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New World Wine Maker Blog

Meet Charles Williams – Winemaker at De Toren Private Cellar

Q. When and where were you born ? 

“I was born on 10th January 1985 at Kakamas on the Orange River in the Northern Cape.”

Q. Where did you study and what qualifications do you have ?

“I did a BSc Agric at University of Stellenbosch, 2004 to 2007 and then did a post grad, BSc Hons Agric (Viticulture) in 2008.”

Q, Do you consider your approach to winemaking to be different to others ?

“I believe winemaking starts in the vineyard. My approach is to really get to know my soils, vines and grapes. Once you do this it becomes very easy to harvest grapes at their peak complexity which in turn allows onto take a very natural, minimum interventional approach in the cellar.”

Q. How involved do you get in the vineyard ?

With enthusiasm “Extremely! The French have a beautiful term: Vigneron which directly translated is Winegrower. I find this a very appropriate word to describe crafting fine wines.

Q. Do you have any varieties you prefer to work with ? 

“I love the classics….but have a special love for Cabernet Franc and Merlot. These are two varieties that demands precision in viticulture and winemaking, but nothing beats them  if done well.”

Q. Have you been influenced by any particular winemaker or by a wine region ? 

“I believe one can and should learn something new every day. For that reason I had a great amount of influencers. I love discussing nature and its impact on vines and wines. Particular regions that really left an impression on myself would include Napa Valley and, of course, Bordeaux, especially Pomerol.

Q. What would you consider your greatest achievement as a winemaker ? 

“To win prizes and get good ratings is always great. I would have to say my greatest achievement comes in smaller packages. Like a vineyard strategy that pays off and forming   long lasting friendships with clients turned to be good friends.  Making wine that people thoroughly enjoy is the ultimate prize. For me the biggest compliment is when, once in a while, you meet foreigners who were so intrigued by our wines that they decided to build a trip to RSA around exploring the wines further.”

Q. What “secrets” have you “developed” that make your wines different to others ?

“Stay true to place and time. That is what makes one unique.”

Q. How important is modern winemaking equipment in your winemaking ? 

“I prefer to keep it quite simple.  We work with small open top fermenters, use punch downs as our extraction method and prefer to use only gravity in transporting our wines. I am, however, a firm believer in protecting the inherent quality of the grapes. This starts by only selecting the very best, a painstakingly slow process with up to 23 people. If you have good grapes in the cellar, half the battle is won.”

Q. What about yourself and the future ? 

“I was born and raised in a small farming community and grew up to have an immense love for nature. I completed my studies in 2008, focus being on viticulture and received the great opportunity to be employed by De Toren Private Cellars as assistant Winemaker.  During these years I was privileged to be surrounded by a great amount of forward thinking individuals who helped shape my winemaking philosophy.  I also had the privilege to do a harvest at the world renowned Napa Valley winery, Screaming Eagle which further cemented my views on wine growing. Looking forward the goal is always to produce gracious wines, and in my belief this stems from healthy sustainable soils.  A major focus of mine is to puzzle together where nature and winegrowing marries to yield the most expressive, complex grapes and wines.”

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The one where we tried to make wine

By winemaking student Geena Whiting.

I grew up in KwaZulu Natal, on a small holding that was a hodgepodge of different agricultural sectors. We had chickens that ran around and horses and cows that roamed. Fields of lavender and tea tree that left the air smelling sweet and fresh. A veggie garden that when given attention provided delicious veggies but in general it was a space for wild herbs and rouge mielies to grow.  Eight dogs that were supposed to patrol the farm, but spent most of their days lying on the stoop (or to my mother’s irritation) on our carpets and couches.

We also planted 12 grape vines, that over the years had been left to grow wildly and every second winter or so they were hacked back, to what the untrained person would have been considered as pruning. The leaves were big and the grape flesh was sweet, the skins too tannic to eat. To this day I have no idea what cultivar it was.

