Malu Lambert: How sensible is the sensorial panel?

By , 7 September 2022



Part of SA’s wine certification process is sensory evaluation by an official panel to ensure that the wine is “sound”.

Last year on a road trip through the Agulhas Wine Triangle, I met winemaker Pierre Rabie. A childhood spent diving and fishing along this southernmost coastline inspired his label The Giant Periwinkle. We met at his cellar on a small farm just outside of Baardskeerdersbos, near Elim. Here, he siphoned a sample of the Blanc Fumé 2021 for us to taste.

“This may blow your head off,” he said with a smile, referring to the wine’s high acidity. Standing there in the cool sunshine, the scent of the sea not far off, it didn’t quite do that. Rather the crystalline wine lit the imagination, the acid acting as a structural component.

Rabie says it’s the combination of the high acids and low pHs of the Agulhas fruit that gives his white wines their distinctive flinty minerality and mouthfeel. Fast-forward to 2022 though and it’s this very distinctiveness that has seen the same wine rejected by South Africa’s sensory panel that decide certification, citing it “lacked sufficient cultivar characteristics”.

“I don’t mind chemical analysis, that’s objective,” Rabie stresses. “What I have an issue with is someone sitting out in Stellenbosch telling me what Agulhas sauvignon blanc should taste like.“What’s great about South Africa is our diverse terroir – we can’t produce one type of sauvignon blanc. There is no such thing.”

The majority of wines that are “failed” get appealed and in most cases are eventually approved. But at what cost? Time is a big one. The whole distribution chain is delayed.

Another is innovation. “We’re still learning. You don’t want this panel to stifle freedom. We should be allowed to be more creative and we’ll do spectacular things,” says Rabie. “That’s what makes this country great. Trying to legislate and control everything just suffocates that spirit.”So, how does the sensory panel work? Craig Hawkins of Testalonga and one of the industry’s original disruptors, knows all too well how it operates. He had an almost permanent seat at the appeals’ committee with his range of alternative wines.

“You know it’s very easy to slam them,” he says, referring to the panel. “ But it’s important to understand the process. There are a lot of positives. It’s mostly a well-run system. But currently it’s broken in some places and it should be repaired so the machine can keep running.”Like Rabie, Hawkins thinks the lab analysis and the label assessment can stick around. “Both of those are completely objective. The sensory assessment though is just silly, we’ve moved on from those days where all wines tasted the same.”Hawkins with his first-hand knowledge explained the system as thus. The Wine & Spirit Board set the legislation, while SAWIS does the running of it. The sensorial tasters are volunteers, generally other winemakers. The panel consists of five tasters who sit in booths; they are given the wine with basic information as well as a checklist. After tasting they either hit the green, or the red button. The latter meaning: “Do not pass go”.

If the wine gets three reds out of five, then it goes to a second submission. If it fails again, then it goes to a third submission. If it fails yet again, then it’s escalated to the technical committee, which is made up esteemed producers. Neil Ellis, for example, is on it. It’s rare to fail at this point, though some still do.

The first vintage of Testalonga’s Skin (2009) was one. “In fairness there wasn’t yet a skin-macerated category,” shrugs Hawkins. “But they could have seen through that, instead they failed it for being oxidised…”.

“I took the wine to Wessel du Toit, a professor at University of Stellenbosch. I proved in fact it was actually reductive and fault-free.” Hawkins says that eventually, after some concerted campaigning, it passed.

This spurred on action to level the playing field. In 2012, five producers got together to get new categories added to the dreaded checklist. Along with Hawkins, they were Jurgen Gouws of Intellego, Adi Badenhorst, Eben Sadie, Callie Louw of Porseleinberg and the Mullineuxs.

