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New World Wine Maker Blog

Wine of Origin: Mars

With tickets on the shuttle almost being sold already, the world is making quite a fuss about colonising the red planet next door. The major motion picture, The Martian, has left us to believe that is plausible to survive on Mars and even grow some very “organic” potatoes, but would you really want to live there? Without wine? Certainly not. And seeing as it costs about $10 000 a pound to send something to space, “exporting” a bottle of wine to Mars isn’t exactly in my budget- especially after I have to pay $10 billion just to get there myself. After I’ve spent that amount of money, I am definitely going to need a glass of wine and if I’m on Mars, it seems I am going to have to make it myself.

Turns out, I’m not that far off thinking that it is possible to grow grapes and make wine on Mars. There has already been successful studies that indicate crops like tomatoes, radishes and peas can not only be grown in simulated Martian soil, but are also safe to eat. Martian “soil” or regolith contains all the macro- and micronutrients that are required to grow grapes. The amounts that are found in the substrate vary on different parts of the planet (as it does here on earth too), so general fertilisation will almost certainly be required. The substrate is unfortunately also very fine and of a dust like nature. This means that it probably has an inadequate water-holding capacity. Previous studies have added grass cuttings as an organic compound to help with the retention of water. Another possibility, of course, is the use of hydroponic systems where nutrients are fed to the roots of the plant through a soilless substrate, usually in the form of liquid fertilizer. As our neighbouring planet is further away from the sun than earth, it experiences much colder temperatures. Winter temperatures near the poles can drop as low as -125 ºC and a summer day near the equator won’t get much warmer than 20 ºC. So it’s a bit too cold for growing crops on the exposed exterior of the planet, but a simple greenhouse with a controlled atmosphere can easily regulate the temperatures and carbon dioxide levels that the plants are exposed to. Then there is the issue of water, that doesn’t really seem to be an issue anymore. In September of 2015 already NASA had announced that I had found evidence of flowing, liquid water on Mars. Although this water is believed to be salty, it may potentially be used for irrigating vines.

Now, at the moment it seems that all “growing operations” on Mars will have to take place in a controlled environment like a greenhouse. We can only hope that one day, future generations will have found ways to plant vineyards on the surface of the red planet and that they will be able to utilise the terroir of the Patera Mountains and other unique terrains found on the surface. Of course the soil will also contribute to the extra-terrestrial terroir and it is important to note that the current surface substrate contains a lot of heavy metals. These will be less desirable characteristics to pick up in your Martian blanc. Again, by the time we get there I’m sure we would have figured out a way to remove all the harmful metals from the soil or the filtered wine.

The production of wine on Mars will not only make the people living there a lot happier (seeing as there is wine to drink), but the social repercussions of such an activity can have an immense impact on a developing community or colony. By involving the community in every step of the process, from the soil preparation to the upkeep of vines to harvesting and ultimately the wine making, a sense of camaraderie is established among them. And at the end of the season they all get to sit down and enjoy the fruits (wines) of their labour together.

The likelihood of all of this happening in our lifetime, is rather slim. It probably won’t be another 100 years before we get to taste the first Martian vino. But I am excited for the generations to come and I hope that I can be a part of making this dream become a reality.

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An Introduction to Red Wine Blending

By: Denise M. Gardner

Wine blending is often highlighted as the artistic portion of wine production.  However, blending can also be used for practical or economical purposes.  This blog post will explore some of the common introductory reasons for using wine blending to craft red wines.

Why do winemakers blend wines?

Wine blending is a wine production technique that can be used for a multitude of purposes in order to finish a wine.  Some of these reasons include, but are not limited to:

  • Creating a house style
  • Improving vintage consistency
  • Highlighting vineyard terroir
  • Enhancing a wine’s positive sensory characteristics
  • Minimizing a wine’s undesirable sensory components
  • Balancing oak flavors
  • Altering a wine’s chemistry
  • Managing wine inventory
  • Blending out (i.e., getting rid) of problem wines
  • Additional reasons…

House style and vintage consistency can be very important for a brand’s marketability and reliability amongst consumers.