This was the year my mother decided “If we have grapes, we may as well have wine too”. Easier said than done mom.  We harvested on a Saturday morning, our first error was not harvesting early enough, in the sweltering Durban summer it felt like it was 38 °C at 10 in the morning the hot African sun beating down on our skin, sweat beading in the furrows of our foreheads and the humidity bordering on the stereotypical. We set about our task of harvesting, having no idea the balling of the grapes or the acid levels, we had just decided they had been up there for long enough. The leaves around the bunch zone had not been cleared so it was a lot like playing hide and seek with the grape bunches.

Eventually all of the grapes had been harvested and in the midday heat we washed our feet and proceeded to do the overly romanticized grape stomping. I recall initially stepping very lightly as I was scared of being stung by a bee that may have been resting in between the grapes.  Eventually I found my courage and started to stomp vigorously, all the while the grape must was being exposed to temperatures above 26 °C and excessive air contact.

The 80 litre yield of must and skins were then transferred to white buckets with lids, and the yeast was rehydrated by my mother and added. I have no idea how she went about the rehydration, but we bought one of those “make-your-own-wine” kits, and she seemed confident that all was done correctly. The buckets were then stored in the broom closet under the stairs and left for who knows how long.

I recall when we bottled that the wine reeked of vinegar and sherry and was so high in alcohol it burned to swallow. There were no fruit or other flavours and it seemed pointless to bottle it and call it wine. To change the old saying: when life gives you off –wine, make moonshine! That is exactly what we ended up doing. Distilling it off and getting the alcohol and adding cordials made from the fruit trees on the farm.

From a wine making point of view, so many things went wrong; I don’t even think we knew what malic acid was, let alone that we must conduct MLF to get rid of it. I know so much more and could probably make a drinkable wine out of that unknown cultivar on my childhood farm.

And yet knowing how to do things correctly cannot make up the fond memories of the process, sneaking around and opening the buckets to smell the wine,  gripping my father’s arm so I didn’t fall over while stomping the grapes, our dogs trying to eat the berries as we harvested them.  There is space for automatization in our cellars; it is necessary to take our industry to the future; however there must also be space for experiences such as the one in my childhood. Wine is like history in a bottle, we must make history while making wine.

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Assessing grape maturity for harvest planning

By Dr. Michela Centinari, Assistant Professor of Viticulture, Department of Plant Science

If just one adjective was chosen to describe the 2018 growing season to date, many of us might suggest ‘rainy.’ In many Pennsylvania regions, grape growers faced persistent rainfall for the majority of the summer. For example, in central PA, State College has had an accumulation of 29 inches (737 mm) of rainfall for the months of April through August.  Growers really had to be on top of their fungicide spray schedule and canopy management plans to minimize the risk of disease so that fruit will be healthy at harvest time. Recently, Bryan Hed and Jody Timer wrote blog posts that provided recommendations for late-season downy mildew control and insect problems. While the weather forecasted for harvest season is weighing heavily on the minds of many grape growers, a post-veraison task critical for a successful harvest is collecting grape samples to measure the progression of fruit maturity.

This article provides a brief review on what fruit ripeness parameters you should measure and how to collect berry or cluster samples to best assess fruit maturity. While this information could be particularly useful for new grape growers approaching their first vintage, experienced growers should review the information to ensure that they are using the best techniques for collecting representative fruit samples.

Harvest decisions

Grapes are typically harvested when they reach desired fruit quality parameters (e.g., sugar content, pH, flavor, color) which vary depending on the wine type or style the winemaker aims to produce. Grapes should be sampled periodically until harvest to monitor how parameters associated with fruit maturity (e.g., sugar, pH, organic acids, flavors) evolve through the ripening season. However, there are many other factors involved in selecting a harvest date, which may or may not directly relate to optimal fruit maturity. These factors include:

  • Fruit health condition (is the fruit deteriorating due to rot or other disease or insect damage?),
  • disease and insect pressure,
  • short and long-range weather forecasts,
  • available labor,
  • space available at the winery to process the grapes, and
  • type or style of wine that will be made.

What fruit ripeness parameters to measure

The evaluation of the overall fruit ripeness involves quantitative parameters (sugar content, pH, titratable acidity) but also measurements that go beyond analytical techniques(berry sensory analysis).

Quantitative measurements to determine grape ripeness:

The information reported below is adapted and summarized from the factsheet Determining grape maturity and fruit sampling written by Dr. Imed Dami, Ohio State University.

Sugars, organic acids, and pH are the primary indicators of technological or commercial grape maturitywhich is different from physiological maturity that occurs at or soon after veraison when seeds are ready to germinate.

Sugars: Sugars, specifically glucose and fructose, are the main soluble solids in grape juice. Sugar content is typically measured in degree Brix (°Brix); 1 degree Brix corresponds to 1 gram of sugar per 100 grams of grape juice. Desirable levels of sugar content are typically between 18 and 24ᵒBrix, depending on grape variety and wine style.

Sugar level is relatively easy to measure in the vineyard with a handheld refractometer ….

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A Glass of Adventure

By Jenna Higgins.

Taking long drives out to wine regions outside of Stellenbosch happens to be one of my favourite pass-time activities, so when my dad called me up saying he’d like to take a drive out to Tulbagh, I couldn’t resist. Needless to say, I was in control of the music as we set off on our little adventure. It’s amazing to see how green the farms are looking again, and how the dams are slowly but surely starting to look less like sink holes and ponds, and more like actual dams!

I had previously been in contact with a young winemaker in the region, Dirk Swanepoel, who has recently taken to starting up his own label under his family name, Swanepoel Wines. The farm itself boasts a rustic feel, with original farm buildings dating back to 1848. The cellar, which had once been a cattle shed, closely resembles that of an age-old Tuscan style, with the original stone and clay built walls still visible. Large trusses paint the perfect backdrop to what is soon to be a wine bar, while the original farm dwelling now houses an assortment of barrels while the wine ages to perfection.

My father and I were lead through the cellar as Dirk explained his winemaking process, it was very heartening to see a young winemaker combine both new world and old world winemaking techniques to create his wines. In the barrel room, we tasted a crisp, dry rosé as well as a fruity Pinotage with the most divine floral (violet) notes. The family owned farm houses an assortment of cultivars such as Mourvedre, Grenache noir, Pinotage, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, making it the perfect farm for Rhône style wines. The vineyards are nestled at the foot of a fynbos-covered mountain range, where guests are greeted by an old vineyard roaming thoroughbred named Reapy (Reap the Wind). Dirk’s father, Jerry Swanepoel, has also dabbled in winemaking, using the farm’s robust cultivars to shape full-bodied, hearty red wines; my dad and I were privileged to be allowed to taste some of these older vintages too.

Leading up past one of the blocks, is a recently constructed hiking trail that sends explorers on an adventure into the mountain, which forms a part of the Saronsberg Mountain Range. The farm strives to preserve the natural fynbos growth, which includes renosterbos (Renosterveld), king proteas, buchu and many other species. As my dad and I eagerly started off on the trail, we quickly came to realise how unfit we were, however the trail was actually incredibly hiker-friendly and very easy to complete. After 45 minutes of walking, we came across an old kraal (pen) built by the Cape Khoisan many years ago. Dirk explained that they used to build these small pens for the buck/game they captured on the mountain.

After an additional 15 minutes of hiking, we eagerly took a breath and rested at the end point of the hike – a massive yellow wood tree. It must have been ancient, and immediately reminded me of the kind of tree you would see in a Lord of the Rings movie. The tree towers over a small, flat plain in the mountain, painting the perfect backdrop for a picnic and a glass of rosé! Along the way up, my dad and I also noticed the abundance of birdlife on the farm, beautifully coloured sugar birds hovered around the blooming proteas as we walked by. We also noticed how fragrant the fynbos on the farm was, as we passed buchu plants that were in flower and immediately recognised the familiar smell.

