South African wine has to find a new name

2013-01-21 11:25

It's funny how laws try to change society and culture, but don't always achieve what they aim to do. Such is the case of port and champagne in the South African wine arena.

A good number of years ago, South Africa produced champagne and port, in exactly the same way as the French and Portuguese did. Sometimes, even by French and Portuguese winemakers living and working in South Africa itself. Many other countries did the same thing, with even strange lands like Russia producing something called "Sovietskoe Champanskoe", and other places making "Portwein". Somewhere along the line, foreign countries started making much better champagne and port, and South Africa, with it's wine industry being centuries old already, was a champion producer of both.

But the French and Portuguese did not like this - they were losing money, especially since, as you well know, champagne is incredibly and increasingly expensive. So they lobbied and pushed and eventually passed laws that the words champagne and port were not to be used, unless the wine was made in the exact, tiny regions of Champagne and Porto. Even the terms méthode champenoise and champagne method were forbidden by an EU court decision in 1994, meaning that even a French farm cannot call it champagne, unless they lie in that specific region. Only if it is made exclusively in the Champagne region of France, can a wine claim the honor of being the most famous of the sparkling wines. The size of that region? Look at the map.

Similarly with port. The region of Porto in Portugal restricts usage as well. And the USA is trying to enforce this with words like Napa and Sonoma Valley. What if South Africa decides that Pinotage, a wine varietal first made in South Africa, should be kept within our shores?

It's all ridiculous.

And here's why: If someone asks you what you have in your long stemmed glass at a birthday in Joburg, you'll say: champagne. If someone shows you a bottle of Cape Tawny, you probably won't have a clue what they're holding. If they tell you it's port, you'd think Cape Tawny is a brand name of port. But it's a name that winemakers have now had to make up to try and describe a type of port-style wine, without using the word port.

And as mentioned at the start, while the law calls for restrictions. Many of us would say "tra la la" to that and simply order a bottle of Graham Beck or Pongracz "champagne" and drink to the occasion. The Russians still print the same labels and carry on regardless. Even most menus at restaurants carry a heading Champagne and go on to list several non-French versions.

The fact is, we use these words as words, not as brand names, and some laws are simply trying to make money, not to protect its quality. Many instances show that South African sparkling wines are made using exactly the same techniques, workers and even grapes as the French are. Another factor to note is that when France has a great amount of champagne produced, it limits the release of Champagne to market to maintain its super-high prices. It's a money-making machine - the French especially are not always focussed on quality any more.

French champagne is simply never necessarily the best sparkling wine in the world. Yet the prices are sky high, with many restaurants in South Africa pricing them up to R5,000 for 750ml of something you could easily replace with a local sparkling wine at R500. In fact, you can send South African wine overseas online now.

The law has tried to get people to do certain things. And it hasn't succeeded in changing the culture and language that we use today. So, with these thoughts in mind, the two questions to you, the reader, are these: Should the French and Portuguese be allowed to pass laws about naming? And should these "real versions" of champagne and port cost so much?

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