Many Champagne producers rely on blending to create a house style cuvee associated with their sparkling wines.  While these are not red wines, creating a house style is often based on specific sensory or taste characteristics that are desirable by the winemaker and contribute to major blending decisions.  These blending decisions help minimize vintage-to-vintage variation and variation in grower supplies of fruit while enhancing consistency for their brand.

The same concept can be applied to red wines, but with the use of red wine grape varieties.  House blends can be represented with blending names such as “Proprietor’s Red” or “Winery’s Name House Blend.”  Having wines that are labeled as a blend provides flexibility for the winemaker to create a wine that is of a similar style on a year-to-year basis while altering the wine grape varieties that go into the blend every year.

The other advantage of creating house blends is that these wines allow winemakers to work with variations in varietal inventory.  If we take the last example above, Cupcake Vineyard’s Red Velvet wine, while three different varieties make up the blend, the percentages of each variety contributing to the blend can vary from year-to-year.  This may help mediate changes in yield each harvest season.

Improving Annual Wine Consistency or Highlighting Vintage Variation

Blending can a winemaker’s best tool in enhancing vintage consistency, especially in cooler growing regions where vintage-to-vintage variation is prevalent.  There are a couple of ways that winemakers have been able to accomplish this practice.

  1. Reserving previous vintage wines for blending into future vintages.
  2. Purchasing bulk grapes/juice/wine from warmer climatic regions and blending in small amounts to each vintage.

While neither of these practices may be ideal for terroir expression of certain wine blends, these blending practices provide opportunities to expand a winery’s product portfolio and enhance wine style variation associated with the brand.

In contrast, blending can be used as a tool to illustrate and celebrate vintage variation, which is an inherent component of winemaking.  Not only do these wines offer unique educational and marketing opportunities, this is a tactic that can be used to differentiate premium products within a brand and cater to those consumers that are wine enthusiasts or have a greater interest in vintage-to-vintage variations for a particular brand.  This practice can also better capture the brand’s terroir, which can be a key marketing feature for wineries with estate vineyards.  Additionally, these wines offer exceptional tasting experiences for consumers that enjoy vertical tastings of multiple vintage years, and can be used for various sale promotions over several years.

A common example of this practice is demonstrated by Allegro Winery & Vineyards in Brogue, PA.  The Cadenza and Bridge wines are designed as premium brands, vintage dated, and blended to a particular style in those years that produce the best quality red wine blends.

Wine blending to fix problem wines

While less artistic and perhaps a bit less creative, blending can also be used to help minimize the impact of problem wines or wines that have noticeable defects, flaws or quality shortcomings.  Minor problems can often be partially masked by being blended into aromatically rich varieties like Concord, Niagara, or Catawba.   Noiret, a red hybrid variety, also has a relatively rich aroma/flavor of black pepper which may be an alternative aromatically rich blending variety, as well as the utilization of formula wines with strong added flavors.

Wines suffering from minor oxidation problems can often be added to richer, fresher, younger wines at minimal levels without hindering the fresher or younger red wine.  Additionally, wines with a slightly elevated VA (~0.50 – 0.70 g/L acetic acid) can be added to wines with a lower VA (<0.40 g/L) after the high VA wines have been properly treated and stabilized to avoid contaminating a clean wine.

Allegro Winery’s winemaker, Carl Helrich, worked with Penn State Extension Enologist, Denise Gardner, to improve some of the Penn State-produced problem wines with use of wine blending.

Allegro Winery’s winemaker, Carl Helrich, worked with Penn State Extension Enologist, Denise Gardner, to improve some of the Penn State-produced problem wines with use of wine blending.

The key thing to remember when blending clean-wines with problem-wines is that winemakers want to avoid creating a series of lower quality wines in order to get rid of a problem wine.  Keep in mind that it is not likely that one will be able to create a “unique blend” by using problem wines to any degree.  Winemakers are more likely to create a “good enough” or “commercially acceptable” wine when utilizing blending for this purpose.

All wines that have issues should be analytically and sensorially evaluated before and after blending to ensure chemical and microbiological stability.

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Meet Liza Goodwin – Winemaker Meerendal

Q. Where were you born ? 

“I was born in Bellville in May 1972.”

