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New World Wine Maker Blog

Wine not?

With the heart of winter looming heavily over the wine producing regions of South Africa and the coldest part of the year slowly creeping in, red wine shows a higher preference amongst its consumers. South Africans are already well-acquainted with our beautifully crafted, full bodied and spicy red noble cultivars, but few are aware of their lesser known tantalizing relatives.

The chill of winter can often be fought off with a tot (or two) of port, now known as Cape Vintage, especially if said winter-delicacy is accompanied by a roaring, wood-crackling fire. Few consumers know that one of the major Cape Vintage producing cultivars, Touriga-Naςional, also produces a full-bodied varietal wine, driven by dark fruit and a smooth mouth feel, that is just as welcoming on a chilly winter’s eve.

So, instead of grabbing the well-known bottle of Pinotage, leaning into the comfort of a hearty glass of Cabernet Sauvignon or welcoming the familiar pizazz of a Shiraz, I want to encourage and challenge you to try something new and different. As you reach for that less familiar bottle of Touriga-Naςional, Malbec or Mourvèdre, think, “Wine not!”.

The next time you venture out to one of our many well-known wine retail stores, take a closer look at the order in which wine is shelved. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to note that even South African retailers have recently taken to the increase in non-noble varietal wines and no longer shelve these wines together. Each cultivar now has its own section! I love being able to approach a section in a shop and know exactly where to find the Touriga-Naςional, Malbec or Mourvèdre. This leaves us, avid wine consumers, with an increased awareness of these wines. This also boosts their popularity and familiarity in the market because they are more visible in stores.

Our winemakers are now beginning to challenge larger wine producing countries like Argentina and Chile, by producing outstanding varietal wines from cultivars, that were previously better known for their excellent blending capabilities. You may have heard of some of these cultivars before, Barbera and Malbec for example, were previously used in blends mainly for their beautiful and deep colouration, which often added extra colour to lighter cultivar wines. Malbec, a familiar Bordeaux style cultivar, is fast proving that it can in fact find its legs, without the help of its four well known blending counterparts (Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot).

Elegant and full bodied SMV and SMG Rhône style blends have also shown face in the South African wine industry, both blends sharing a mutual cultivar of Spanish origin, Mourvèdre. This cultivar is certainly capable of creating beautiful varietal wines and is no longer considered for the sole purpose of blending. The typical wine characteristics of Mourvèdre include aromas of liquorice, violets, dark fruits and a long, lingering finish on the palate. If you ever get stuck while trying to identify a glass of red wine, Mourvèdre is most recognisable by its predominant ‘anys’ or liquorice aromas.

Familiarising yourself with these cultivars can be quite entertaining too! I often catch myself and other inquisitive wine-lovers pronouncing these unfamiliar cultivar names with a dash of Italian, Spanish and French flair on the tongue. This becomes increasingly fun after a glass or two of wine, after which creative pronunciations and various accents begin to surface. Malbec, for example, is an easy wine to integrate into our South African ways, simply by remembering that the wine is indeed, “Mal-in-my-bek”. A wine like Barbera rolls off one’s tongue, Barrr-Ber-rah, much like the wine rolls over one’s taste buds with fruity and spicy notes. Mourvèdre, also a bold wine, offers an almost tantalizing tango of flavours that dance on the palate much like the sound of the word itself.

If the winter chill does not deter you from drinking white wine, fear not! Cultivars such as Roussanne, Riesling, Viognier and Gewürztraminer are also on the rise. Many of these white wine producing cultivars are packed with fruity, floral and Muscat-like aromas that have proven to be particularly refreshing on a warm summer’s day. If the good and trusted Chardonnay and Chenin blanc no longer excite you, try something new and different. New cultivars are constantly introduced into the South African market, one of the most recent and lesser known cultivars being of Austrian origin, Grüner Veltliner. This cultivar produces softer wines, displaying an almost hybrid flavour profile combination between Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay. In America, this cultivar is more well-known as Gru-v, a rather fitting name for a very groovy wine!

