Bureaucratic tasting panel (dis)approval

There seems to be increasing irritation amongst winemakers and wine producers about the deafness of the authorities who certify – or refuse to certify – wines for export. It’s happened for a long time that innovative styles that don’t go with the grey shoes of the authorities  get punished, but as local winemakers get increasingly sophisticated while the tasters do not, it’s happening more.

A contribution to Open Space recently raised the matter, and mentioned that Craig Hawkins’s Pinotage was refused certification allowing it to be exported. It’s actually a delightful wine, clearly pinotage, and when you think that the authorities seems happy to certify wines that taste more of French forests than of any grape variety, for example, you have to wonder, and more than wonder.

I did point out, in a comment to that contribution, that the Australians – apparently long plagued by a similar sort of situation with regard to some of their more unusual or innovative wines – were moving towards a system which would abandon the necessity for exported wines to be vetted by the local authorities. Maybe we should move in the same direction.

Meanwhile, our authorities seem content to give their approval to many depressing wines and the occasional really awful one while denying it some great stuff. I heard recently that one of the Cape’s best pinot noirs was refused three times over the matter of its colour….

But the Wine and Spirit Board, the ultimate controlling body, seems to have a lot of people on it with the most tenuous relationship to wine (veterinary experts and the like), and its relevant subcommittee need a decade or more of fighting with before grudgingly half-recognising that crouchen blanc should not usurp the name of riesling. Etc, etc. I remember fighting with them when they allowed “spirit coolers” to steal the names of grape varieties in defiance of their own laws. (We won that one – never say that Grape has been totally useless!)

What are the chances of persuading the Board that when a tiny producer in the Swartland makes a wine beyond their imagination and tastebuds it should be allowed to sell it to some eager customers (however weird one might think them!) in London. They do seem to have learnt something about oxidative (as opposed to fruity) styles of white wine – it took quite a bit of effort, after a lot of tears over Board rejections, but they have apparenlty moved on. Interestingly, I’m told that it is not the Old Guard that is particularly resistent to change, but the younger people…

Anyway, appended below is a slightly shortened extract from the latest newsletter (forwarded by Carla Kretzel of Lammershoek and Testalonga) of one of the most interesting UK wine importers, Les Caves de Pyrène,  in which Doug Wregg comments on the Wine and Spirit Board’s effective vetoing of the export of Craig Hawkins’s Testalonga chenin blanc. Bear with its length, read it and weep a bit, and gather some strength. It’s maybe time for a fight.


From Doug Wregg’s newsletter:

Craig Hawkins has just had his Testalonga El Bandito Cortez rejected for a second time. Sometimes, it must seem that trying to get an authentic wine past the South African tastingpanel is a Sisyphean endeavour.

This raises various issues.

Whilst one should always begin with the wine itself one should equally never ignore the context in which it is made and the criteria by which it is evaluated. Bluntly, Cortez is sui generis; it is cloudy (unfiltered with the lees intact), full of microbial activity. This is the life of the wine; it is a natural product, of course, as well as the signature of the winemaker himself. Unfortunately, wines are judged by different benchmarks than, say, unpasteurised cheese or any other unprocessed product – wine, it seems, must conform to a higher degree of stability.

Craig has a track record for troubling the scorers, so to speak. Recently, an utterly quaffable, dangerously delicious Pinotage delighted us, but not the powers-that-be in South Africa. The first version of the Cortez (2009 vintage) was also rejected initially – but subsequently passed after further review. The wine didn’t change; presumably the opinions of the judges did, which rather suggests thatt heir previous judgements were not rooted in principle. The wine was, inreality, terrifically stable, protected by a combination of lees contact and high natural acidity. This is how Craig wants his wines; also he is not seeking100% certainty nor hospital corners’ cleanliness – if this were the case he would filter, fine and sulphur away the natural life of the wine and leave it null and void; whereas his laudable intention is to leave those very living components in the wine that give its identity.

