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New World Wine Maker Blog

Old enough to rock and roll; too young to die

If you look on you will see a map of old vines in the Western Cape. This map is not small, and what it shows should not be seen as a minor detail; it describes an antiquated viticultural landscape in a country that seems in its infancy on the international boutiques scene.

Like the California gold rush, Old Vines are being scooped up by winemakers all over the country (and by farm workers, pulling them out). If you’ll excuse and allow the continuation of the parallel, the liquid gold of Chenin blanc – and various other white varieties – is being sifted into the hands of those willing to get to it and produce it, be that journey by helicopter or yak ride. Seriously, some of these vineyards require a full blown Spanish conquest to get to!

That being said, the results are generally always worth it. If the vineyards have been standing there for 50 years with somewhat minimal attention, odds are, the vine is more than happy to continue doing just that. After some rejuvenation: a delicate “reprogramming” procedure involving very precise pruning, suckering and other practices the vine is set to produce again, at a quality level nearly unattainable in younger vines, usually with the downside of quite pathetic yields. A bit like when you go to a fancy restaurant and get a steak the size of a R5 coin.

These vines do make incredible, incredible wines; the rule of thumb is that older vines do tend to make better wine. Whether this is due to a physiological balance or witchcraft, I don’t know, but I’m happy to accept the fact. However, the big problem with old vines is that they are old. To qualify as “old”, they must be at least 35 years old. I couldn’t have an old vine pinotage on my doorstep even if I wanted one. Not even Kim Jong Un could have that, he might be able to get a nuclear missile, but an Old Vine is only made one way: waiting. Independent producers are grabbing any old vines they can and wineries are putting their vine’s age on the front of the bottle.  As such, these vines are set for unavailability and potentially auction level prices when people come with their money. There is already a big problem with co-ops rolling in the big paychecks and buying out sites from under producers’ feet.

The solution is two-fold: keep planting vines designed for the long term growth, not the usual co-op milk-them-’til-they’re-dry-and-pull-them-out approach that usually sees a vine last no longer than 25 years, largely based on the vine’s decreased yields with time. Secondly, train our young vines to be old. Basic viticulture – crop load, water stress, vigour and good sap flow. Make sure your vine is planted in the right place, with the right clonal components. Basic, but very intricate. The heart of viticulture. Don’t push the vine to produce too much; don’t irrigate it and fertilise as if it were a tree. If managed correctly, the results can mimic that of old vines.

Old vines have prestige, no doubt, and manage themselves to some degree. The problem is, no one has got time to wait around 35 years for a vine to balance itself out. Be a strict parent to your vine and gently whip it into shape. Like a drill instructor dressed as a bunny, posing as a masseuse.

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Effects of grapevine leafroll disease on wine quality (and when is a disease a disease?)

By Erika Szymanski - The Wineoscope

Gut reaction: Viruses cause disease. Disease is bad. Viruses are bad.

Gut reaction muted by a lot of recent genetics research: Viral DNA seems to be embedded in genomes all over the place. We’re not sure why a lot of it is there, or stayed there, or what it does while its there. Some viruses cause disease. Some don’t. Viruses are complex, and we probably don’t know the half of it yet.

A name like “grapevine leafroll-associated virus” gets you thinking about negative consequences. Rolled leaves don’t collect light efficiently, which means that they won’t contribute to the plant’s photosynthetic metabolism efficiently, which means that the plant may be malnourished, grow slowly, and/or not have enough energy to ripen fruit. Rolled leaves are bad. A virus that’s associated with rolled leaves is bad. But the virus is only associated, not causative. Some viruses in this general family of leafroll-associatedness aren’t associated with vine symptoms. And infected vines only show symptoms post-veraison (the stage of ripening at which grapes change color), even though they carry the virus in detectable quantities year-round.

Ergo, a group of vine and wine scientists headquartered in eastern Washington state designed an experiment to ask (published in PLOSOne, and therefore open-access to everyone): do grapes from vines with grapevine leafroll disease, and carrying one of these viruses (GLRaV-3), lag behind their undiseased counterparts throughout ripening, or only when vines show symptoms? Being particularly conscientious*, they also improved on existing studies of grapevine leafroll disease by collecting data for three consecutive years from a commercial vineyard, sampling grapes throughout the season but also harvesting grapes at the typical time and making wine from diseased and undiseased pairs, and subjecting those wines to (limited) chemical and sensory analysis. They also used own-rooted rather than grafted vines, which eliminates some potentially confounding variables.