One of the rarest white wine cultivars in the world, produced by less than five South African wineries, is Bukettraube. With only seventy odd hectares of Bukettraube left in the world, approximately sixty-eight of which are planted in South Africa, it is a wine not to miss out on. This unique wine is not only a blast to attempt pronouncing, it is also equally packed with a blast of crisp stone fruit flavours and a refreshing acidity on the palate.

Popping the cork on a bottle of one of these ‘bad-boys’ can add something unique to any experience. Whether its experimenting with friends and family at a braai or impressing a first-date at dinner with your wine knowledge, bringing something different to the table can be a fun and memorable experience for both you and those close to you.

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Meet Koen Roose-Vandebrouke – Owner and Winemaker Spioenkop

First impression is that here is someone who is very different and an individualist. Well groomed albeit dark stubble on chin and cheeks topped by a dark engineers cap confirm the impression as does the difficult to determine accent which turns out to be Belgium. English is spoken with an engaging turn of phrase.

Q. What made you come to South Africa ?

“On a visit to the Cape my wife and I fell in love with the beautiful Elgin Valley and knew that this was where  we could produce elegant wines  that would be sexy and pure but at the same time unique and, maybe, even a little wild. “

Q. Where were you born ?

“In Belgium in  July 1974.”

Q. Where did you study ?

“I studied Engineering at Kortjk in Belgium.” “I also became a Sommelier because of my love for wine.”

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

With great enthusiasm and emphasis “Oh, most certainly yes !!  I’m an alchemist and have an unbelievable feeling with my vineyards , I love vineyard  architecture and don’t believe in irrigation. We must listen to the vine and do what the vine asks us. That means don’t trellis a vine like we want but how she wants like lyre and gyot and so on.”

Q. How involved do you get in the vineyard ?

“I probably spend 70% of my time with my vines.”

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

“Pinotage and pinot noir.”

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

“Francois  Naude was my teacher  and my mentor. He showed me to understand pinotage and that winemaking is a gift  and not something you learn at school.”

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

“ I am still waiting for it but it comes ! But on the way, maybe my first  one  was to reinvent pinotage. Pinotage in Elgin.  Elegant in style  and walking away from the jammy, alcoholic, over extracted style like we all know. I had my Five stars in 2012 for it.  The next one was to show the world  that Riesling can be made in South Africa and that it can reflect it’s terroir if you understand the vine. Teaching South African people that she is the Queen  of grapes  so handle her like a queen. Minerality, expensive and give her a beautiful bottle and don’t make her a sweet thing of here, we are not in Germany ! “I did not mention Chenin Blanc. Planting Chenin in Elgin was a dream that came true because if your figures work well, poor soil, high density, great drainage, wind, aspect, you can make something great that is so pure, clean, shinning that it brings you to fine dining of the world of top chefs.” After some thought he adds “The Elgin area is the future gold of the Western Cape.”

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

His answer is direct “Secrets ? Understanding your vineyard and working with nature. Nature provides it all. No need to add anything ! Nature is on the inside and not how pretty the bunch looks on the outside!”

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

“Not at all. Give me small stainless steel tanks, a basket press and a cooling system. Also a cool store and I am happy.  Of course, also, a brush to clean.”

Q. And the future ?

“ Very easy, winemaking is  just part of my vision as it is to educate people showing them what passion can do in winemaking which is the key to success. Do the things that you are good at and work with the grapes that are made for you and your region. If not take them out but do not try and make something average.”

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A Dear John Letter to Balling meters

Dearest balling meter,

Our relationship has always been a delicate one.  You have been there when I needed you and have offered me insight and support when everything around me was in pandemonium.

But it has also been a hazardous relationship.

You have always been around. Gathering dust in a draw for 9 months of the year only to be yanked out and used by a novice but you see past my fumbling moments when I have been dense. Because that’s what you do. You take density and calibrate the sweetness.

