Labouring Over Wine

Union of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot makes a stronger wine

I remember when my mother wouldn't buy Granny Smith apples from the grocery store. They're grown in South Africa, she would say, and we are not going to buy anything from South Africa until the country gives up apartheid and lets Nelson Mandela out of jail.

In 1994, while my mother celebrated the end of apartheid and the election of Mandela as president, wine lovers cheered for the release South African wine from the global boycott. At the time, the wine had a lot to catch up on after decades of isolation, but most critics could taste the potential for this important and interesting addition to their cellars.

In the decade following the end of apartheid, export of South African wine jumped, but few regulations were in place to control quality. South Africa's vineyards, benefitting from a hot climate, uncontrolled irrigation and chemical fertilization, produced too many grapes, resulting in wines high in alcohol and low in character.

Thankfully, increased contact with international viticulturists and vintners forced this to change. A culture of quality and ecological sustainability began taking hold; today the country supplies us with a range of artisanal and affordable wines.

This should be the happy end to the story.

Political and social unrest continue to plague South Africa in abuses of the large, cheap, mostly black labour pool, particularly in the agriculture sector. Human Rights Watch published a report in 2011 titled "Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa's Fruit and Wine Industries," outlining rampant housing overcrowding, workers' exposure to toxic pesticides, harsh working conditions, low wages and penalties for union organizing. The report was heavily criticized by South Africa's wine advocates, who say the country boasts the highest number of Fairtrade-accredited wineries in the world.

Nevertheless, in late 2012 farm workers set fire to vineyards in protest of wages that amounted to five euros per day. A farm owner was arrested for shooting on a crowd of thousands who were protesting what they called "hunger wages." Business publications reported that growing labour costs due to strikes was one of the biggest challenges to South Africa's wine industry.

Just as fair trade and sustainability have become consumer buzzwords, South Africa is trying to do the same with fair labour. The Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association has drawn up a rigorous set of criteria; wineries that meet it may add a "fair labour" stamp to their bottles. The Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) sets out ecological principles that are also intended to protect workers.

Many wineries are trying to ease the white domination of the industry by profit- and ownership-sharing with predominantly black vineyard and winery workers. This is not without economic benefit: the black middle class is the fastest-growing wine consumer demographic in South Africa.

Two Oceans, a large wine operation, is named for its location at the Cape of Good Hope, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. All its wines are IPW-accredited, and the company incorporates organics and fair pay standards into its operations.

I have been craving red blends this winter, with a hunch that Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot will satisfy my desire for something meaty and dry, balanced, of course, by fair wages in the mid-palate.

Two Oceans' 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot ($12.50 at NSLCs) smells like ocean tang and currants. It feels soft and sticky, with a ripe quality that makes me think it will be fruity but I end up longing for a barbequed beef-and-vegetable shish kebab. A very good value bottle for a minimum-wage budget.

For a Canadian version, I picked out Mission Hill's 2011 Cabernet Merlot ($21 at NSLCs). Mission Hill Wines' 2014 collective agreement with the Brewery, Winery and Distillery Workers Union is available on the internet, so I figure it must be relatively labour-friendly.

This wine shows its age: fruit leather and stones in the nose, and in the mouth insistent velvety dryness. Richer than its South African counterpart, perhaps, but more in need of a heaping plate of stew to round out the experience. An impressive wine from our Pacific compatriots.

Merlot has received a beating in pop culture, and it's true that the grape doesn't have the gregarious personality of Cabernet Sauvignon, the rock star of the red wine world. Merlot, though, fleshes out the Cab it accompanies, and the union of the two grapes makes a stronger wine, as generations of vintners well know. After a long day, coming home to a glass of this blend makes work seem just about fair.

This column was originally published by The Chronicle Herald.

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