Certain wine farms in South Africa take a great deal of pride in reminding us that Napoleon Bonaparte drank their wine! In some cases this is quite possible. These people love to romanticize the idea of sharing history with others by drinking this same wine; as if wine were a cosmic worm hole of experience, which it somehow is. Although, in this case, if people were really drinking the same wine that Napoleon did whilst in exile on St Helena, they would be running the risk of dying of both stomach cancer and arsenic poisoning. This is definitely not an experience anyone in their right mind would happily sign up for.
On top of that, wine spoilage was such a problem back then – almost an inevitability. The common ‘horse sweat’ taint (how anyone came up with that descriptor still perplexes me) of Brett or other spoilage organisms was cleverly masked with high residual sugar. And voilà – we have the sweet wines of Constantia. Ironic now that we know residual sugar is the buried treasure that any and all fungus will seek and find, and in hindsight probably not the best solution to hide wine spoilage. Sulphur was administered in a primitive soaked-rag form; sterilisation and sanitation was minimal; and vineyard practices hardly the art form they are today. Combine this with the low alcohol of an incomplete fermentation and it is an absolute miracle Napoleon didn’t receive shipments of vinegar from South Africa.
The overall point is that the Kings of Mesopotamia, to the Noble Dukes of Medieval Burgundy, were likely drinking a wine that could barely make the cut of box wine these days. So high has the standard become! This applies not only to wine, but to food as well. Hundreds of years of work has gone into creating your average fast food meal, which probably has just enough nutrients to sustain a human throughout their whole life if they were to have it every day (though I don’t recommend it).
Much like the oil crisis, the “wine quality crisis” (absolutely not an official term) is effecting everyone in a positive way, unless, of course you want to make money selling wine. Us, the stricken consumers, aim to pay low prices for wines made under the highest sanitary conditions of all time, and with the most advanced technology of Oenology. We want the best wine for the lowest possible price. The producers, though, must produce (as they do) at an incredible standard to simply even have the “audacity” to sell above the average price. As a foreigner myself, it’s quite shocking what even the most expensive South African wine would cost once converted back into Pounds Sterling (UK). For example R600 translates to just under £30 – at that cost you’d be lucky to buy a drinkable French wine, let alone something the equivalent to the top bracket wines of South Africa.
I always imagined even a middle class European coming to South Africa to realise the quality their money could fetch and never understood why wine tourism never caught on to the universal extent that it should have. While it always seemed an injustice to the rising quality of South African wine, perhaps it is best to bask in the undiscovered glory of the industry as it is today, with the wake of globalisation, overnight luxuries can move into price brackets designated only for millionaires, as we’ve seen in France. Don’t take my wine away!