Why does the Wine and Spirit Board allow labels to tell lies?

Perdeberg Winery, the widely esteemed former co-op in the north of the Paarl district, recently released an attractive sweet riesling. A proper riesling, that is, not the cruchen blanc that sadly is still allowed to masquerade as “Cape riesling”. This one is proudly called Weisser Riesling Reserve 2010.

I wonder how many people that have had the pleasure of drinking it have idly wondered how this great variety, associated most with cool climates, could perform so nicely in generally hot Paarl? Because there on the label, very clearly it says: Wine of Origin Paarl.

But behind that claim is something that should be a scandal – not a scandal for Perdeberg, but an indictment of the Wine and Spirit Board. Not for the first time the Board is revealed as failing in its duty to protect the integrity of the Wine of Origin Scheme. (I well remember the ultimately victorious battle that Grape fought some years ago to stop the use of varietal names on “wine-coolers”.)

The following is claimed on the website of Sawis (SA Wine Industry Information and Systems), introducing the Scheme: “When the term “Wine of Origin” … appears together with the name of a production area … it confirms that 100% of the grapes from which the wine is made, comes from that specific area.”

But not always. In fact, 100% of the grapes could come from another area entirely.

The Perdeberg Riesling, whose totally legal label claims that it comes from Paarl, is actually made from grapes grown in Durbanville. That is, the label contains what any normal person would consider a direct lie about the the origins of the grapes that produced it. And yet it is perfectly legal and proper, and there are other labels – possibly many of them – conveying similar untruths to wine-buyers.

This systematic apparent breach of the Wine of Origin legislation is not only widespread, it goes back a long time – to the first days of the Wine of Origin legislation in the early 1970s. At the time, to help large producers who had historically drawn grapes from widespread areas, the producers were allowed to claim a single origin for them.

This was in the wishy-washy placatory spirit of that time that also fatally watered down the estate legislation – but that’s another story. The real problem is not that there was an arrangement to ease the transition to a new system, but that it was allowed to continue for so long!

The relevant clause, 9(2)(a), states:

“Grapes harvested on land situate outside a region or district shall, if the grape harvest of that land has prior to 1 January 1973 and since customarily been pressed in a cellar in the region or district concerned, be deemed to have been harvested in that region or district”.

Nearly forty years later, the Wine and Spirit Board had done nothing to amend the system. Surprising? It took them long enough to sort out the estate mess, and to finally allow for single-vineyard wines (after enormous pressure). There’s no sign until recently that they have had any qualms about this situation. Meanwhile, contradictorily, ironically, the Board’ Demarcation Committee under Duimpie Bayly is doing excellent work in defining and re-defining the same geographical units of the Scheme which clause (92)(a) subverts.

My enquiries to Sawis (who are as usual my heroes in SA wine industry officialdom, while the Board is … not) revealed that 45 farms are involved in this misrepresentation. In the 2010 harvest, more than 17 million kilos of grapes were allowed to have the labels tell lies about their origins; that is, 1.38% of total production. It is a widespread practice of systematic misrepresentation, telling untruths to consumers. (Of course, some of those grapes were doubtless used for uncertified wine or for WO Western Cape or whatever.)

***

I had known about this situation before but, like the Board though with less culpability, had forgotten about it, or neglected to do anything about it. Prompted by the Perdeberg Riesling story, I sent emails to Sawis and to two highly-placed industry people, asking for information and comment.

Within half an hour I had a terse email from a fourth person – the Secretary of the Wine and Spirit Board, Mr Hugo van der Merwe, telling me that “Your query regarding section 9(2)(a) of the Wine of Origin Scheme (traditional units of land) has been referred to the Management Committee of the Board and we will keep you posted in this regard.”

I was later told on enquiry (I hadn’t been kept posted) that “The matter has been referred to an industry working group for further investigation.”

Oh, good. So there we are. I suppose I might be flattered that just my enquiries seemed a little threatening and proved to have had an effect. And I’m certainly pleased that maybe something is going to happen. Though, looking at the long slow processes and compromises that the Board’s committees tend to come up with or refuse to come up with (witness the riesling story; witness the continued existence of a Coastal Region that includes Tulbagh), I’m not entirely brimming with confidence, nor yet holding my breath.

But let’s hope.

Meanwhile, let me repeat that the Perdeberg Natural Sweet Riesling is a very attractive wine (at R80 for 500ml), and I’m very appreciative of Perdeberg’s continuing efforts to improve its general offering – which they are doing again and again (the Rex Equus Chenin Blanc 2008 was another very good wine, and there’s even a good chance that the grapes did indeed come from the Voor Paardeberg, or some other part of Paarl!). But I wish they would take the Wine of Origin System more seriously. Even more do I wish that the Wine and Spirit Board would do so.

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