Q. Where did you study ? 

“I did Viticulture and Oenology at Elsenberg where I finished in 1994. I was appointed at Meerendal in 1998. The first ever female winemaker in Durbanville let alone Meerendal which was founded in 1702 and had it’s first wine bottled in1969 !”

Q. That must have been quite daunting ? 

With a delightful smile “I guess so but I had been well taught and was willing to work with nature rather than against and that made it all much easier. Not that winemaking is really easy !”

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

“I suppose not really although I prefer not to intervene too much in the cellar. I am not a great fan of using  the latest enhancing products  that the industry bombard you with. I want to bring out the best  of what the vineyards give me for any particular year and avoid the chemicals !”

Q. How involved do you get in the vineyard ?

“A lot. I keep an eye on the spraying programme as well as the canopy management . My involvement in the vineyard is equal to that in the cellar.”

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

Immediate response. “Yes I love working with sauvignon blanc and Merlot. These varieties always surprise me, as you never know what to expect with the new vintage. Nature has a big influence  on what these varieties will do year to year. Pinotage , Shiraz and Cab are more predictable.”

Q. However you have made some great wines from those varieties ?

“Yes especially the Heritage Block pinotage and my new Merlot Prestige.”

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

“ Not so much, although the winemakers in Durbanville do share a lot of info. We help each other out.  So I would rather say  that my biggest influence is definitely my Durbanville colleagues. Then my visit to Italy opened my eyes, especially the southern part with  their white wines.” Then continues “I still believe that wine should encapsulate a place in time. As a product it doesn’t play by the same rules as mass produced consumer goods , It is always differs year to year and place to place. My intention is to make the  best and most interesting wines from Meerendal’s vineyards   with a willingness to work with Mother Nature rather than against he.”

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

Answers jokingly “Still surviving as a woman in a cellar  after 18 years !”

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

“There are no secrets …… I work with what Nature gives me each year.”

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

“It plays a big role….It makes the process,  quicker and easier. It is beneficial  to producing quality wines, especially when you are in an industry with so much competition.”

Q. What of the future ?

“I will answer that with a quick review. I began my career in winemaking at Meerendal in 1998 as an assistant winemaker and then 2005 and 2006 I was the viticulturist at Meerendal then moved back to the cellar as Cellar Master and have since taken over the whole process. From vineyard to cellar and even involved in the marketing.  So I have a pretty full plate  ! It will no doubt get even fuller as the future of wine in South Africa looks very promising. I do wish we would get more support from the Government on the international scene and especially in research and training. I also hope to see the growers  and producers getting better prices  for their products. Especially where the big retail companies are  involved. Words like rebates and discounts come to mind….”

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Lasting Impressions

I have been wanting to write this blog article for a couple of months now, but truth be told, I have been putting it off because I was scared. Scared that I was going to sound pretentious and obnoxious and scared that I was going to upset some people by voicing my opinion. I have recently overcome my fear since I figured the world will probably still be so upset with Donald Trump’s obnoxious opinions, mine probably won’t even show up on the radar. Be that as it may, let me just reiterate that this article is written as the opinion of one wine consumer (and previous wine tasting room employee) that wants to offer some friendly advice to tasting room staff across the nation (well, mostly the Western Cape, to be fair). So here goes…

I have attended quite a number of wine tastings in the few short years that I have found myself in this industry. They have been in tasting rooms across most of the wine growing regions in the country. I have had unbelievable experiences that I will never forget in a lifetime. Stories that I will one day tell my grandchildren (when they are old enough, of course). I have attended tastings that were presented with so much energy and enthusiasm that I bought a bottle of wine even though I couldn’t actually taste the wine – seeing as I had a terrible cold – thank goodness it turned out to be a great bottle. I have also attended tastings that were just so simple and elegantly presented that I ended up buying a R400 bottle of wine- and for a student that is quite an expensive bottle of vino that is now lying in the cupboard waiting to age for another two years.

