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New World Wine Maker Blog - general

St Vincent’s Story – the Patron Saint of Winemakers

St Vincent

Saint Vincent is the Patron Saint of winemakers. He is the main man. Many region of Europe have their own individual Saint who looks after their winemakers and winemaking however Vincent is considered to be the main man.

Wine and religion have been involved forever and when the Christian’s came along it was no surprise they took up wine as part of their sacraments. St Vincent of Saragossa died in 304, martyred during the last great  persecution of the Christians under the Roman Emperors Maximian and Diocletian. Vincent was burnt on a grid so could also be our saint of braaiers !! By early  medieval times , St Vincent had been adopted as a patron saint by vineyard workers and winemakers in France and most of Europe. There is no real evidence why a Spanish person should have been chosen as the Patron Saint. It seems the French choose him because his name began with “Vin” the French word for wine.

His actual Saints Day is 22nd January which works well in Europe as that is about when they all are involved in determining  just how good the previous vintage was.  During January, St Vincent of Saragossa, is honoured throughout  Europe with celebrations and prayers , lots of ceremonial stuff ,  and, of course, wine tasting.

The cultural connection between religion and wine is probably the oldest cultural tradition that exists and surely goes back to before recorded history. We know it was before 4241 bc  which is when the Egyptians began marking time with a calendar. Of course the ancient world  knew of other intoxicating substances…poppy juice, hallucinogenic mushrooms and in the Americas  Peyote and the leaves of the Coca plant. All have been associated with religious ecstasy. Over the long haul of world history, wine has proven to be the religious stimulation of choice. Wine is less deleterious and less liable to lead to dangerous abuse than the poisons mentioned.  Whatever the reasons , wine was established in the ancient world as the beverage of the Gods and was almost always  associated with religious feasts and as libations offered t please the deities  who control our fate.

In South Africa thanks has been offered for a good harvest from earliest times.  In the 1970’s the KWV introduced  an award to be presented on 2nd February each year commemorating  Jan Van Riebeeck’s first pressing of grapes in 1659 and honouring a personality in the industry.  With the demise of the original KWV this custom fell away but has been reintroduced by Groot Constantia. A very grand affair is hosted by Groot Constantia and begins with a multi-denominational blessing of the current vintage. Later in the evening the new personality is honoured.

A far less posh   event takes place in Stellenbosch each year at the Catholic Church, Saint Nicholas, as close as possible to 22nd January, the feast of the Patron Saint of Winemakers, Saint Vincent of Saragossa.  This year will be the 22nd such mass which is attended by all denominations and is followed by a simple lunch at La Pineta restaurant.  The Mass is well attended by winemakers in their cellar kit and sporting some vintage growth of beard. The collection goes to the local Hospice.

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From the Winemaker’s Bookshelf

Venerable Viticulture

There are a few books that just never seem to go away.   Even though I may have read them twenty years ago or more, these are the books that I open first when I have a fundamental question.   The first of these is Philip Wagner’s  “A Wine-Grower’s Guide”.  A new edition of this book was published by the Wine Appreciation Guild, ISBN 093266492X in 1996.

I first encountered Phillip Wagner over 30 years ago at the annual meeting of the American Society of Enology and Viticulture.  Phillip was delivering his thank you speech after receiving an award.  He spoke of recent research to select new hybrid grape varieties that were mildew resistant and winter hardy, and the strategies that European breeders had to use for selection.  He then went on to say “I grow grapes inMaryland.   We have cold winters, hot, humid summers, and an annual hurricane season.   If a grape will survive inMaryland, it will grow almost anywhere”.   This down to earth, hands on, practical approach to viticulture is the factor that made his books so popular.  The first edition was published in 1945.  This is another of the books that I’ve replaced several times through book loans that never returned, and the 1980 edition is my present copy.  A 1996 edition is the most recent.  Phillip died in 1996 at the age of 92.

I specifically chose the Wagner book for this review because it has a focus on the cultivation of hybrid grapes, those which have been selected from crosses with non vinifera parents.   Even though present market demand is for wines from vinifera wines such as Chardonnay and Merlot, there are many who believe that the future must lie with better hybrid selections that can be grown with no sprays and higher yields.  There is no question that with the present hybrids the vineyard and winemaking practices are different from those for vinifera.   Wagner shared his insight.