On the way back to the cellar we were awestruck by the breath-taking views of the Tulbagh region. The view seemed like a painting, with vineyards rolling out on foothills for what seemed like kilometres upon kilometres, a gentle blanket of cloud cover folding over the tips of the surrounding mountains with rays of sunlight highlighting the greenness of the neighbouring farmland. I have to admit, the descent was easy with wine as my motivation – we did the wine tasting after the hike, thinking it would serve as a well-deserved reward to the thirsty father-daughter hiking crew. Back at the farm, we were told stories of the farm’s rich history – from being an old trading post for the Dutch East India Company (1699) to old church bell towers and windows that now form a part of the cellar. The farm’s name, Oude Compagnies Post, got its name through its historical background, and although it is not the easiest name to pronounce for us English-speaking tourists, with a history like that it’s well worth the struggle to pronounce!

It was incredibly refreshing and somewhat inspiring to make the acquaintance of another young winemaker in the industry. Being a final year winemaking student myself, it gives me hope and excites me to see the younger generation take the industry head on, while still staying true to the art of winemaking. This experience highlighted something incredibly important to me, without passion and drive, your dreams won’t materialize. To see someone only a few years older than me start up their own wine label, with the help of his dad who he shares vineyard duties with, and achieve such a great feat while remaining so humble was also very enlightening. It was necessary for me to realise that no matter what your dreams are or how fast you achieve them, it’s important to stay humble. Each day is a new learning experience, especially in the wine industry, you can never know too much about wine!

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Meet Daniel Keulder, winemaker at Nitida Cellars

Q. Where and when were you born ? 

“I was born in Malmsbury on 9th September 1981.

Q. Where did you study ?  

“I studied at University of Stellenbosch and achieved a B.Sc. Agric Viticulture and Oenology . After that I decided to do my M.Sc. in Oenology on commercial tannin additions and their influence on red wine quality!”

Q . Do you consider your approach to winemaking to be different to others ?

“I think every winemaker has his own very unique approach to winemaking. A couple of philosophies I do have  is that you always need  to get the basics right first ; The planning  is just as important  as the plan; your footsteps are the  best fertiliser for  any project, and lastly,  Winemaking  is not the making of but the expression of the terroir. “

Q. How involved do you get in the vineyard ? 

“Very much. Here at Nitida I look after the vineyards as well as making the wine.  I believe that in the long run the biggest influence a winemaker has on his wine is done in the vineyards.”

Q. Do you have any varieties you prefer to work with ?  

“Working in the Durbanville area it has to be Sauvignon Blanc! However, I have a very soft spot for Riesling and pinot noir as well.”

Q. Have you been influenced by any particular winemaker or wine region ?

“As a winemaker I think it is very important to learn and ask advice from as many other winemakers as possible. There is one winemaker I need to mention and that is Boela Gerber at Groot Constantia, where I learned all the basic philosophies and techniques of winemaking.”

Q. What would you consider your greatest achievement as a winemaker ?

“The successful launch of three new high end products at Nitida. The Golden Orb Sauvignon Blanc, The Tinkery (an experimental label) and The Grande Matriarch MCC which has to be right up there! Other than these recent releases the recognition from by the various wine industry awards has been great.”

Q. What “secrets” have you “developed” that make your wines different to others ?  

“Trust the history of your vineyards and always go with your gut feeling!”

Q. How important is modern winemaking equipment in your wine making ? 

“I always joke that I had three things in the cellar that you can plug into a wall socket and the rest is done by hand but times have changed and I have slightly more “modern” winemaking equipment in the cellar today. I still like to keep things as basic and simple equipment wise as possible.”

Q. What would you like to add ? 

“I was lucky enough to take a gap of three years making beer at a microbrewery in England after my university studies. After that it was full time winemaking and then meeting my wonderful wife, Julie, and a little later three additions to our family which has all enriched my life.  For the future I would like to keep on making wines that I love drinking and hopefully spend a couple more harvests in European cellars.”

