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New World Wine Maker Blog

Dry eyes, full hearts

Drought has been the talk of the town for some time now. Unsurprising that when one of the most vital resources of all biological and mechanical activity goes missing, so too does any state of calm. It’s a true natural disaster, one that manifests itself as directly as a hurricane or as indirectly as an economic recession. This has impacted us all in the Southern tip of Africa and has been felt from the veld of the Karoo right to the gardens of Constantia.

As we all know, the grapevine is a well rooted plant. And it’s not one of those pseudo plants that can just up and move (like tumbleweed), nor is it a crop that can simply be replanted elsewhere. It’s a commitment plant. Trade in your wedding ring, the vine is your new life partner. It’s there to stay, and it’s going to need just the right amount of care (and neglect) to make the journey.

This journey largely takes place below ground, in the subterranean; the biological dungeon; the organic labyrinth; erebus … (soil often needs hyperbole to keep people interested). This underworld supports everything that sits on top of it – and is actually quite fascinating – but it can’t do that without water. Water feeds not only the vine, but the millions and billions of fauna and flora that inhabit the soil and are quintessential for the operation of the vine. They provide food and protection from other harmful parasites. Without these the vine now has to do it all by itself.

Take away water and take away the soil life and strain sets into the vine, often a beneficial state that helps concentrate the flavours in the grapes, like a light sweat on the brow of an athlete.

Around the start of summer, the vine is growing in all directions – literally and figuratively. It’s trying to grow physically larger and ripen its fruit, like a pregnant lady in third trimester training for Ms Olympia. You can imagine what that must be like if, on top of all of that, you have no water and it’s hot: the pregnant lady’s gym is now in the Sahara desert. In the vine, stress would set in at this point. This is when things cross into danger the zone: acids in the berries degrade, leaves wilt, growth stops, the vine’s ability to fend off pathogens diminishes. It burns out all of its supplies to keep going and produce fruit, and by winter time the reserves it needs to make it to next spring have taken a heavy hit. The poor vine may lapse into a state of weakness for some years to come.

This stage was set in the summer of 2016 in South Africa. We are now well into 2017 and the biblical rainfall the vine needs is still yet to come. It’s going go deeper and deeper into the red zone. We must simply pray this dry period comes to end. South Africa – its dry(er) regions in particular – sit on the boundary of viticultural possibility. I’ve heard it said, in Burgundy the vine goes through a summer about as difficult as a Sunday morning fun-run; in South Africa, it’s the Comrades Marathon and more. And it’s only getting more and more difficult. The world is getting warmer, if you live in Iceland or own a Sunscreen brand, you’re one of the very few who is benefitting.

In the meantime we watch and wait with baited breaths for relief this coming winter.

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Carbonation and the pain of Champagne

By Erika Szymanski of The Winoscope

Sparkling wine – or beer, or soda, or seltzer* – triggers an unmistakable set of sensations, addictive or repellent depending on your predilection. But is that sensation a taste? A physical sensation? Something else? Probably some combination of the above, though figuring all of that out is trickier than you might imagine.

First, the bubbles in sparkling wine are carbon dioxide, either the product of yeast fermenting a last little bit of sugar in the bottle or mechanical carbonation with a tank of pressurized gas. Carbon dioxide plus water makes carbonic acid: CO2 + H2O ⇌ H2CO3 . Acids, by definition, are molecules with hydrogens which can and do pop on and off when dissolved in water. If the hydrogens tend to disassociate themselves easily, you’re dealing with a strong acid (e.g. hydrochloric or sulfuric) best used for cleaning glassware or dissolving an inconvenient corpse. If only a small number of hydrogens hop off at any one time, you’re dealing with a weak acid. Carbonic acid, needless to say, is a weak acid, or else seltzer water would be an industrial solvent rather than a cocktail mixer. Chemists were associating the perception of sourness with those free hydrogen ions back at the turn of the twentieth century, but they’re not sufficient to explain sourness alone, and twenty-first century chemists are still trying to work out the remainder. The ongoing search for a complete explanation of sourness is one of those excellent examples of how very simple daily phenomena can end up being unexpectedly complicated when scientists try to explain them in terms of chemistry and biology.

Second, the bubbles in sparkling wine are mechanical stimulation. If you stick your hand into a glass of sparkling water, you’ll feel the “prickle” of bubbles bursting along your skin, and your tongue and the interior of your mouth receives the same sensation. That’s not surprising.

A third component of how we sense carbonation is surprising, or at least it’s surprising to me as a carbonated beverage-lover. Carbonation appears to trigger nociceptors, the specialized receptors we have for sensing pain. Carbonation is, physiologically speaking, irritating.

>> CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL ARTICLE

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Irene Waller General Manager and Winemaker at La Bri

Q When and where were you born ?

“I was born in Cape Town at the Kingsbury Maternity hospital in Claremont in June 1968.”

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

“I first trained as an accountant so have a Bcom (Accountant) from UCT. I then went on to be a maths and accounting teacher. I did my HDE part time through UNISA during my first two years of teaching. I quit teaching officially in 1996 as I had made up my mind to become a wine maker. I then spent  the next five years travelling between Australia, South Africa and Europe to gain wine experience. To pay my way I taught maths in the UK.  In 2001 I returned to Maties (University of Stellenbosch) to study BSC Agric which I achieved  Cum Laude  and was awarded  the Professor Perold trophy  as the top student. “

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

“I like to think I combine both the science and the art of winemaking in one. The chemistry is there to guide  but ultimately it is the gut  feel and experience that allows for the creativity of expression.”

Q. How involved do you get in the vineyard ?

“I believe you cannot make wine in the cellar if you have not been involved in the vineyard”.   She continues “We are fortunate to have Gerard Olivier managing the estate and vineyards, but we work closely together when it comes to decisions of new plantings, canopy management and ultimately harvesting.”

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

Without hesitation she replies “Chardonnay for our MCC, Syrah and the difficult child, Viognier.”

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

“I was extremely fortunate to be appointed  as a winemaker at Graham Beck Wines in Robertson being straight out of varsity. It was here that I developed my passion for MCC under the expert guidance and mentorship of Pieter “Bubbles” Ferreira. I take from him the adage ‘there is no recipe – we don’t make coca cola !’ “

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

“The release of our first MCC under the La Bri Label, our Sauvage La Bri. A work of patience and passion with over five years on the lees before degorgement. A wine I am extremely proud of.”

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

“I don’t really think it is a secret as I hope you can taste it in the wine . The passion with which the wine is made  and our attention detail at every stage of it’s journey.”

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

“We like to think we make old world wines with the benefit  of new world technology. At La Bri we have a state-of-the art 120 ton boutique cellar built in 2008 which allows the benefit of making wines with all the ‘bells and    whistles’ “

Q. How important are the cellar dogs in your wine quality ?

With a gorgeous smile “Oh, couldn’t do anything without those old two. Jake the Jack Russell and Peggy-Sue the aging Staffie.”

Q. Whatever made you change direction from accounting to winemaking ?

“I did a Cape Wine Academy  prelim course in  1996 and Louise-Ann Grinstead was my lecturer. She ignited in me a desire to know more about  wine and after much travelling and studying I finally became a winemaker at the ripe old age of 36 ! You are never too old to find your true calling and passion in life. “

Q. Now the future ?

“ I am very fortunate to work  for an owner, Robin Hamilton, who allows me the freedom to experiment. We have released  the first MCC at La Bri and have reintroduced Semillon to the range. Semillon which is a variety synonymous with Franschhoek.”  Then ends with enthusiasm “The future is exciting with the challenges it holds.”

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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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