The second book is Winkler’s  “General Viticulture”; Universityof California Press.  The 2002 edition has authors Winkler, Cook, Kliewer, and Lider, ISBN 0520025911   This is by far the most widely used North American viticulture text.   In contrast to Wagner, the focus of this book is on vinifera grapes and California.   My copy, which has only been replaced once, is the fourth printing, 1973.  It has a wealth of information, ranging from a history of viticulture, the species of the genus Vitis, climate, soils, grape physiology, propagation, diseases, and a host of other topics.

Winkler also had a way of finding practical solutions, and the text is filled with guidance for the performance of day to day vineyard management.   Those in the grape industry actually have a measurement called a “Winkler’s Thumb”.    This is the distance that a bud on a spur must exceed from the head or cordon in order to be counted as a fruiting bud.   If the distance is less than a thumb width, the bud may not be fruitful.

Each of these texts offers good guidance for the novice grape grower but in addition, has enough detail to be a useful guide for the experienced and practising grower.   Even though I may have read a text in its entirety, I find that each time I return, I find material that seems new.   I never quite pick it all up the first time through or I forget the details when it is out of my mind.  A good text is always an adventure of discovery when you’re trying to do your job just a little bit better this year than you did last year.

This article first appeared in the British Columbia Fruit Grower.

Gary Strachan is an expert consultant and planner for the grape and wine industry. He can be reached and is also listed on LinkedIn.

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A Historical Perspective on Health Benefits of Wine

Resveratrol, an antioxidant commonly found in red wine, is not as beneficial to our health as once thought as found in a recent study.  Here is a quick overview of the intellectual history surrounding the health benefits of wine.

Throughout history, wine has always been considered a tool with which to manage health, whether it was prescribed as a medicine to treat a patient’s specific symptoms or simply ingested as a daily preventative measure to promote good health and stave off common ailments.

In Ancient history, just as the earth was believed to consist of four elements: earth, air,fire and water, illness was understood to be the result of an imbalanced complexion which occurred when one of the qualities of the body: cold, hot, dry and wet, was found to be out of proportion.  Antique physicians commonly advised patients to consume wines mixed with materia medica, known throughout history as theriacs, to cure their illnesses.  The alcohol of wine and beer was able to mask the flavors of the ingredients that physicians prescribed.  However, wine was not solely a flavor-masking solvent, asevidenced by an Egyptian document dating back to 1550 BC known as the Ebers Medical Papyrus.  It contains numerous suggestions for curing a loss of appetite as well as for curing “great weakness” with a bevy of curative elixirs, the majority of which feature wine as the main ingredient, leading us to believe that wine was more than just a vehicle for the meteria medica, but was also acknowledged to have its own distinct medicinal benefits as well.

As evidenced by Greece’s Hippocrates of Cos (460-370 BC) and Rome’s Galen (130-201 AD), both of whom advised that wine be administered topically as a dressing for wounds, wine was not only recommended for ingestion.  Along with its topical functions, both physicians also prescribed it as a cooling agent for fevers and as a diuretic.  Despite its powerful capacities in extreme situations, Hippocrates and Galen stressed wine’s importance in its role as a nourishing dietary beverage.

Wine’s daily benefits are outlined in detail by Rufus of Ephesus, a Greek physician from the late first century AD, who explained that wine clarifies the blood, opens up the veins, and clears obstruction of the liver.  He also highlights its power in rectifying the ingestion of bad foods.  He observes that medicinal benefits are also amplified for the older population as, following the belief necessitating the balance of the four qualities, people become colder and drier with age and are more in need of wine’s warming and moistening effects.  These daily benefits were confirmed by Marcus Porcius Cato in his 160 BC work de Agricultura when he pointed out that the proper amount of wine per year for a man should be about seven amphorae but then added the caveat that “for the slaves working in chains one must add more in proportion to the work they are doing.  It is not too much if they drink ten amphorae of wine apiece in a year.”  This idea of providing wine to maintain the health of workers is commonly found throughout antiquity and leads credence to the role of wine as a type of antique health drink.