We saw each other every day. Twice a day. For three months. Every morning I would walk into the cool cellar still sleepy and tired from the labour of harvest the day before and there you would be – waiting for me in the lab, ready to be plunged into 30 samples of cold white fermenting must. Then again at the end of day – covered in a mess of sugar and yeast I would return to you and we would complete our bi-daily ritual.

It’s not you – it’s me. I was too young. I didn’t have years of experience. Our interaction was still one of bustling activity and commotion. Everything was going at full speed. I did not give you the gentle nurturing care of an experienced winemaker living their glory years in the cellar.

And that is how I broke you.

The first time it happened I was so scared. I did not mean to break you so brutally. I was worried. What would people say? How would we survive without your utility and convenience? I did not realise the fragile state in which you existed. I promptly promised never again to break you and I intended to fulfil that promise.

But then it happened again. This time it happened by dropping you from the stainless steel stairs.

It was so quick. We seemed fine but then I turned my back and you rolled away from me. I only heard the soft tinkle as you shattered on the dark orange tiles near the robust red wine tanks.

The third, fourth and fifth time became a blur. I could not say how or when it happened. Only that it did. Each time the clean-up became swifter; gathering glass in tissue paper; rinsing the floor or any discarded shards apparent of your destroyed state… and finally the hasty disposal of any evidence which could be incriminating.

You are a luxury I cannot afford. I am a student living off a measly intern salary. My idea of a luxurious date night involves going to Spur on a day when the two for one special isn’t on. So, I can’t afford your R500 aesthetic upkeep. No matter how pretty you come in your new packaging and the beautiful slip of calibration paper that accompanies you.

The cellar has always been the hub of chaos and dishevelment. To be honest I don’t know how managed to survive through the mayhem of previous harvests. You are far too delicate to survive in this robust environment. It’s a tough world and your lack of tough exterior is the fatal flaw in your design.

But I know why we keep you around. You offer a valuable service by tracking the rate of our tricky friend, fermentation. There is no better tool to measure density and we would be lost without your guidance.  Without you we have no way of knowing when to add our nutrients. When to adjust temperatures. When to rack. You are the decision-maker and because of that you are irreplaceable.

So I ask you. Why are you designed this way? Why are you made of flimsy glass and filled with mercury? I have heard it is the only way you work. Archimedes first uncovered the secret to your success when he stated his buoyancy principle. Thomas Thomson knew what he was doing when he designed the shape and material of your frame. Winemakers celebrated when they realised the impact of your function.  Your way of determining specific gravity is nothing short of remarkable.

You have been there for tiring times and I am indebted to you – as is every other cellar worker, intern, winemaker and cellar master. But our relationship cannot survive. You deserve someone who will treat you better and I need someone who will not break so easily.

I have been told that I am the weak link in our partnership; my mentor has only broken you once in 17 years.  Maybe one day I will be able to treat you with the respect you deserve – fulfilling your purpose in life. And I will be happy knowing you have done your job so that I may do mine.


Yours sincerely

The intern who broke you

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Deciphering the language that is wine

We’ve all been there. Sitting in a wine tasting room and wondering by ourselves when the tasting presenter walks away from the table- “What on earth did he just say?” From tannins to lees to blanc de blancs, I have to admit that the wine industry has not always made it easy for consumers to understand what they are talking about. As the “wine language” was developed in Old World wine countries (mostly European countries that have been making wine for many centuries), a lot of the terms are in French, Italian and Spanish. But there are also quite a few scientific terms that wine presenters sometimes use that can be just as confusing as something spoken in another language. To the average person these terms and phrases might seem intimidating and that is why I decided to write this article. These are only a few of the most common, but yet confusing, terms that I get asked to explain often to my friends and family.