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Meet Peter de Wet – Winemaker at De Wetshof

Q.  Where were you born ?

“I was born in Cape Town. On 17th  August 1984. I did my schooling at Bishops.”

Q.  How come Cape Town when the family lived in Robertson ?

“Not really surprising as  we are direct desendants of the De Wets of Koopmans Dewet house in Strand Street Cape Town. The façade of our offices on the farm is  a replica of the building in Strand Street. Our new red blend is called  Thibault as he was the architect of the Strand Street building.”

Q. Where did you study ? 

“I Followed my Father’s footsteps and went to Geisenheim on the Rhine in Germany and studied Weinbou Engineer. (Engineering in viticulture and oenology. )

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

“I try to keep the purity of the varietal and site. This was pretty much instilled into me at Geisenheim and at various places I subsequently worked at.”

Q. How involved do you get in the vineyard ?

“ I get very involved . We have a full time viticulturist and get some of the world’s best advice from Phil Freese from California, and also our own  Francois Viljoen. However I still get into the vineyard as often as I can and I allocate Monday’s to be in the vineyards. It is essential to know what is going on with your raw material.”  He then adds “I also have a father who was a pioneer of various varieties in the Robertson area.”

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

“Obviously Chardonnay. De Wetshof is famous for  it’s Chardonnay. But also Pinot Noir and Merlot.”

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

“I have got two great mentors. The chief winemaker  of Dr Dienhart in Germany and Peter Ferreira of Graham Beck. I worked with both for six months each.”  “In 2006 I also worked in St Emillion with Vignoble Despagne in Bordeaux. In 2007 and 2008 I spent time in Burgundy with Domaine Bertagne and Chablis with  Domaine Laroche. In 2009 I spent time in Champagne with Nicolas Maillart and 2010 in Napa and Sonoma.  Of course, most of my experience has been hard  earned on De Wetshof with my father and the De Wetshof team.” “As you know my father registered De Wetshof as the first wine estate in the  Robertson area and pioneered the role that  chardonnay  has played in high quality wine not only here but in the world.”

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

With a coy smile “I am still working on it !”

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

“No secrets. Just try and preserve what we get from nature.”

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

“Most winemaking equipment is there to make life easier. There is not much that actually improves quality.

Q. What has given you most satisfaction recently ? 

“The production of our Methode Cap Classique and the Thibault Red Blend. “ and continues somewhat shyly “….and being a runner up in The Diner’s Club Young Winemaker of the year Awards .”

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An Easy Guide to Cultivar Identification

The most common wine related advice that I get asked by my friends and people that come to realise that I have wine knowledge is how to identify different cultivars of wine. What is the difference between a Shiraz and a Cab? Or how to tell your Chardonnay from your Chenin. And it’s quite a simple thing, really. If you learn the inherent flavour characteristics of the grape variety and have an idea about the style of wine it is most commonly made in, it is easy to judge if a wine is true to its cultivar or not. Here are a few simple tips to help you to identify the most well-known wine cultivars in South Africa.

Sauvignon blanc

The wine that is produced from this white grape cultivar is very much dependant of the climate that the grapes are grown in. Grapes that are grown under warm climatic conditions tend to produce wines that have a floral or fruity aroma that is sometimes said to be reminiscent of tropical fruits like guava or pineapple. Whereas “green” Sauvignon blancs hail from cool growing regions that generally receive gentle sea breezes during the ripening period. These wines usually have flavours and aromas similar to grass, asparagus or figs. All Sauvignon blanc wines, regardless of the climate the grapes are grown in, tend to be quite dry and acidic- making it the perfect wine for a hot summer’s day.

Chenin blanc

Like some Sauvignon blancs, Chenin is also characterised by the flavours of tropical fruits. But unlike its blanc cousin, Chenin is not quite as acidic and is more commonly found in heavier, wooded wine styles. However, these days light and fruity Chenin blancs are becoming a lot more popular and care should be taken not to assume that all Chenins are heavily wooded or even aged in oak at all.