This blog was published in The Academic Wino by Becca Yeamans

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The Winemaker’s Bookshelf – Is it Terroir or Terror?

I think there has always been a conflict between winemakers and grape growers, even when they are one and the same person.   There are always the nagging questions: If I grow my grapes carefully so that I have a healthy vineyard, will the grapes make good wine?   Are good viticultural practices in conflict with good winemaking?  What effect does vineyard location have?  Can I optimize quality or is the upper limit of vineyard performance preordained by where I grow the grapes?   The following two books each take a different approach to answering those questions.   Each of them was awarded the prestigious O.I.V. award for the best viticulture book, in the year following publication.  Each of them has a timeless quality that makes them worth adding to your book shelf even though they were published 15 to 20 years ago.

The first published was Viticulture and Environment, by John Gladstones, 1992, Winetitles Press, Australia. 310 pp. Paperback.   ISBN # 1 875130 12 8.

Gladstones is an agronomist who taught horticulture for many years at the University of Western Australia.   Throughout his career he witnessed the establishment and growth of the grape and wine industry in the moderate to cool climate of the southern west coast of Western Australia.   Grapes and wine were a passionate hobby with him, and the sum of his meticulous studies was digested into this comprehensive book. The result is a very readable survey of the factors affecting every major viticultural region in the world.   Within the limits of published data, Gladstones has listed the geological, cultural, and climatic data of each region and related it to wine styles and quality.  The book is divided into 24 chapters and three appendices.   The chapters contain scores of tables and diagrams, yet the accompanying discussions explain to the reader the significance of the data rather than simply presenting it as a list of numbers for the reader to wade through and draw his own conclusions.   The first five chapters alone are worth the price of the book.   They outline all of the factors which affect grape development, and relate berry composition to wine quality.   The next 19 chapters present detailed information about many of the world’s viticultural regions.   Two thumbs up!

The second book has a one word title “Terroir”.   There is no exact equivalent word in English, except perhaps the modern word ecosystem.   Terroir is the French word to describe all of the factors that affect a vine’s growth, and in recent years has become more commonly adopted into English.   This author is also a passionate wine hobbyist, or at least he started out that way.   James Wilson is a geologist, and former Vice President for Exploration and Production for Shell Oil.   His love of wine led him to investigate the detailed terroirs for the wine regions of France.   After all, French wines have set the standard for fine wines for centuries; what better place to start an investigation?    Wilson’s first fifty pages summarize the geological and climatological history, and then the winemaking history of France; essentially an overview of the terroirs of France.  The next eleven chapters describe in detail the terroir of each viticultural region of France.

In spite of the detail, the chapters are very readable.   The geological description for each region is assisted with diagrams and photos.  The explanations bring to life what could be a dull description of a lot of rocks and mud with unfamiliar technical names.   For those of us who wonder about the difference between schist and scree, there’s a good glossary.   Fortunately the author has translated much of the most technical material into terms that the average reader can understand, although a knowledge of French will certainly assist the reader to pronounce and remember the many place names and geological formations.  I found it especially interesting that the author was able to use geological history to create hypotheses which explain why some vineyards have developed a high reputation whereas others nearby have not.

This is a book that can be picked up and read chapter by chapter without losing the thread of the story.   Two more thumbs!

James E. Wilson, 1998.   Terroir.    The role of Geology, Climate, and Culture in the Making of French Wines.  The University of California Press.  336 pp.  Hardcover.  ISBN 1 891267 22 1

This article was first published in British Columbia Fruit Grower

Gary Strachan is an expert consultant and planner for the grape and wine industry. He can be reached and is also listed on LinkedIn.

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Remedial Pruning

This year I have a couple of viticultural challenges.    In the first case, I’m operating a vineyard that was planted late in the season last summer, and in the second case I have to deal with a mature vineyard that was not sprayed last year.    Each vineyard presents a challenge and each has several solutions that could be applied.    I’ll discuss the alternatives and then reveal what I have decided to do.