Anthocyanins: A chemical pigment found in plants that give leaves and fruit a red, blue or purple colour. Skins of red grapes are abundant in these compounds and they are responsible for the colour of red wine.

Aroma: The smell of a wine that is sensed by sniffing through the nose. Usually refers to the smell that is inherent to the grapes as opposed to smells that developed through barrel aging (referred to as bouquet).

Barrique: An oak barrel that is used for aging wine and holds approximately 225 L.

Blanc de blanc: A white wine that is made entirely from white grapes as opposed to a white wine that also contains red grape varieties.

Blanc de noir: A white wine that is made from red or black grape varieties. The juice is squeezed from the grapes and fermented without the skins. These wines may also have a light pink hue.

Bordeaux blend: A wine that is made by blending at least two of the traditional grape varieties that are grown in the Bordeaux region of France. These include Cabernet franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Petit verdot.

Brut: Refers to a very dry sparkling wine or Champagne.

Claret: A term that refers to red wines from the Bordeaux region of France.

Cooper: A person that is skilled in the art of making wine barrels.

Decanting: The process of gently pouring wine from the original bottle to a different container (called a decanter or carafe) to separate the wine from its sediment and allows the wine to be oxidised. It is important to let the bottle stand upright for a period of time to allow the sediment to settle at the bottom of the bottle before decanting.

Demi-sec: A French term that refers to a semi-sweet wine.

Enology or Oenology: The science and study of winemaking.

Fermentation: The process that turns grape juice into wine through the conversion of sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide by yeast.

Fortified wine: A wine that has an alcohol content between 15 and 22 percent alcohol by volume which was obtained by alcoholic fermentation of grape juice and the addition of brandy or another wine spirit.

Late harvest: A term used to describe wines that are made from grapes that were harvested later than normal, usually with a higher sugar content (Brix). These wines are usually sweet, dessert-style wines.

Lees: The sediment that remains in the tank or barrel during and after fermentation has completed. This includes dead yeast cells, grape seeds, skins, stems, pulp and harmless tartrate crystals. Usually the gross lees is separated from the wine through a process called racking after fermentation has concluded. In some cases wine is left to age for an extended period whilst still in contact with the dead yeast cells (fine lees). This can enhance a wine’s complexity and add richness.

Legs: The viscous droplets that can be seen on the inside of a wine glass when the wine is swirled. It usually indicates a wine that is full-bodied with a fair amount of alcohol.

Method Cap Classique (MCC): The traditional method that is used to make sparkling wines that are fermented in the bottle. This is the same method that is used to make Champagne.

Noble rot: A mould called Botrytis cinerea that grows on ripe wine grapes under specific climatic conditions. It dehydrates the grapes which causes the sugars and flavours inside the berries to concentrate. The wines made from these grapes are rich, complex and usually has a high sugar content.

Oxidized: A term that describes a wine that has been exposed to oxygen (air) and has turned a brownish colour, lost its freshness and now has a honeyed or Sherry-like character.

Resveratrol: A natural chemical compound that is found in wine and grape skins as well as many other foods including blueberries and peanuts. It has been shown to have many health benefits including protection against cancer, cardiovascular diseases, Alzheimer’s, type-2 diabetes and many others.

Rosé: These are wines that have a pink or salmon-coloured hue. They are made from red grapes that have had limited contact with the grape skins, giving rise to the lighter colour.

Tannins: Natural chemical compounds that are most prominent in red wines and gives wine a “rough” taste. It is mostly derived from the skins, stems and seeds of grapes, but also from oak barrels. It is important in adding structure and facilitates the aging of wine.

Terroir: A French term that is used to describe the multi-faceted interaction and relationship between the vine, soil, climate and topography of a specific site that influences the ultimate wine character.

Vintage: Refers to the year in which the grapes were harvested and the wine was made.

Viticulture: The science, study and cultivation of grapes and grapevines.