This cultivar is mostly used to produce wines that are pleasant and delicate. Typical flavours include citrus, peaches, tropical fruits and nuts. Wooded styles tend to have a creamy, almost buttery flavour that makes it the perfect accompaniment for chicken or fish.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Commonly considered to be the King of red wines, this red cultivar’s reputation most certainly precedes itself. However, it is not an easy wine to place in a flavour or aroma category as so many different clones of Cab are now commercially available. The most popular clones exhibit flavours similar to berries, raspberries, olives, nuts and eucalyptus. South African Cabernet’s can occasionally also have a green characteristic that is associated with grass, green pepper or mint. This is sometimes considered to be a negative characteristic, but really it is all a matter of personal preference.


To me, this is a cultivar that doesn’t play games. It hits you in the face right from the get-go- whether you like it or not. And let me tell you, most people do like it. The spicy or peppery flavour of this wine makes it a crowd favourite. Other flavours that are associated with this cultivar are berries, fruit and smokiness. Its sharp acidity and strong tannins make for quite a dry red wine.


The baby brother of red wines. Merlot is generally considered to be softer and easier to drink than most other red wine cultivars. I often recommend trying Merlot to people that are weary of drinking dry red wine as it is usually well balanced and not as dry and pungent as some others may be. When drinking a typical example of Merlot you can expect to experience flavours of fruits, especially berries, and also a hint of greenness.


Our own proudly South African cultivar can- in true rainbow nation style- exhibit quite a few different flavour profiles depending on the wine style it is made in. Generally, there are two types of Pinotage wines- the popular coffee-style and the more traditional fruity and leathery wines. The coffee or chocolate-like flavours that are so prominent in many Pinotage wines are not because someone added a cup of Nescafe or bar of chocolate to the tank but it is rather a result of the oak barrels that the wine is matured in or oak wood chips that matured with the wine. The other style can be intensely fruity or it can have an aroma that is reminiscent of sweet cigars and leather.

Hopefully this simple guide will help you to impress some friends and family in the near future. And just remember that this is only a guide to the most common flavours and aromas that are associated with each cultivar when they are made in wine styles that are true to their genetic cultivar characteristics. So be on the lookout for strange and interesting wine styles and don’t get a fright if your Merlot suddenly tastes like a Shiraz. That is one of the weird and wonderful things about wine- you can never be 100% certain what you are getting in your bottle without tasting it first.

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The Cellar after Harvest’s Dust Settles

By: Denise M. Gardner, Enology Extension Associate

Most likely, all of the wines from the 2016 vintage are happily settling away in tank or barrel at this point.  After such a busy time, his leaves winemakers with that tricky question, “What do I do now?”

Monitoring Malolactic Fermentation (MLF)

Now is a good time to make sure you are monitoring your malolactic fermentations.  Ensure all of your barrels or tanks have been appropriately inoculated, or have started naturally, and get some initial readings on the malic acid concentration.

If you have a spectrophotometer, you can purchase enzymatic kits to measure the concentration of malic acid in your wine over time.  Wines with less than 30 mg/100 mL of malic acid are considered “dry” for MLF or MLF-stable for bottling.

However, winemakers can also monitor malic acid degradation through the use of paper chromatography kits.  These kits are easy enough for home winemakers to use and can also be applied at the commercial level.

MLF paper chromatogram. This image shows the paper after it has dried, where the spots are pertaining to the acid standards and the acid separation for a wine sample. Wine samples above have not completed MLF due to the fact there is a noticeable dot of malic acid in each sample.  Photo by: Denise M. Gardner

MLF paper chromatogram. This image shows the paper after it has dried, where the spots are pertaining to the acid standards and the acid separation for a wine sample. Wine samples above have not completed MLF due to the fact there is a noticeable dot of malic acid in each sample. Photo by: Denise M. Gardner

Paper chromatography works by separating tartaric, malic, and lactic acids from a wine sample (Figure 1).  In addition to blotting small drops of your various wine samples, each paper must also contain 3 standards to show the spots documented by the three acids (tartaric, malic, and lactic).  While paper chromatography is not the best at concentrating how much of each acid remains in the wine, you can get an idea when the bulk of malic acid is converted to lactic acid (i.e., MLF is completed) when the malic acid spot associated with the wine samples disappears.