Yes, I have experienced many above average wine tastings, but what puzzles me is the shocking amount of poor wine tasting experiences I have had. I have attended tastings that left me with more questions than answers. I have attended a tasting where it seemed like the guy who served us would have preferred presenting us with a tasting of protein shakes, which, frankly I would not have minded, if it would have sparked at least some interest from him. I have been in tasting rooms where the staff completely forgot that we were there and on another occasion staff couldn’t have cared less that we were there. So it’s safe to say that along the way I have had my fair share of bad tastes left in the mouth by tasting room personnel. But I thought that I would put my experiences to good use and hopefully help SOME wine tasting attendees avoid the disappointments that I had to face.

Now, I know I am generally a tough critic but with wine tastings there are just a few simple things that I require from the person that is presenting wine to me. First and foremost, this person has to assume that I know absolutely nothing about the wine that they are presenting to me. Don’t assume that I have heard of it before or that I know what “Blanc de Blanc” means. You, as tasting room assistant, need to tell me everything I need to know about the wine so I can tell my friend about it if I like it so she or he can buy it too. Then, just some basic wine knowledge will count in your favour (and mine). Know which type of oak is more likely to develop which flavours in red wines and know which cultivars are found in a Bordeaux-blend. Most of these things are fairly easy to find on the internet so if it gets quiet in the tasting room after lunch time, read up a little bit, empower yourself. Lastly, show some enthusiasm and interest in the product that you are presenting and ultimately trying to sell. I can very easily notice when someone has just memorised the winemaker’s tasting notes and are reciting them to me like it’s supposed to be a lyrical poem, but that’s not what I want to hear. I can download the winemaker’s notes from the internet if I want his or her opinion on the wine. I want to hear what YOU think of the wine. YOU as a fellow wine consumer and now member of this incredible industry. We need more people showing initiative and less parrot learning.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to the people that are in managerial positions. As a manager, you have to make sure that you employ staff that are passionate about wine and that want to build a career in this industry. But also, as an industry we have a responsibility to educate tasting room staff from all walks of life so that if that passion isn’t there right from the start, it can be developed over time through wine education and practical exposure. As one of the top wine producing countries in the world, we definitely need to up our game in terms of tasting room contact and it needs to start at the cellar door.

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When microbiology is a data problem: Putting science together to make better pictures of yeast

By Erika Szymanski of The Winoscope

Short: A Portuguese-based group is suggesting that winemakers could have more useful information about choosing a yeast strain if scientists did a better job of putting together data from different kinds of experiments.

Longer:

Scientific research generates a lot of different shapes and sizes of data. How does anyone make it work together?

Contemporary scientific research has a lot of big challenges, but here are three: funding, replicability, and integration. Funding is a great big gory topic for another day.

Replicability has seen a lot of attention in recent science news: scientists across disciplines have been reporting difficulty duplicating their colleagues’ results when they try to repeat the same experiments. This is worrisome. (Most) science is supposed to be about making observations about the world that remain the same independent of who is making the observations. Two careful people should be able to do the same experiment in two different places and obtain the same results. Well-trained scientists, however, are finding themselves unable to replicate the results described in scientific papers, and the community isn’t sure what to do about it.

Integration – how to fit together large amounts of lots of different kinds of data – looks like a separate kind of problem. Scientists (microbiologists, biochemists, systems biologists, geneticists, physicists…) study a thing – yeast, say – in many, many different ways. They generate data in many different shapes and sizes, using all manner of different kinds of instruments to make numbers that don’t just tidily line up with each other. But, at least in theory, all of those data are about the same thing – the same yeast – and so finding ways to integrate data from different kinds of experiments should massively improve our understanding of how yeast works as a whole.

The problem is a bit like trying to compile lots of different kinds of images of a large building – photos from outside and from inside, satellite images, historic accounts of parties hosted there, watercolors of the grounds, plumber’s bills, paint chips from the last remodel – into a single detailed, coherent model of the structure. You might be happy deciding to rent a house on the basis of a floor plan and a picture of the outside sometimes, but occasionally you’re going to move in and realize that the living room is wallpapered pink or that every room smells like cigar smoke and that you have a disaster on your hands that could have been averted by having more information.

