Would a wine by any other name be as sweet?

Talk about a storm in a wine glass. Ultra Liquors entry in this years’ Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show (OMTWS), which garnered no fewer than four accolades – Harold Eedes Trophy for Best Chenin Blanc, Old Mutual International Judges Trophy, Old Mutual Trophy for Discovery of Show, and a Gold Medal for Best Value Wine – has ruffled feathers somewhat.

The Secret Cellar Selection No 235 2015 Chenin Blanc, sourced from an undisclosed producer, retails for R32.99 a bottle, an unbelievable price for the wine in question.

The brainchild of Ultra Liquors GM Mark Norrish, the allure of The Secret Cellar Selection is predicated on the notion that the wine comes from a producer of substance at a knockdown price, which would not be the case if it were sold under its originating label.

In fairness to Mark, the Secret Cellar Selection wines he enters in the OMTWS each year, generally win at least one gold medal, so the quality of what he presents in the range is consistent and reliable.

I usually buy a good few bottles of whatever the awarded Secret Cellar wine is, soon after the annual OMTWS awards luncheon, but this year, with such a line up of accolades, I dashed straight to the nearest Ultra Liquors outlet – Green Point – and bought four cases.

It was kinda sneaky, because in an attempt to let all Ultra Liquors clientele enjoy the award winning wine, it is usually limited to a few bottles a customer (in this instance three), but only once the official news has gone out to each of the branches.

Coincidentally, I ran into a journalist friend who was also at the awards luncheon, and she bought five cases.

We went our separate ways, after much mutual congratulation and metaphorical back slapping on our shared coup.

Imagine my surprise when I saw a Facebook post last Thursday which notes that there are two different batches of the wine in question, bottled about six months apart, July and December 2015, and according to a laboratory analysis, they are two different wines.

The only discernible difference between the batches are the commencing series of the neck seal numbers, which were issued by SAWIS (SA wine Industry Services) when the producer bottled each of the batches – July 2015 (7 525) and December 2016 (7 660).

The differences between the two batches are not insignificant, with the most prominent being residual sugar, which for the Trophy wine (7 660) is 4.53g/* and for what has become known as “the ugly brother” (7 525), 1.71g/* . There are other differences as well – extract and hue for example – but the wines are also organoleptically quite different.

There was a good deal of to-ing and fro-ing on social media when the difference emerged, with a suggestion that the marketing of the two different batches of wine as the Trophy winner, was deliberate.

Mark tells me that the producer, with whom he has worked closely for the past eight years, assured him that both batches come from the same tank.

There is an argument that the two batches may well be organoleptically different having been bottled six months apart, but from the same tank, but the technical differences indicate clearly, that they are two different wines.

The fact is, batch differences are quite common in the wine industry, and the bigger the volumes, the greater the likelihood of such differences. A large scale producer who buys in chenin blanc from surrounding farms and vinifies each batch separately will end up with a number of separate tanks of chenin blanc. The wines will quite naturally be different, but because the grapes come from the same area, from a SAWIS perspective, we are talking about the “same wine”.

The producer has a number options at the point – make up a blend of these chenins in pursuit of a particular style, bottle each tank as an individual batch, or a combination of the two – a blend of some of the tanks, and the balance of the tanks bottled separately.

Either way, each batch would end up with a different neck seal number, because they are different wines.

As a further example, take something like a Nederburg Barrone, which is produced in enormous quantities each year, with grapes being sourced widely.

While the winemaker will strive to ensure consistency of style, each batch will by definition, be a different wine.

What we do know, is that the winning wine (7 660) was consistent with the technical analysis submitted with the entry, and that conformed with the technical analysis completed by the OMTWS once the wine had been as richly awarded as it was, which show chairman Michael Fridjhon confirmed on Friday.

Award winners are identified by the affixing of a sticker, supplied in response to order, by the show organisers. Mark had the wherewithal to order sufficient stickers to label both batches – the 7 525 and 7 660 – but he did not do so. He ordered sufficient stickers only for the 7 660 award winning wine.

If Ultra Liquors is guilty of anything, it is logistical ineptitude, in that the two batches were not kept apart, to ensure only the 7 660 batch was marketed as the trophy winner, until the stickers arrived.

But the most valuable lesson is perhaps realising just how damaging to a brand such an oversight can be.