partaking of the nature of Sherry”.

Seemed like a good idea, and in fact it didn’t look to be very complicated either. “Treatment  consists merely in the addition of a quart bottle of a colourless liquid product with a pungent odour, and known by the name of ‘Mutagina’ to a barrel (108 gallons) of wine, and in thoroughly mixing the wine with this liquid.” Then the mixture was left for a few weeks, and … you got sherry. The miraculous Mutagina “consists of a concentrated extract of Spanish Sherry, to which a small quantity of antiseptic has been added”.

The results gave “a very favourable impression”.

Sadly, the Farm Manager’s official report report the following year had to indicate that the experiments had ceased. The main problem seems to have been that “small quanitity of antiseptic” – which turned out to be formalin (an aqueous solution of formaldehyde), which even the not very demanding health authorities of the time decided was Not a Good Thing. Certainly it didn’t bode well for a campaign to wean the world off genuine Spanish Sherry in favour of concoctions made in cellars at the foot of Africa.

So Jerez was saved for the time being. And South African sherry had to wait for the rather more orthodox experiments of Dr Charles Niehaus in the 1930s for the KWV, which inaugurated a remarkably successful period of sherry production in South Africa – though it was doomed to virtual extinction by international control over the use of the word “sherry” and then by the world’s  declining interest in this delectable beverage. If even the great fortified wines of southern Spain can’t rouse much interest these days (to the shame of the world’s wine-drinkers!) then what chance was there for South African Sherry – even if it no longer contained formalin.


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