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Understanding Difficult Malolactic Fermentations

By Dr. Molly Kelly, Enology Extension Educator, Department of Food Science. 

As harvest comes to a close we have planned which wines will be going through malolactic fermentation (MLF). This article provides some information to assist you in dealing with a potentially difficult MLF.

Malolactic fermentation (MLF) is a process of chemical change in wine in which L-malic acid is converted to L-lactic acid and carbon dioxide. This process is normally conducted by lactic acid bacteria (LAB) including Oenococcus oeni, Lactobacillus spp. and Pediococcus spp. O.oeni is the organism typically used to conduct MLF due to its tolerance to low pH, high ethanol and SO2. Most commercial strains are designed to produce favorable flavor profiles.

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Although inoculation with a commercial starter is recommended, MLF may occur spontaneously. The lag phase associated with spontaneous MLF may increase the risk of spoilage organisms as well as the production of volatile acidity. Inoculation with a LAB culture can help avoid these problems by providing the cell population needed to successfully conduct MLF (more than 2×106 cells/mL). The compatibility of yeast and LAB should be taken into account since failed MLF may be due to incompatibility between these two organisms.

The key to a successful MLF is to manage the process and to monitor the progress. Although there has been extensive research on the MLF process, it may still be difficult to initiate at times. The possible causes of difficult MLF have been studied less extensively than those of stuck/sluggish alcoholic fermentation. In this article, factors that may influence the start and successful completion of MLF will be discussed.

The main chemical properties that influence MLF are well known: pH, temperature, ethanol and SO2 concentration. A study by Vaillant et al (1995) investigating the effects of 11 physico-chemical parameters, identified ethanol, pH and SO2 as having the greatest inhibitory effect on the growth of LAB in wine.

pH

Generally, LAB prefer increased pH’s and usually, minimal growth occurs at pH 3.0. Under winemaking conditions, pH’s above 3.2 are advised. The pH will determine the dominant species of LAB in the must or wine.  At a low pH (3.2 to 3.4) O. oeni is the most abundant LAB species, while at higher pH (3.5 to 4.0), Lactobacillus and Pediococcus will out-number Oenococcus.

Temperature

MLF is generally inhibited by low temperatures. Research demonstrates that MLF occurs faster at temperatures of 200 C (68˚F) and above versus 150C (59˚F) and below. In the absence of SO2 the optimum temperature range for MLF is 23-250C (73.4˚F-77˚F) with maximum malic acid conversion taking place at 20-250C (68˚F-77˚F). However, with increasing SO2 levels, these temperatures decrease and 200C (68˚F) may be more acceptable.

Ethanol

LAB are ethanol-sensitive with slow or no growth occurring at approximately 13.5%. Commercial O. oeni strains are preferred starter cultures due to tolerance to ethanol.  The fatty acid composition of the cell membrane of LAB can be impacted by ethanol content.

Sulfur dioxide

LAB may be inhibited by the SO2 produced by yeast during alcoholic fermentation. A total SO2 concentration of more than 50 ppm generally limits LAB growth, especially at lower pH where a larger portion of SO2 is in the antimicrobial form. Generally, it is not recommended to add SO2 after alcoholic fermentation if MLF is desired.

Some of the lesser known factors impacting MLF are discussed below.

Fatty Acids

MLF can be inhibited by medium chain fatty acids (octanoic and decanoic acids) produced by yeast. It is difficult to finish MLF when octanoic acid content is over 25 mg/L and/or decanoic acid is over 5 mg/L. Bacterial strains that tolerate high concentrations of octanoic and decanoic acids may be important in successful MLF. It is important to check your supplier regarding strain specifications. Yeast hulls may be added before the bacteria are inoculated (0.2g/L) to bind fatty acids. Yeast hulls may also supply unsaturated fatty acids, amino acids and assist with CO2 release.

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