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New World Wine Maker Blog

Meet Bertho Van Der Westhuizen, Cellar Master at Alto

Q. When and where were you born ?

“I was born into a winemaking family in Stellenbosch on 17th April 1980.”

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

“I attended the University of Stellenbosch where I did B.Sc in Oenology and Viticulture.”

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

“I don’t suppose so but I do try to be involved personally in every aspect of winemaking.”

Q. How involved do you get in the vineyard ? 

“Very.  The vineyard is also my baby as well as the winemaking but I do have some assistance.”

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

“Reds, both Bordeaux and Shiraz.”

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

“I love the red wine areas of France, Spain and Italy and I am sure visits to those countries have influenced me. I plan to visit South America soon so we shall see what influence that will have.”

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

“Being able to make wine from the wonderful grapes of the Helderberg here in Stellenbosch.”

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

“I don’t think of secrets. For me, if there is any secret, it is the basic of good grapes. Good grapes are the beginning and end to quality wine. “

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

“We only do reds at Alto and have a pretty normal setup, but a mechanical sorter  does add  something. I would like to develop on this by soon being able to have having an optical system. “

Q. And in general ? 

“I can surely say we work in the world’s best environment and everyday one needs to be thankful for that. I was born and grew up on Neethlingshof, where my father was winemaker. He was also born there.  We moved to Alto in 2000 where my father also became the winemaker.  My first vintage at Alto was in 2003.  After that I was a year at Citrusdal then a good innings at Kleine Zalze followed by thee vintages at Boschendal where I also got involved with some DGB wines.  Who knows what the future holds?  I want to create wines from this great Helderberg terroir that will stand up against the best in the world!”

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The Case of the Vegan friendly wines

Written by Geena Whiting.

221B Baker Street, sitting in my armchair reading the newspaper with a Sherlock Holmes frame of mind, I cannot help but notice the front page title screaming at me: VEGAN WINE: THE NEXT BIG THING?? The detective in me is intrigued, surely all wine is vegan? Or wait, is any wine vegan?  Come with me my dear Watson we have a case to solve.

To some a vegan is a somewhat mystical creature, a fully functioning human being that can survive without bacon, eggs or milk. The internet defines veganism as the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products, particularly in diet and an associated philosophy that rejects the commodity status of animals. In layman’s terms this means that anything made from or produced by an animal is a no go.

Our first suspect on the case: the yeast. Is this living organism the reason why wine cannot be considered vegan friendly?

In one of my earlier blogs I wrote about Jerry the yeast and his awesome journey to making a great wine. He was very sweetly anthropomorphized however the question needs to be asked is yeast a living creature? The dictionary defines being alive as the condition that distinguishes organisms from inorganic and dead organisms, being manifested by growth through metabolism, reproduction and the power of adaption to the environment through changes originating internally.

Yeast is alive, however is it an animal? The Dictionary defines an animal as a living organism belonging to the kingdom Animalia that possesses several characteristics that set them apart from other living things such as: being eukaryotic (Having a membrane bound nucleus), being heterotrophic (relying on other organisms for nutrients), lacking a cell wall,  being motile and having special sensory organs for recognizing stimuli and adapting to the environment.

Yeast are in the fungi kingdom and are eukaryotic, single celled micro-organisms, chemoorganotrophs as they use organic compounds for a nutritive source and do not need UV light to grow. They also have a cell wall which eliminates them from the animal kingdom. Therefore although yeast is alive it is not an animal and is thus vegan friendly.

If it’s not the yeast that could potentially make wine non-vegan friendly then what makes some wines vegan friendly and other wines not?

Hitting a wall in our investigation I decided to go through the case files – the wine making process again – there has to be something, and then it hit me like a full bodied Shiraz:

It’s elementary my dear Watson it is the Fining agents.

Fining agents are substances added to wine with the purpose to soften the astringency or bitterness, remove protein hazes and reduce colour. The fining agent reacts with the wine component and precipitates out forming a layer at the bottom of the tank/bottle/glass that is separate to the wine.

Common fining agents include gelatine, isinglass, egg white, milk, casein, PVPP and bentonite.

