2008 : The year of wine hoaxes and winning blends

Wednesday, 14 January, 2009
Graham Howe
"We taste with both our tongues and our minds, and it's easy to lead minds astray" warns Edward Dolnick, author of "The Forger's Spell". I stumbled across a fascinating leader page article on infamous food and wine hoaxes in the International Herald Tribune (3 September 2008). The author warns, "Experts make the best victims of fraud because they jump to unwarranted conclusions .
An expert on the psychology of fraud and forgery, Dolnick believes that overconfidence is the fraudster's best ally - helped by a high price-tag. He's fond of quoting magicians who believe "When you're certain you cannot be fooled, you become easy to fool" - and enjoy "finding smart people who bring a lot to the table - cultural experience, shared expectations, pre-conceptions. The more they bring, the more there is to work with."

The review analyses well-publicised hoaxes perpetrated on a gullible public in 2008 like the creation of a fictitious wine list and restaurant by wine critic Robert Goldstein which won a Wine Spectator "award of excellence" in 2008 - and the great fish forgery in New York where fancy restaurants passed off tilapia as tuna. In another recent hoax, psychologists fooled volunteers invited to a "strawberry yoghurt tasting" who were then given chocolate yoghurt - two-thirds praised the strawberry flavour.

Dolnick also draws on the legendary wine hoax of 2002 - where a French researcher fooled every expert at a tasting by adding a tasteless, odourless red additive to white wine. Brochet concluded, "About 2 or 3% of people detect the white wine flavour but invariably they have little experience of wine culture. Connoisseurs tend to fail to do so. The more training they have, the more mistakes they make." Dolnick concludes, "For the experts, the term 'red wine' carries countless associations. The amateurs' ignorance keeps them from exploring subtle byways; they can't wander too far."

Stanley Fish, columnist for the New York Times, offers a second opinion on fooling the experts, "Fooled but not foiled". "The moral is that a hoax that is sufficiently and painstakingly elaborated can deceive anyone if conditions are favourable. The success of a hoax reflects on the skill of the hoaxer and says nothing about the substantive views of those who were fooled by it." Food (and wine) for thought indeed.

There are many ways of looking at wine - whether tasting sighted or unsighted. Expectations and cultural preconceptions play a huge role. I saw wine from a different perspective at a recent Bouchard Finlayson tasting at The Roundhouse in Camps Bay.

The wine steward serving our table - a young black graduate of the innovative Let's Sell Lobster Bush Logic course - expertly demonstrated his new wine knowledge and training. While pouring decanted vintages of Galpin Peak Pinot Noir, he compared the variety "which can be like a red wine and a white wine to the hippopotamus which also can't make up its mind whether it wants to live on land or water"; and a line-up of (wooded) Bouchard Finlayson Chardonnay to the distinctive cry of the fish eagle which lives in the trees. We weren't drinking Cabernet - but in case you're wondering, it's the elephant - big-structured, thick-skinned and with great longevity.

The Italian varieties in the new Hannibal 2006 - an eclectic blend of Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Barbera with Shiraz, Mourvedre and Pinot Noir - are the winemaker's tribute to the African general who crossed the Alps by elephant. I've also enjoyed sampling Morgenster's new Italian collection - Nabucco 2006 (made from Nebbiolo grapes) inspired by Verdi's story of love, passion and exile in a Babylonian court; and Morgenster Tosca 2006, a blend of Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

At a seminar on new trends in blends at Cape Wine 2008, I tasted an intriguing line-up of new flavours which cross the frontiers of traditional Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone assemblages - and may fool many an expert. Are new world blends the way forward for redefining brand South Africa? Coming on-stream, exciting newer varieties (think Mourvedre, Grenache and Italian) are adding diversity to red blends - and encouraging winemakers to develop individualistic signature wines. At the seminar, we tasted Waterford's 2004 Mediterranean mix of Syrah, Mourvedre, Petit Verdot and Barbera; Ken Forrester's Gypsy 2004 (Shiraz and Grenache); Idiom SMV, Fairview Caldera and Adi Badenhorst's innovative blends of rare white/red varieties.

Co-chair Ginette du Fleuriot, Cape wine master, concluded, "These are early days for the use of different varieties and terroir in new blends. Cape winemakers and viticulturalists are in an experimental phase. Vergelegen started the trend in white wine towards coastal blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon (epitomised by Cape Point Vineyards Isliedh 2006 which initially won Duncan Savage 2008 Diners Club Winemaker of the Year). Gone are the days of over-oaked white wine. Chenin Blanc and Viognier are the other pivotal varieties in new world blends" - like the superb Vondeling Babiana, Lammershoek Roulette and De Grendel Winifred we tasted.

Is the super-premium category of blends primarily there to create a halo effect for top-end cellars? At the lower end, are the cheap-and-cheerful blends driving the bigger-volume export brands moving consumers away from varietal wines and encouraging consumers to try the emerging new flavours in South African wine? Dave Hughes, chairman of the Diner's Club panel, comments on the top dry white blend category, "The standing of white blends in the marketplace has been transformed in the last ten years thanks to exciting releases from high-quality cellars like Cape Point Vineyards".

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is likely the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for a wide variety of print media, online and radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over seventy countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra.