They are all around us: signs, codes, subtle messages which mean something. Not all will lead to buried treasure or solve a mystery which has baffled the brains of academics for decades but some can and do.

After reading Brown’s books it’s possible to start seeing symbols and messages on dollar notes, carved gargoyles on medieval churches and everyday objects. Some of these little codes and icons serve a practical purpose, such as those on South African banknotes. What look like random squiggles on the very edges of the bill’s sides are actually San rock art figures, only revealed when the note’s edges are rolled and put together! It’s actually one of a number of security features to prevent against counterfeiting, along with the embedded metal strip and watermark.

The icon of a camera on a shaded pink/blue background, a little white birdie or the letter f on a blue square are immediately synonymous with Instagram, Twitter and Facebook – if you know what the symbols mean!

Which is the point: knowing what the symbols mean and the message that is conveyed. How much do South African consumers know about the average wine label and neck seal? Do they even appreciate just how much information is available by unpacking what is right in front of their eyes?

A picture is said to be worth a thousand words but the average wine label can tell so much more than where it was produced and what kind of grapes were used. That’s the obvious info which most people will derive.

What can a label tell you? By law – the Liquor Products Act, to be specific – there are certain items which are mandatory. These are: the alcohol content; either the name and full business address of the producer OR the code number; the volume contained in the bottle (750ml, 1.5-litre); the expression or warning “Contains Sulphites” and an approved health warning. (There are seven to select from: Alcohol reduces driving ability, don’t drink and drive. Drinking during pregnancy can be harmful to your unborn baby. Alcohol abuse is dangerous to your health. Alcohol increases your risk to personal injuries. Alcohol is a major cause of violence and crime. Alcohol is addictive. Don’t drink and walk on the road, you may be killed.)

One other important piece of information is what the style of the wine is – natural sweet or sparkling, for example. But even with these scant details there’s a lot of information passed on to the consumer.

Even the specification of the grape doesn’t necessarily tell the full story … By law the wine only needs to be a maximum of 85% of the predominant grape. So a Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon could potentially contain other grapes such as Merlot, Cabernet Franc or Grenache without any mention of them being made. The same goes for vintages. A 2017 vintage might also have a small proportion of potentially “fresher” 2018 wine blended in just before bottling and release to make it just that little bit more appealing to the consumer.

Has anyone ever noticed the A number? If they don’t contain the producer’s address, wine labels will always have an A number. These are numbers issued by the Department of Agriculture’s directorate of plant health and quality. So even if someone purchases a “buyers own brand” label, and it just states Stellenbosch Chenin Blanc, for example, it is still possible to track the producer down, based on that A number. A 1234, might turn out to be Sonskyn wine farm, for example. (Which, to my knowledge, doesn’t exist but is a name used for illustrative purposes only.)

WO Stellenbosch, Coastal or Western Cape also has a story to tell. It’s the Wine of Origin certification which is the consumer’s guarantee that the wine was made in Stellenbosch, for example. South Africa’s production areas are divided into regions, districts and wards,
something that was legislated in 1972. Wards are the smallest and most focussed areas of production so, by way of explanation, it’s possible to have a Sauvignon Blanc that is from the ward of Elim. Immediately, the potential buyer has an idea of where exactly the grapes were grown. The wine could, however, also be labelled as being from the Cape South Coast which is an umbrella region covering Cape Agulhas, Elim, Duivenhoks River, Overberg, Plettenberg Bay, Swellendam, Walker Bay, Herbertsdale, Napier and Stilbaai East. There’s a huge amount of distance between Elim and Plettenberg Bay …

The website provided a handy example: “The hierarchy of classification is, in increasing order, a single vineyard wine, an estate, a ward, a district, a region and a geographical unit. Criteria like soil, climate, mountains and rivers are used for the demarcation of origin. An example of the different origin indications is ‘Oupa se Wingerd Muscadel’ which is made from a single vineyard (vineyard wine) on the Weltevrede Estate (estate wine) in Bonnievale (a ward) in the Robertson (district) of the Western Cape (a geographical unit).”

And the Western Cape designation? After all, it’s the biggest and least geographically distinct area. Brand owners frequently buy wine from different areas and blend them together.

So, for argument’s sake, Sonskyn Chenin could be a blend of Chenin Blanc from Paarl, Worcester and Stellenbosch. It would thus go for an over-arching larger geographical origin: WO Western Cape.

Winelovers are also in the habit of talking about wine estates – not fully appreciating that an “estate” is actually a specific entity, and not all wine farms are estates. To be registered as an estate wine the grapes must be grown, vinified and bottled on a specific property. Stellenbosch’s world-renowned Pinotage producer Kanonkop is an estate. Do yourself a favour next time you’re in TOPS at SPAR and look at the difference between Kanonkop Pinotage and any one of the wines in the same producers’ Kadette range. Nowhere on the Kadette label will it state that it’s an estate wine. That’s because the grapes and wine for this range are purchased from other properties –all within the Stellenbosch area, but they’re not grown on the physical Kanonkop land.

The little label which appears on the neck of the bottle also has a tale to tell. It could take one of two forms. The first is a simple square with a bunch of numbers and the second has a pretty, graphic line sketch of a protea flower and is accompanied by the words “Integrity & Sustainability”.

So what does that tell the consumer? The first – purely numbers – seal is an indication that the wine has been certified by the Wine and Spirits Board. So it has gone through a tasting exercise, its paperwork and production inputs have been checked and it meets the requirements of varietal typicity and the like.

The second, sustainability, seal is more interesting because South Africa leads the world in this
regard. It is a visual stamp of approval of the wine’s integrity, not just the origin, grape variety
and vintage but also of the traceability of the wine and its sustainability. This Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) tracks and traces every input made on a particular batch of Sonskyn Chenin Blanc, for example.

It is possible to know precisely which vineyard in which area the grapes came from, the age of the vines, the date of harvest and precisely what chemicals (if any!) were used in its production. Joe Bloggs Consumer could go onto the Integrated Production of Wine website, type in the seal number and access that information. Again, this falls under the ambit of the Wine and Spirits Board who conduct audits and check all the paperwork of wine producers.

It’s a guarantee to buyers that farmers and wine makers have not used any harmful chemicals or engaged in practices which affect the environment or end users. Currently around 96% of all certified South African wines comply with this voluntary requirement.

And most people look at the label and respond to the picture of a coat of arms, a Cape Dutch gabled homestead or some funky typography … Look a little closer!