For colour removal the most common fining agents used are carbon, gelatine and casein. The most efficient fining agent for tannin removal is gelatine and for clarity and stability the most efficient one is bentonite.

From the list above only three out of the seven common fining agents are considered vegan friendly, not all farms use vegan friendly fining agents.

The case seemed to be solved however there was one loose end that needed to be tied up. In our investigation I came across an interesting vegan friendly fining agent: Vegecoll®.

Vegecoll® is an organic fining agent that is vegan friendly, it can be used as an alternative to gelatine and egg white. It is a negative protein that is derived from potatoes. It is used for the stabilisation of colour and tannin removal. A promising substitute as a fining agent, but after asking around, it seems opinions vary from “will never touch the stuff” to “will never use old methods again”. To this detective it seems to be a love it or leave it scenario.

From my investigations and our case work it can be determined that wines using vegan friendly fining agents can be classified as vegan friendly products. Most wine farms don’t even bother to label their wines as vegan friendly because it seems obvious, however with the younger generation of wine drinkers becoming more aware of environmental issues and following a vegan life style more and more labels are showing “vegan friendly”. Do not fret if your favourite drop doesn’t display this label, a quick google of the A number on the back of the bottle should tell you all you need to know.

The case is closed for now Watson, but there have been rumblings of green and blue wines and Koshure wines making an appearance. We have only scratched the surface of the mysteries in the bottle.

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Brett + bacteria = worse, or better

By Erika Szymanski of The Wineoscope

Microbiology has gotten a lot wrong studying yeast and bacteria. We’ve assumed, until quite recently, that if a microbe doesn’t grow in a dish it’s not there. And that a microbe is either on/live/growing or off/dead. And that we can study microbes in isolation — “pure culture” — away from other species in little sterile dishes and expect them to behave normally. In all fairness, microbiologists have sometimes seen these as a problems, but have mostly just gone on this way, writing books about what we think we know.

DNA detection and sequencing technology is showing just how many bugs don’t grow in dishes — “high throughput” technology can document (theoretically) all of the species in a drop of [insert favorite liquid here]. That’s pretty routine these days. And we’re slowly beginning to study how mixtures of microbes — you know, the way they live in the wild — behave in the lab. Wine was a bit ahead of the curve here: microbial enologists have been studying the goings-on of spontaneous and mixed fermentations since the late 1980’s.*

Usually, mixed-microbe studies are about what grows where together. Occasionally, you can predict something more specific with a bit of logic and some scratch paper. That, plus a little knowledge of yeast and bacteria metabolism, leads to an interesting hypothesis: some malolactic fermentation bacteria should make Brett smell worse.

Brettanomyces bruxellensis (aka “Brett,” aka barnyard-stench spoilage yeast) creates its signature aroma by converting hydroxycinnamic acids (HCAs) naturally present in wine to smelly volatile phenols. This is a two-step process. First, an enzyme (a decarboxylase) converts HCA to a vinylphenol. Second, a different enzyme (a reductase) converts the vinylphenol to the volatile ethylphenol, including the Brett signature 4-EP and 4-EG.

But before that can happen, Brett has to be able to get to the HCAs. Many of the HCAs in wine are chemically bound to tartaric acid. Brett can’t use them if they’re bound. The HCA-tartaric acid bond spontaneously and slowly breaks, giving off free HCAs for Brett to use, but there’s theoretically a much bigger pool of pre-stink molecules that need only lose their acid first.

Some lactic acid bacteria — like the ones that commonly perform the malolactic fermentation (MLF) so important to most reds and a lot of white wines — can enzymatically split HCAs from tartaric acid. In theory, that should mean that some (but not all) MLF bacteria are Brett enablers. Wine + bacteria + Brett = worse smell than wine + Brett alone.

Building on previous research, a team at Oregon State University has made that more than a theory. Their recent paper (currently pre-press in AJEV) shows that some commercially available MLF strains make more HCAs available than others, AND that leads to Brett making more 4-EP and 4-EG,

The team only experimented with one strain of Brettanomyces, and they obviously couldn’t test anywhere near all of the MLF strains on the market, but this (plus the multiple studies that have come before it supporting the effects of lactic acid bacteria on HCAs) is strong evidence indeed that winemakers buying commercial bacteria for MLF may have better and worse choices if they’re worried about Brett.

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Winter School, Summer Ready

The post-harvest blues have slowly started to sink in as the familiar snip-snip-snip of pruning shears drifts through the vineyard. While the viticulturists are hard at work, the fourth year cellar interns have returned to the comforts of campus life, or so we thought.

Back at our old stomping ground, the university, we have been hard at work doing a winterschool programme, designed to get us industry ready. In six months time, we are going to be released into this close-knit industry, but there aren’t enough positions available for all of us. Many students will opt to go into marketing, to study further, to become sommeliers, wine buyers and some of us will go on to become winemakers and viticulturalists.

The winter school programme has remodelled the way that we think and approach situations, through a course called the “six thinking hats”. One of the questions we focused in in a session was, “how can we ensure that wine competes with beer”. This was an incredibly difficult topic to tackle, given that beer is unfortunately still the beverage of choice amongst the general public. A few interesting ideas emerged, like wine on tap, wine in a can, wine coolers, wine marketing during rugby games…unfortunately most of our ideas weren’t the most viable, however the exercise did teach us how important it is to alter our way of thinking.

After the six thinking hats, we moved on to wine marketing. In this short course we learned the importance of being able to design and sell your brand, as well as learning how to understand the different markets we would be selling our wines to in the future. With regards to the local market, students were taught how to identify the various target markets we would be selling our wines too, and the importance of having a story that makes your target market want to try your product.

IPW and SAWIS courses were also offered to us, the whole final year class underwent training at Elsenburg for the IPW guidelines. I personally enjoyed this the most because after the IPW training, we were invited too braai with the Elsenburg students. Here we were allowed to catch a glimpse of their world. From cinsault barrel tastings, to drinking gin and wine on the stoep, we somehow managed to strip away any preconceived stigmas we had about each other and just enjoy the company. A few bottles of wine made the rounds between us, and after three boerewors rolls and great company, we headed back to the university (with heavy hearts might I add, the afternoon really was lovely!).

SAWIS came at us like a ton of bricks on the first day of training, it was a lot of information that we suddenly had to take in. The second day was spent teaching students how to fill in the green and pink cards, as well as various other SAWIS forms, during the winemaking process. We were surprised with a quick SAWIS exam, that didn’t turn out quite as badly as we had all expected it to. I definitely feel more appreciative of all of the hard work winemakers have to do behind the scenes, admin is tough!

From SAWIS, we moved on to Toastmasters; a course designed to teach us how to prepare speeches and face the terrors surrounding public speaking. We learned a lot about each other during this course, one of my classmates revealed that she had a blackbelt in karate by the age of 12, another had dressed up as a Zulu impi at the world cup a few years ago, one has a shoulder that randomly pops out of joint and another rode his uppity horse through the Durbanville McDonald’s Drive through to pick up a lunch order! Impromptu speaking presented a little more of a challenge, however by the end of the week I can wholeheartedly say that I am a part of a class of word-wizards!

Toastmasters was aimed to help us combine our knowledge on the wine industry as well as our new-found wine marketing knowledge, enabling us to feel comfortable in front of an audience while talking about wine, essentially equipping us with the ability to market and present our wines in the future.

A few students were offered the opportunity to take part in a wine evaluation course, wherein they learned how to identify wine faults and how to judge wine accurately. The three day course enables students to participate as a student judge or an “extra judge” in various wine competitions, such as the ABSA Pinotage Top 10. This was a fantastic opportunity awarded to students who passed the initial wine faults test, I unfortunately have always known that my wine drinking skills far outweigh my wine tasting skills, and failed dismally.

To end off the winterschool period, the class was invited to attend a pruning workshop with Livio (the Italian vineyard man), who showed us how to master a new and very interesting pruning technique that involves minimalizing pruning wounds, while building the bearing positions up to create stronger sap flow to next season’s shoots. The method took some getting used to, however it made a lot of sense. I for one feel incredibly enlightened after the past month of training. These sessions have taught us valuable skills that we can take with us into the industry next year, hopefully allowing us to produce and sell top tier wines!

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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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