Wine – Fakes, robbers and worse

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Some see the world of wine as dull and boring, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Intrigue, counterfeiting, robbery and even murder are all prevalent.

After all, as wine becomes increasingly valuable, so it becomes more sought after and a target for criminality. How do you know when something is the real thing and totally genuine? In the world of wine that might not be too easy for most of us. Blind tasting is a challenge.

While there are some member of the international wine cognoscenti who belittle the entire relevance of branding, in the world of vinous matter, I still argue their logic is tainted. Brands, after all, generally act as proof of the supplier, the provenance – ‘signposts’ as we go about our lives continually making decisions about the brands we consume, associate with and trust. The choices can be very confusing. The concept of a brand came about to indicate the origin of something, and sometimes to show ownership, as with cattle, but over time as goods proliferated, the brand became a trust mark and an experience.

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If you are prepared to make a considerable investment in a good bottle of wine you want to ensure it is genuine and will deliver on its promise. And I am not necessarily talking about paying R1 000, R10 000 or even R100 000 a bottle. For some, even around R100 is a stretch. For total peace of mind, it’s best to go to the cellar door or your local wine merchant.

Looking at some labels, I am totally bemused by those who make the cultivar the most prominent item. Mind you, someone tried to pour me some ‘sweet red’ the other day. In my student days, perhaps, but not today, thank you. After all, to say ‘Red’ or ‘White’ or ‘Merlot’ or ‘Chardonnay’ is only the first stage of taking a customer, consumer or buyer (and all three have different nuanced needs) through the purchase process. They are commodities at the lowest price point.

When looking at a label what is the first thing you notice? I start by dissecting the front label. What is the name of the estate, farm, winemaker, parent – and here I may be given visual cues, something I have written about previously. Is there another name, or secondary name, e.g. Meerlust and Rubicon? What is the cultivar or blend? What is the vintage, if indeed it is relevant; and finally, where is the wine from, or does it matter? Depending where in the world the wine originated, there may well be strict protocols to be followed.

The black label, if I get that far, often exhibits some of the worst copywriting ever. As Jancis Robinson of the Financial Times asked recently, so what if the wine is described as flinty, with mineral notes? There is no direct relationship between a wine and the geology of a vineyard. That’s a debate in itself. She goes on to point out that while Château Lafite has no black label, Blossom Hill Moscato will deliver ‘ripe aromas of freshly crushed grape and tangerine with soft melon and lime fruit and a clean crisp finish.’

Locally, we see terms such as best value: 20% more, limited edition, barrel fermented, export quality, meticulously blended, classic, reserve… which often may be of little or no relevance.

But I do have to ask, how many of us really know what we are drinking? Keeping it fairly simple, just knowing a Chenin Blanc from Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Sauternes or Pinotage from Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and, say Malbac, would be challenging for some. Today, many new cultivars are being introduced as South Africa continues to join the global scramble.

Space doesn’t allow me to talk in detail of fakes, although beware or auctioneers. And remember some 20% of the wine consumed in the UK is not what it seems; that robbers are targeting top restaurants and estates; 5 000 bottles were stolen from Bolney in the UK, and with murder most foul of a Chinese businessman in France just as he was buying up a local estate. Boring, it is not.

Jeremy Sampson

First published in Directorship – the quarterly magazine of the Institute of Directors of SA.

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