Umami: Considered to be the fifth taste sensation. Usually referred to as the “savoury” taste as it is found in most savoury foods including mushrooms, cured meats and soy sauce. It is also sometimes tasted in wines.

Hopefully now you will be able to decipher exactly what your wine presenter is talking about at your next wine tasting. And if you forget or still don’t know, ASK! There was little I enjoyed more when I worked in a tasting room than sharing the knowledge I had and I’m sure most other tasting room staff feel the same. Besides, at some stage, we didn’t know anything either.

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July Pre-Harvest Planning in the Cellar

By: Denise M. Gardner

If you are a wine producer in the northern hemisphere, harvest may feel quite far away.  However, given that it is now the month of July, it will be here before we all know it.

Harvest season is just around the corner! Photo by: Denise M. Gardner

The month of July is a great time to start preparing a few essential pre-harvest tasks including getting a bottling schedule ready, especially if bottling operations have not yet begun, and ordering harvest supplies.   This blog post will focus on these two tasks.

Prepare and Enact a Bottling Schedule

New grapes are about to flood your winery with juice and future wine.  Now is the time to review inventory within the cellar and determine what has to be moved and what has to be bottled before harvest begins.

Freeing up previous years’ inventory by moving it into bottle will free up tank, barrel and storage space for this year’s incoming fruit.  It makes for a much easier transition if all of the wines that need bottling are bottled before harvest season starts.  Bottling during harvest is not only chaotic, but it tires employees, pulls resources from the incoming product, and may lead to harvest decisions that may be regretted later.

Always make sure to get bottled wines properly stored and away from any “wet areas” on the production floor.  If possible, bottled wines should have a separated storage area within an ideal environment that is physically separated from production.  From there, stored wines can be moved into retail space when needed.

For more information on how to get wines prepared for bottling, please visit our previous posts:

Bottling comes with its own set of challenges and risks, but several analytical tests can help put a winemaker’s mind to ease regarding bottle stability. Photo by: Denise M. Gardner

Ordering Fermentation and Lab Supplies

Many suppliers and wine labs offer free shipping in July, which can especially be useful for wineries that are not geographically close to a winery supply store-front.  Planning ahead and determining what fermentation supplies will be needed in August, could save extra money.  Not to mention, having supplies on hand during the busy processing season can be a big stress relief.

Winemakers should also take the time to look at new fermentation products and assess the previous year’s needs in order to adequately supply for the up-and-coming harvest.  Keeping an annual inventory of purchases can be helpful to isolate regular needs.

Things to consider purchasing include:

  • Yeast
  • Fermentation Nutrients
  • Malolactic Bacteria
  • Enzymes
  • Yeast Hulls
  • Salts for Acid Adjustments
  • Tannins
  • Pectic Gums and/or Inactivated Yeast Products
  • Fining Agents
  • Oak Alternatives or Barrels
  • Sanitizing Agents

While new yeasts are released frequently, being constructive about the production’s fermentation needs can help isolate what yeasts are needed for the upcoming harvest.  I typically recommend that all vintners have at least 5 strains on hand for harvest: 2 reliable strains that will get through primary fermentation with little hassle, 1 strain that can be relied upon for sluggish or stuck fermentations, and 2 strains for specialty needs (e.g., sparkling or fruit wine/hard cider production) or experimental use.

Select and purchase your yeast strains in July to take advantage of free-shipping promotions.

Fermentation nutrients should be a must-have for all wineries to help minimize the risk of hydrogen sulfide.  Always double check nutrient requirements for yeast strains purchased.  In general, wineries will need hydration nutrients (e.g., GoFerm), complex nutrients (e.g., Fermaid K), and diammonium phosphate (DAP).