I get concerned if I have to plant a vineyard late in the spring after the weather has started to warm.   The ground dries out and rainfall becomes scarce.     Root development is slow and the plants remain small.    I prefer to get dormant plants into the ground by the end of April and green plants into the ground by mid May.    This enables maximum root development and develops strong plants for the second leaf (second growing season).     If the new canes are at least a couple of metres long by fall, there should be enough root development to support a small crop in the second leaf, sufficient to generate income to cover the operating cost for the vineyard.

If there is less growth than two metres, there is the dilemma: do we save the cane and extend it with new growth or do we cut it back to two buds and develop a new cane, essentially from the ground up?    If we save the cane, it will develop a shoot at each of the nodes (buds) from last season’s growth.   The single trunk will become a bush unless we remove all of the unwanted new growth between the ground and the fruiting wire.   If we cut it back to two buds at the base, we will develop two new canes, and the stronger one can be selected in early summer to become the new trunk for a future vine.    When one of the new canes reaches beyond the fruiting wire of a VSP trellis you can remove the growing tip at the wire and this will induce laterals to grow and assist your early establishment of a bilateral cordon.

Hard as it may seem to remove most of the growth that occurred in the previous season, the better option is to cut back to two buds.    If you have grafted vines, be sure that the buds are above the graft union.    In reality, only one bud is required; the second is to provide a fallback in case the first is damaged.    Growth during the second leaf should enable the new vine to be trained along the fruiting wire and a moderate crop to be taken during the third leaf.    Always remember that the growth and development above ground is closely related to root growth below ground.    If root growth is handicapped by weed competition, nutrient deficiency, or insufficient water, plant development will be suppressed.

There are many cases in which a vineyard may require remedial pruning.    In a cordon pruned vineyard, old cordons eventually develop wider spacing between spurs so that the panels can’t be filled to maximize the number of canes and clusters borne in the vineyard.     In other cases, a vineyard may have been damaged by a severe winter, poorly pruned, not sprayed, or may have been neglected during the previous season.    Any of these situations can create a canopy in which it may be difficult to know how much old wood to remove.

In the case of a vineyard which is damaged by winter injury there are several ways to assist the recovery.    A sampling of canes may be selected from throughout the vineyard and buds can be visually checked for injury.    Use a razor blade or sharp knife to cut through a sampling of buds.  Each node has a compound bud, with a primary bud in the centre and secondary buds on either side.  In moderate injury, the primary buds can be killed and may no longer be green.   The secondary buds may still be green when you cut through them.    In many grape varieties, growth from secondary buds will yield a lighter crop than normal, but growth will be reasonable and the vineyard will be completely recovered by the following year.   Cane viability can also be checked by soaking a sampling of canes in water to induce bud break.    With severe injury, the secondary buds may be killed and cane dieback can be extensive.     In this case, the best policy may be to not prune until after bud break.    After the new shoots have developed three, four or more leaves, the best shoots can be selected and the vineyard can be carefully pruned.     Pruning should be delayed as long as possible, because the new shoots are easily broken and manipulation during pruning can remove canes you would rather preserve.

Those of you who know me, realize that I prefer cane pruning in almost all cases, but with remedial pruning, spur pruning may be the better option.   For example, in a neglected vineyard the canes are often weak and small.    In this case the only viable buds may be those near the base of each cane.   Select spurs that are as evenly spaced as possible along the fruiting wire.    Where a space cannot be avoided, then leave longer spurs on either side.   If you leave spurs with three or four nodes, then the new shoots can be fanned out to fill the void in the canopy.   Be certain to leave one or two spurs as close to the head of the trunk as possible, so that renewal canes will be available in the following year to rebuild a uniform canopy.

A canopy which has been badly infected with mildew can also be a problem because the number of viable buds may not be predictable.    In this case, the lower nodes on the cane may be more viable than those at the centre and tip, because they may have developed at a temperature below the optimal infection temperature for mildew.    To be safe, it is a good idea to leave one or two sacrificial canes on each vine until after bud break.   If growth develops in a normal fashion, the sacrificial canes can be removed.    If growth is spotty, then two canes can be laid along the fruiting wire instead of one, and their viable nodes can complement each other to fill the canopy.