Scientifically, whilst his wine may not fulfil the pettifogging paradigms for stability (does everyone want wine to be denatured?) there is nothing to assert that the wine is actually unstable. Surely, however, it is not the remit of a tasting panel to decide whether a wine may be potentially unstable, or whether that supposed instability might have a deleterious effect on the wine. Even analysis can only describe what is in the wine, not hypothesise how the wine may react or behave, nor predict how people will react or behave towards the wine.

It would be so nice if something made sense for a change – Alice in Alice in Wonderland

Alternatively, the panel’s rejection of the wine may have been a collective aesthetic response to something unfamiliar. If so it betokens a narrow-minded attitude in the extreme. In terms of typicity Craig’s wines are as close to terroir expression as you will find in South Africa. They are old Chenin bush vines in the Swartland on decomposing granitic soils, farmed organically and biodynamically. Craig does not add anything to his wine, ferments with the indigenous yeasts, does not filter or fine and only uses a tiny bit of sulphur – if necessary. The wines are pure, wild and mineral with beautiful natural acidity and tremendous tension.The yeasts inflect the wine and give it texture and original flavour; the minerality comes in waves. Thus unadulterated, the Cortez is not just a South African wine, it is a Swartland wine, a granite wine, fermented with its own yeasts, a wine true to itself and the gentle decisions of the winemaker.

As a company we’ve always sought wines that truly reflect the terroir of region and the country. Over the years we have tasted many dozens of clumsily manipulated wines from South Africa wherein endless additions and over-compensations have destroyed whatever original character the wine may havehad. The Testalonga wine exemplifies faith in the terroir, faith in the vineyard and faith in the grapes themselves. This is what the UK market is looking for – individuality and wines that speak clearly of their origin.

In the pic: Craig Hawkins with a box of his wine

The tasting panel presumably considers the question whether the wine will be palatable to the consumer (whoever that consumer might be). It is dangerous and arrogant, however, to assume what an individual may or may not enjoy drinking. Moreover, Craig’s wine previewed at the Real Wine Fair where a number of experienced journalists, sommeliers and importers tasted and liked it, almost unanimously extolling its virtues and originality. As a result we had plenty of orders for Cortez in advance of importing it. So exactly who do the tasting panel purport to be speaking for? Is their role to protect the public interest in South Africa or do they profess to understand the taste of consumers in export markets around the world? And protecting them from what? Are they making a qualitative assertion that something is physically wrong with the wine – thereby contradicting the opinions of numerous other respected tasters who would fervently swear that the wine was of excellent quality? Or are they making a misguided judgement on behalf of brand South Africa – in which case they are more concerned at protecting the interests of companies that mass-produce chemically altered, high sulphured cheap wine than the rights of the individual artisan grower. Is not better to promote diversity and encourage those growers and winemakers who are working innovatively at the margins than to kowtow to commercialism?

If everyone minded their own business,the world would go round a great deal faster than it does.The Duchess ~ Alice in Wonderland

If the tasting board is so concerned about the reputation of “Brand South Africa “it should eschew bureaucratic interference and consider the wider picture. Numerous importers have written to us with similar stories about wines being rejected (usually on the tenuous grounds of “typicity” – or lack of it). This suggests to me that the tasting criteria are themselves flawed. Whether this is do with the competence of the tasters or indicative of a lack of knowledge of winemaking trends throughout the rest of the world is uncertain; we’ve experienced the same narrow-mindedness from Australian (dis)approval panels, although in that country it seems that there is discernible cultural shift towards recognising styles that do not conform to the mainstream.

Finally, one man’s protectionism is another’s restraint of trade and will obviously impact his commercial livelihood. Craig makes approximately 900 bottles of each of his two Testalonga cuvees. A wine produced in such minuscule quantity will stand outfrom the crowd and usually be a true reflection of the man who makes it and where it comes from. A panel which rejects all this stifles the creative expression of the winemaker. And by such judgements will judges themselves be judged. Brand South Africa is in danger of becoming further institutionalised for refusing to allow genius to flourish by being unable to see an occasional single ewe lamb without strangling it at birth. The tasting panel should take a leaf out of Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s book (summarising Voltaire’s attitude): “I (may) disapprove of what you say but I defend to the death your right to say it.”

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