Checking Wines for Off-Flavor Development

It’s also a good time to check wines for hydrogen sulfide (H2S) or sulfur-base off-odor aromas, and volatile acidity (VA), especially for wines that you will want to bottle early in the new year.

Hydrogen sulfide can be treated with copper sulfate.  Penn State Extension offers a great 2-page fact sheet on how to run a copper screen to determine if the wine requires copper sulfate, and a copper bench trial in order for you to assess how much copper is needed to treat the hydrogen sulfide:

Now is also a good time to know what the VA is in your wines, especially those that will be seeing some aging.  This is incredibly important to get a baseline value of the VA.  That way, if a problem emerges in the future, you will have an indication how much the volatile acidity has increased.   Penn State Extension also offers a 2-page fact sheet explaining why knowing volatile acidity is important, provides protocols for its analysis, and how to mediate high VA situations:

If you are having problems identifying these key defects in your wine, don’t forget that the annual “Wine Quality Improvement” Short Course is just around the corner in January.

Cellar Maintenance

Now is also a good time to clean up any leftover sore spots from the chaotic harvest season:

  • Clean up places in the cellar that have gotten dirty or have become areas that are accumulating materials that should otherwise be put away.
  • Manage all of your harvest records.  Make sure all of the wines have the basic wine chemistries (e.g., pH, TA, residual sugar, alcohol, free and total SO2, malic acid, and volatile acidity) in the record book.  It is easy to forget all of these details as time progresses.

Running basic chemical analysis on your wines and updating records is an essential component of making quality wine. Photo by: Denise M. Gardner

Running basic chemical analysis on your wines and updating records is an essential component of making quality wine. Photo by: Denise M. Gardner

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Q. When and where were you born ? 

“1974 in Somerset West”.

Q. Where did you study ?

“I did a BSc in Winemaking and Viticulture at the Stellenbosch University.”

Q. Your entry into wine was a bit different to others ?

“Yes, winemaking wasn’t something I dreamt about when I was younger.I happened to stumble onto it by chance. I studied Biophysics at US until it became boring. Winemaking sounded interesting. I had always loved chemistry and the idea of being outdoors in the vineyards would enable me to fulfil two passions.”

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

“I think every winemaker  has a different approach and it changes  through the years as you gain more experience and become more at ease with your own style.”

Q. How involved do you get in the vineyard ?

“Not as much as I would like. I run a 1100 ton winery without an assistant so that makes more than a full time job !!”

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

“Yes. I have always loved to work with Cabernet sauvignon and Sauvignon blanc, but Chenin blanc is a real passion for me.”

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

“No one in particular but many conversations with  many different winemakers tend to stick somewhere…”

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

“There have been many wonderful awards  throughout the years, but I think through all my years at Uitkyk I proved that this place can produce unique and powerful wines throughout the spectrum. You need to get to know where to plant what.”

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

“I try not to fiddle too much ! There are so many different products and techniques on the market to enhance and “change” your wines, it is unbelieveable !! I try to respect the fruit and structure that come from our grapes themselves. At time of blending I have learnt not to make the perfect wine for now, but to see the wine in 4-5 years down the road, because that is the beauty of Uitkyk reds, their longevity.”

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

“It is always nice to have modern equipment, but budget constraints don’t always allow for that. I have learned to work with what I have. It is always interesting to hear conversations about techniques changing  to what we used to do in earlier years…”

Q. You joined Uitkyk in 2000. What happened before that ?

“In my final tear at Stellenbosch I received the award for the best student in oenology and viticulture. This encouraged me to travel and gain international experience. I visited New Zealand, Australia , Tasmania and the USA. I returned to South Africa 1997 and was first appointed as an assistant at Neethlingshof. My “boss’ was the legendary Schalk van Westhuizen. I then worked on two sister cellars before being given the keys to Uitkyk.”

Q. …and once at Uitkyk ?

“Soon after I settled in at Uitkyk I married Ian Lourens and we have two children. We enjoy hiking and the outdoors and we seldom venture into the city. Our love for nature is very apparent at Uitkyk where various sustainability initiatives and Uitkyk was recently awarded championship status with the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative (BWI)”

“Winemaking is certainly not a job but a lifestyle. One for which I am very grateful.”

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