The scandal that never quite happened

There was a bland little announcement a few weeks back that probably few noticed, but I’m sure it reminded WOSA of some scary times last year when it thought it might have an international scandal on its hands reminiscent of the flavourant one of 2004. (Gosh was it really so long ago that they found that two KWV winemakers – and no doubt others – had been illegally adding pyrazines to their sauvignons?)

This press release announced that “Ashton Cellar has been tested free from Natamycin in our clear and brown grape concentrate”. Not very newsworthy stuff unless you knew that this anti-microbial agent and fungicide (also known as pimaricin) had been found by the alert Germans in some Argentine and South African wines, and that it was an illegal additive in wine in Europe.

No matter that it has long been used, perfectly legally, in various other foodstuffs in Europe.  Scandal threatened. (There are those who think that there are various forces always on the lookout for something with which to lash South African wine.) WOSA and others scurried about frantically and the authorities put measures in place to see that local wines were free of the stuff.

But why the significance of this recent announcement from Ashton? Because, as I understand it, the way natamycin got into South African wine was via sweet concentrate imported from Argentina! The concentrate is added to wine to make it taste sweeter – something that is, sadly, a perfectly legal practice – but rather a dodgy one to my mind. I’d thought that it was only the lowest level of cheap crowd pleasers that used it, until the mini-scandal when Wine mag had to withdraw its five star rating from a Havana Hills Sauvignon, when it became clear that the wine was sweeter than the rules allowed, and then it became clear that Havana Hills had sweetened their wine with concentrate.

Whether that wine had natamycin as a result, I have no idea – but I’m assured that when there was the prospect of a scandal in Germany over the issue, there were some very worried producers of wine that one wouldn’t have expected to be using concentrate in their wine…. It’s cheaper and easier, you see, if you want a bit of extra sugar in your wine, to appeal to the Wine magazine Sauvignon Blanc panels and others, to ferment the wines dry and then add it afterwards. Such is the honest nature of most winemaking these days.

And Ashton Kelder is the only local producer of clear grape concentrate – there’s also a brown one, for red wine, presumably. But it’s apparently all OK now, and producers can carry on sweetening their wines with Ashton’s help. I have no idea if Argentina is involved in any way.

I couldn’t help but make a scandalous connection though – despite the fact that, as far as I know, Ashton itself has done nothing in the least bit wrong. Do you know who the Chief Executive Officer is at this Robertson former co-op? One Sterik de Wet, former Cellarmaster at the KWV, the man in charge of the two winemakers who’d illegally adulterated their Sauvignon Blancs (they were never charged, you’ll recall – just “sacked” and found new jobs immediately). It’s something that I know well, as Sterik (well, really it was KWV through him) started the process of taking me to court, accused of defamation, after I’d suggested (terribly wrongly, of course!) that he should bear some responsibility for the actions of his winemakers, or at least for the culture that allowed them to act illegally.

The lawsuit was dropped. But Sterik left after a few years, and Australian Richard Rowe became the head winemaker. Maybe Sterik just wanted to get back to Ashton and be in charge of such glories as grape concentrate production.


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