No one said that remedial pruning is easy.   It will probably take at least twice as long to perform as normal pruning.   On the other hand, if it is performed carefully, a damaged vineyard that might have produced almost no crop can be coaxed into reasonable production.   That makes it all worthwhile!

This article was first published in the British Columbia Fruit Grower

Gary Strachan is an expert consultant and planner for the grape and wine industry. He can be reached at and is also listed on LinkedIn.                      

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Hang loose, Dude

In our northern latitudes, things change from year to year and what you got last year may not be what you get this year.   There are a few tricks to getting a heads up to minimize surprises on the crush pad.

First of all, get to know the vineyard where you source your grapes.   What is the soil profile like?   Does it have good enough drainage that growth can be controlled by appropriate watering.    Is the vine spacing wide enough to allow balanced growth without multiple hedgings and toppings throughout the summer?   Is the air drainage good enough that the season won’t end prematurely with an early frost?    One last and very difficult question:  Is the season length of the grape variety matched to the frost free growing days and the typical growing degree days of the site?   This is the foundation of a vineyard that will give you more consistent composition in spite of changes in heat units and rainfall from year to year. 

There are two potential problems if the grape variety doesn’t match the vineyard.    If the grape is a long season variety such as Riesling or one of the Cabernets on a cooler site, then you may have to cope with immature grapes in all but exceptional years.   Watch for cane darkening, taste the berries, chew up the seeds and skin to assess ripeness.   Don’t depend on lab tests alone to tell you when to pick.    You could end up having to cope with green flavours, pale colour, and thin body.   The quick fix for a red wine is to not make a red wine.    Make a rosé or blush, or if the problem is really severe, make a sparkler.

If you have no choice except to make a red, you can press out part of the batch, make a blush with that and return the pomace to the skin extraction part of the fermentation.    If your TA is so high that it can’t be corrected by a malolactic or the usual tartrate precipitation, you can do a double salt precipitation or potassium bicarbonate correction on part of the blush you extracted and add that back to your main batch.    At maturity the malic and tartaric acid of grapes is typically about 50:50 so a malolactic fermentation will drop the TA by about 25%.   Cold stabilization may drop TA by about   two g/L.    Vegetal flavours tend to be broken down by oxidation, so a délestage fermentation can assist you to unmask the fruity notes and minimize vegetal notes.   You may also need to take steps to augment the palate.   Oak chip press aid during skin fermentation can assist this.   You may also wish to add skin tannin to balance the astringency.    The more adjustments that you can make early in wine development, the better will be the final palate.   There is little to be gained by extended skin contact of immature grapes, so press them and move into an early malolactic followed by a sûr lie autolysis.    

There is also the possibility that grapes could mature early and have less than normal varietal character.    When the last thirty days of the season are above 20°C average, the rate of loss of volatile flavour compounds may be greater than their rate of synthesis, resulting in a wine with nondescript varietal character.    Add to this the grapes be overmature at harvest and the wines may lack acidity, have high pH, and high alcohol.     The easiest factor to deal with is pH.   There are several options.    If tartaric acid is added, the pH will drop by approximately 0.2 pH units per gram of tartaric acid.   Initially the TA will rise by the same amount as the added acid, but the tartaric acid will eventually precipitate as potassium bitartrate, thus removing potassium ion and leaving the pH at the lower level.    Citric acid or malic acid have approximately the same effect, but they are more soluble and will not precipitate.   Thus the TA will remain at the adjusted level.    Use care with citric or tartaric acid to ensure that no malolactic fermentation is initiated.

To develop more intense varietal character, the extraction from skins must be enhanced.    This can be accomplished either by extended skin contact or by the use of pectinase to break down the berry structure, either in whites or reds.    In white wines this must be done with caution in order to assure that excess tannins aren’t extracted.    The wine may require fining to remove excess astringency, depending on wine style.

The bottom line is that a fundamentally good growing site should be versatile enough to give good performance in good or bad growing seasons.   With a little care, good wines can still be made in spite of an adverse season.

This article was first published in British Columbia Fruit Grower

Gary Strachan is an expert consultant and planner for the grape and wine industry. He can be reached at and is also listed on LinkedIn.



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