South Africa clamps down on illegal flavouring

  • Friday 21 November 2003

South Africa’s Wine & Spirit Board has launched a campaign to detect synthetic flavourings in wine, amid allegations that their use is widespread.

In particular it is trying to trace the illegal use of the chemical pyrazine, which gives rise to the trademark asparagus or capsicum note in Sauvignon Blanc.

The ‘bombshell’, as it’s been called by one producer, was triggered by an article in weekly magazine Business Day earlier this month by wine critic Michael Fridjhon.

‘The shadow of counterfeit wine production hangs over the Cape wine industry like a pall,’ he wrote.

Last month several members of the tasting panel responsible for certifying wines for the Robertson region resigned. This was in part because they were unhappy that the Wine & Spirit Board had let through wines they believed might contain illegal flavourings.

But Abrie Bruwer of Springfield Estate told decanter.com there were additional reasons for his decision to quit, and that the suspect wines only constituted a tiny fraction of those he tasted.

‘We’ve had suspicions for two years,’ he said. ‘Typically it’s when there’s a strong green pepper nose on a very thin little wine. These aren’t very expensive wines – they’d sell for maybe £3.99.’

In April Linley Schulz, head of winemaking for the Distell group – owners of such properties as Durbanville Hills, Plaisir de Merle and Zonnebloem – told a conference run by the South African Society of Enology and Viticulture that the country’s reputation was under threat.

Later he told decanter.com, ‘It’s reasonably well known that the companies who make flavours have been offering these things for sale, and you would assume that somebody’s buying them.’

In his article, Fridjhon suggested the opulent character of many 2003 Sauvignons could be chemically derived. He also spoke of ‘ranges of fake flavorant to give Cabernet Sauvignon that more concentrated cassis aroma or Chardonnay a creamy butterscotch taste.’

Now new measures have been announced to police a growing industry that now has an annual turnover of more than €500m.

Dr Jakob Deist of the Wine & Spirit Board said, ‘The local wine industry has been aware for some time of the global practice of adding flavourants to wine. Although they pose no physical harm to consumers, their use is patently unethical.’

Deist said the Wine & Spirit Board and Winetech, the research arm of the South African Wine & Brandy Company, had finalised a two-year technical programme to detect food flavourings in wine, and that from 2004, ‘a producer whose wine shows evidence of the addition of flavourants, will be severely dealt with.’

The South African Wine & Brandy Company supports the Wine & Spirits Board’s crackdown. ‘People guilty of these practices are acting illegally and can be criminally prosecuted,’ CEO Dr Johan van Rooyen said.

Tim James, editor of the influential South African newsletter The Grape, told decanter.com, ‘rumours have been rife for ages, especially about Sauvignon, but nobody who knew would say so publicly. I'm very pleased the thing has been made public.’

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