Portuguese-based group of molecular biologists and biotechnologists has suggested that winemakers might have fewer fermentation disasters if scientists did a better job of integrating the different kinds of pictures they take of wine yeast. This, they note, is a “data resource” problem. Solutions lie not necessarily in doing better or different scientific research,* but in using computational or informatic tools to find points of alignment across existing kinds of data. The method they offer is unique because they can find correlations across not just two kinds of data, but three or more, and lots of it. One of the interesting things about their example for demonstrating that method is that it aligns data about yeast behavioral characteristics – qualities like low hydrogen sulfide production** – with data about genetic variability. This kind of information might help wine yeast developers increase genetic variability in yeast strains by making it easier to assess large number of potential yeast strains for the right combination of good winemaking characteristics and genetic diversity. And, consequently, their analyses could help winemakers have more complete ideas about what to expect from the yeast they choose to use.

What’s most interesting about this paper, though, is the way it points out that integration and replicability aren’t entirely separate issues. Yes, scientists doing precisely the same thing should arrive at precisely the same results. But how often do scientists do precisely the same thing? Even in trying to repeat “the same experiment,” unaccounted-for differences might interfere and yield different results. And maybe those kinds of differences are more troublesome when other living things – like yeast cells – are also participating in the experiment, compelled or willing to cooperate with the scientist to some extent but still also doing their own thing. So, a different but related question is: can the results of multiple sets of experiments make sense together? Having better computational methods for lining up different kinds of data makes it easier to find out.

*Though experiments could surely be designed so that results are easier to put together with the results of other experiments, which is very much a scientific problem.

**Important if you want to avoid making wine that smells like rotten eggs.

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Where the Wild Grapes Grow

In Scotland lies a vineyard. Just a single one. It’s had a successful vintage. Again, just a single one. Grapes reached acceptable sugar levels, were harvested and then subsequently allowed to totally over oxidise and were, thus, lost. A pity, although it’d be likely the farmer wouldn’t be allowed to sell it as it’s an unlegislated agricultural product of the country. It would certainly be a system shock though – I’m sure the Scottish Board of Farmers and Agriculture didn’t expect vineyard legislation for a few hundred years!

Anyway, back to South Africa, a place where you can actually grow grapes that ripen properly and make wine with relative ease (relative term). The conceptions of “best” region have been shifted in the recent decades. Regions that were considered only worthy enough to produce wines in a container with vertices (also cardboard) now produce stellar dry wines. In fact, by the Winkler heat scale’s own denomination, Stellenbosch – one of South Africa’s “cool climate” regions is actually pretty scorching. I wonder where all these global award winning Chardonnays come from then? Heat scales tell us that quality Chardonnays need a much cooler climate to be produced…I guess South African producers must be buying black market Chardonnay from Burgundy and putting their labels on it…Seriously though, I think people who know heat scales also know they are to be taken as literally as a horoscope.

One of the best examples of breaking the rules or bending-the-terroir would be to look to the Karoo. It’s arguably the frontier of South African viticulture, now that the Lower Orange River Valley has been brought into relative submission. The Karoo is characterized by searing summers and merciless winters. Black Frost shows up and wreaks havoc as dramatic as its Fairy Tale name might suggest! Annually 40% or more of the yield is lost, before any rot or pests come into play! The results speak for themselves, however, some wines have emerged and with quite a statement. The big shots caught wind – Distel et al – and wanted a piece of the action, seeing as the land over there is so cheap and abundant, but one looks at the risks and interest vaporised.

If you work hard enough and smart enough a great deal of adversities can be overcome. Scotland, however, might be pushing its luck right now. Even England’s modest summers barely give enough heat to scrape the grapes over the ripening finish line. On top of that, the winters are brutal and the vineyards don’t need the frequent unscheduled national flood irrigation they receive gratis and unwillingly. In Death Valley, it’s so hot the grapes ripen, ferment and are pasteurized before they’re even picked. In the tropics rot is so abundant, the grapes have to sit in a figurative chemical hazmat suit all year. Even the most pessimistic of us doesn’t want to consume that. No farmer wants any of these adversities, given the choice.

But, if you are a farmer, you made a choice to face off against Mother Nature in some form or another, hot or cold, wet or dry. Where you choose to work is up to you. So bear in mind what Dante said: “abandon hope all ye who enter here” – which is pretty rich coming from a guy who lived in Italy where caprese platters basically grow out of your plate. Of course, though, he wasn’t prattling on about viticulture.

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