Cloud of suspicion hangs over South African wine trade

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The British buy seven million cases of South African wine a year. But a scandal over illegal flavouring is threatening to take the wind out of the sails of the fifth-largest wine exporter to this country.

The South African Wine and Spirit Board is investigating claims that some sauvignon blanc producers are using illegal synthetic flavourings to make their wine more "sauvignon" in character.

The storm erupted with an article in the national newspaperBusiness Day by Michael Fridjhon, a leading commentator on South African wines. Mr Fridjhon wrote: "The shadow of counterfeit wine production hangs over the Cape Wine industry like a pall."

He claimed that producers of sauvignon blanc were either getting their product from "astute vinification of substantially underripe fruit or from use of illegal flavourants".

The flavourings being added "more than compensate for whatever natural sauvignon character is scorched off in our short ripening season", Mr Fridjhon wrote.

The story has gained currency in national and international press and the South African wine industry is furious at what it sees as a few dishonest makers spoiling the reputation of everyone else.

Although the flavourings are not thought to be harmful, they do contravene laws in South Africa, which state that wine should have no additives. The finger seems to be pointing at cheaper brands.

A spokesman for the South Africa Wine and Spirit Board, Dr Jakob Deist, said yesterday: "We are looking into it. We have heard the rumours and we have listened to what Mr Fridjhon said. It's easy to support rumours and another question to prove [these things] in a court of law."

Lynne Sheriff, a South African wine consultant living in Britain, said she would be unhappy if the whole South African wine market was hurt by a few producers doing the wrong thing. "I suppose the concern is that if we don't name specific wines, by default you name the entire industry, which seems a bit unfair on 99 per cent of the good guys," she said.

Half of South African exported wine goes to Britain. It commands 9.5 per cent of the UK retail market and South Africa is number eight in the global league of wine production with an annual turnover of £350m.

Ms Sheriff said she believed that not only South African producers at the bottom end of the market might be using the synthetic flavours.

"I think it would be sad for South Africa if there was an effect on sales when, prior to 1994, South African wine wasn't part of the international wine market because of its awful politics.

"I think there has been a huge pressure on not just the South Africans but everybody who delivers into this market to deliver wines at a specific price point and it's getting tighter and tighter each year. But there's absolutely no excuse for illegal processes in wine."

Michael Paul, the managing director of Western Wines, which makes the most popular South African wine in Britain, Kumala, said his wine was not under suspicion. "If it's being done, it's being done at the cheaper end of the market," Mr Paul said. "If it's found to occur, the one thing we do know is it's not a threat to health. These are natural flavourings but I'm not saying that makes it acceptable."

One of the flavourings believed to have been used is green pepper essence.

Abrie Bruwer, of Springfield Estate, said he and other colleagues had "had our suspicions for two years. These aren't very expensive wines - they'd sell for maybe £3.99".

Two years ago South Africa's Wine and Spirit Board began testing wines to establish whether any were being doctored. A report will be published next month and the industry board claims action will be taken.