The Swartland cohorts were successful. The new categories covered the basis of: skin-macerated, alternative red, rosé and white wines, méthode ancestrale, flor and solera techniques.“That really helped,” says Hawkins, “because the next year they had boxes to tick.”Though watching how things have evolved over the ten years since Hawkins laments that it’s the tasters who are now the issue. “It’s a conflict of interest; you can’t have winemakers judging other winemakers.“It’s kind of insulting to have your peers saying your wine isn’t good enough. That they know your market better than you.”

A sentiment Mick Craven agrees with. He and wife Jeanine run their own-label brand, Craven Wines.

“Imagine you got a group together of any other industry, let’s say oranges. And there was a panel of orange farmers who got together and tasted another farmer’s oranges to see if they are fit for sale?” Craven asks rhetorically. He in particular is currently feeling exasperated at the process.

The Craven Pinot Gris 2022 was recently failed by the panel for being ‘turbid and hazy’.

“In the nine years we’ve made this wine we have had to fight for it for seven times. The only times we didn’t have to was when the panel was disbanded during the pandemic, for obvious reasons. But here we are in 2022.

“We’ve got importers all over the world who want these wines. And suddenly, there’s a panel of five people who have deemed our wine is not good enough.”Craven thinks the period of the pandemic should be looked at as an opportunity to gather data. A time when exports only grew. “It’s the perfect two-year window to revaluate if the system works.

“The Wine of Origin scheme tracks and traces. SAWIS does great work. We have a word-class laboratory system. But as soon as it gets to any form of subjectivity, it’s completely irrelevant. There are always going to be tasters that hate the wine, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fit for sale.

“What’s the point of these tasting panels anymore?”

The Pinot Gris, after three anxious weeks for the Cravens, has finally been approved.

The whole process does seem arbitrary, and rather self-defeatist. The time and resources could go into something that rather uplifts the industry. We all have the same goal in the end, right? To promote South African wine on the world stage, not keep it in the wings.

  • Please note: The Wine & Spirit Board was approached for comment in early July, and none yet has been forthcoming.

  • Malu Lambert is a freelance food and wine journalist who has written for numerous local and international titles. She is a WSET Diploma student and won the title of Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer of the Year 2019. She also owns story-telling agency, Fable, which works with high-end food, wine and hospitality brands, telling their unique stories in a variety of digital formats. Follow her on Twitter: @MaluLambert


11 comment(s)

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    Jose Conde | 22 September 2022

    I am coming to this conversation a bit late, but I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment. No disrespect to the Wine and Spirits Board, who I have always found to be professional and reasonable. But as you say in the article, the majority of wines eventually get passed — which means it is mostly a waste of time. The problem of wasted time in our cumbersome certification process is a not insignificant one for the SA wine industry. I believe it costs the industry >2% per year.

    Anzill Adams | 14 September 2022

    Its not just the 5 gatekeepers that are problematic. One dimensional tasting panels at wine shows and this quest for individual glory at the expense of a whole of industry strategy, is perhaps an even bigger challenge…

    Michael Olivier | 8 September 2022

    Well written, well researched, very relevant. Well done special Malu Love to you and your men Michael

    Paul Benade | 8 September 2022

    Hi Malu,
    The answer is yes…and no! For a variety of reasons. But it is almost a story for a book.
    I started fighting with the “Board” in 1984. I was eventually approached by a delegate to scare me off. It did not work. I was fighting not only for Lievland wines, but many others in the Industry that approached me.
    Then I was cornered by the then “Chairman”, who told me if I don’t stop the fights/arguments/rulings, they will get me to come and taste with them, so that they can teach me everything about judging wine. Trying to scare me!! I was already a CWM by then. I insisted that I would love to do it. So, I joined the “Panel”. Tasted and judged there for around 10 years. I can tell you what happened behind closed doors those years….. Scary stories, incompetance, changes, etc.
    If you want to know more, I would be happy to sit down and tell you more about it!

    Jacques Herselman | 7 September 2022

    Very good and detailed article. Thank you Malu.

    Daryl Balfour | 7 September 2022

    Great article again. Malu Lambert showing why she’s so highly regarded internationally.

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