For more information on why YAN is important and how yeasts utilize nitrogen during primary fermentation, please visit the following blog posts:

If you need further step-by-step instructions on how to determine adequate nutrient additions during primary fermentation, please visit our Penn State Extension fact sheet: Wine Made Easy Nutrient Management during Fermentation

Sometimes hydrogen sulfide will arise in a wine by the time primary fermentation ends despite all preventative care.  Making sure there are adequate supplies on hand, such as copper sulfate and PVI/PVP can save time in the future.  Also make plans for ways that the production can reserve fresh lees.  PVI/PVP is a fining agent that can help reduce metals like residual copper, but fresh lees will also help reduce the perception of hydrogen sulfide aroma/flavor and residual copper in the wine.  Having a plan for retaining and storing lees during harvest season can save time during challenging situations that develop through the end of harvest and into the winter’s storage season.  A fact sheet on copper screens and addition trials can be found at the Penn State Extension fact sheet: Wine Made Easy Sulfur-Based Off-Odors in Wine.

I also like to make sure we have supplies on hand in case of heavy disease pressure come harvest.  This includes things like Lysozyme, beta-gluconase, pectinase or other clarification enzymes, and fermentation tannins.  Lysozyme can help reduce lactic acid bacteria levels while beta-gluconase can assist clarification problems associated with Botrysized wines.  For further information on how to manage high-disease pressured fruit, please visit the Penn State Extension website on Fermenting with Botrytis or Managing Sour Rot in the Cellar.

Double check the storage requirements for all materials purchased before and after the product is opened.   It’s important to store all of those supplies in the winery properly as it will ensure their efficacy by the time the product is needed.

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Red or white?

Which is superior? “Red, obviously” says John Doe, 56, father of 3, and executive wine selection director of the weekly grocery run. “It has just got more too it. Unless it’s good, white wine is just cool-drink”. Thanks, John. Well, there you have it: a first-hand account from a made-up person designed to represent common opinion.

He/I does have a point, I should like to think. There is a general perception of red wine being the more bespoke of the two options. Look at most wine auctions and the most expensive is the big red wine. Speak to consumers and you may hear a chime of “I’m not much of a wine drinker, I only like whites because they’re light” or something from our friend John Doe’s line of rhetoric – an unsubstantiated claim that red wine is the connoisseur’s choice.

Perhaps white wine is more accessible, it certainly is lighter by the very nature of its production. It’s also served cool, or with ice, as if to imply it’s only a refreshment, and therefore, perhaps less of an acquired taste as red wine might be, as if red wine requires a more experienced drinker to appreciate. This only seems to apply from the point of view of an entry level wine drinker – and not one whom might participate on a wine auction, so this argument doesn’t seem to provide insight.

From a winemaking point of view, red wine production is the more interventionist of the two processes during the fermentation process, due to the skin extraction (skin-contact white wines are not participating in the argument today, sorry!). This doesn’t mean red wine is more difficult to produce, it is simply a technically unique production process. In fact, often the high flavour extraction and “oak-ability” of reds provides room to hide faults – smoke taint, for example – and could thus imply a larger room for error in red wine production, and therefore an easier job. This is simply one argument, not my universal opinion. It just provides a retort on the side of white wine.

Ageability could be the crux: reds seem to have an easier time aging, tannins providing timely rewards and oxidative protection. White wines, particularly in South Africa, need a delicate cellaring. Ironically, the average bottle of wine doesn’t make it 24 hours past purchase, let-alone into a viable aging cellar!

Personally, I believe it is the romance. Red wine is visually sensuous; it reminds us of Vatican paintings. It’s texture is fuller, and more alien to us, when recalling any other drink we may have had before. Everything about it is hedonistic, and we all, deep down, love that feeling. White wine seems to have lost out on the indulgence connotation, downgraded to red wine’s warm-up act, exiled to the domain of Gin and Tonic: a housewife (or husband’s) drink. Put in it’s context though, if you go to Germany – Riesling is king! Give me a line-up of 50 South African wines choosing one by cultivar alone, I’ll say “Chenin” without hesitation.

But what do I know, these are just the ramblings of a new world winemaking student still finding my way in the ‘Universe of Wine’!

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