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New World Wine Maker Blog - New World Wine Making Students

More wine than water

In 2015, South Africa experienced the lowest levels of rainfall that had been recorded since 1904. Thus, making it no secret that the drought has run its toll on the economy and the environment. If we as humans, could cope with the drought as well as the grapevine can, then we would be having a much smaller problem. We may not possess the ability to turn water into wine, but we however, need to start researching ways to turn wine into water.

El Niño, which is labelled as the rise of oceanic temperatures in the South Pacific, is said to be one of the main causes of this massive drought. South Africa’s bipolar weather patterns has furthermore been affected by the change in global climate, which has ultimately led to the abnormally high temperatures across the southern tip of Africa.

Over the past year or so, this drought has had an immense impact on the South African agricultural sector, leading to a decline in production, livestock and finances. South Africa’s food security is also under threat, as summer crops have not been able to survive the decreased levels of winter rainfall.  Ultimately, farmers are looking for more solutions as water and grazing has become a huge issue for livestock, resulting in higher meat prices throughout South Africa.

In the midst of our doom and gloom, it is absolutely fascinating to see how well some parts of the wine industry is doing, considering the lack of water and moisture in the air. Vines have the most outrageous ability to perform under any given condition and can therefore be looked at as, the sweetest form of weeds, growing wherever they are planted, producing the most complex fruit that eventually gives as wine.

According to VinPro, the 2017 harvest overcame most expectations and delivered a harvest that was 1.4% larger than the 2016 one. This was due to cooler nights and relatively constant temperatures during the day, which had a soothing effect on the vines when it came to harvest time.

It seems like the corks will continue popping as wine drinkers will not be experiencing a drought after all. Stressful conditions can sometimes have a positive effect on the quality of grapes, if the vineyards are managed well enough. Farmers must be willing to go the extra mile, protecting the grapes against the suns extreme heat and applying water as cautiously as possible. A possible solution for farmers is Canopy management. Canopy Management can be a very labour intensive process, which requires a thorough knowledge of the cultivar and climate. However, the effect can be advantageous, as the spacing of leaves on a vine can protect the grapes and prevent loses in acids, flavour compounds and colour.

The large leaves found on vines, provide an excellent umbrella to shade the grapes from the sun. As in life, tough situations can sometimes have a very positive outcome. With applied stress in grapevines, the vegetative growth is neglected and all the reserves are optimized and channelled towards the greedy sinks of a vine. In other words, all the good stuff is produced by the greedy nature of the reproductive sinks in a grapevine.

A grape formed under stressful conditions can have a concentration of sugars and anthocyanins, which is the compound responsible for colour development in wine. I personally love our South African red wines, with their high tannin, full bodied form, providing us with the best natural lip colour that any woman can ask. South Africa is seen as a warm wine producing region, known for our full bodied, high tannin and deep coloured wines. Cooler regions, such as France and Germany, produce wines with a higher acidity, lower tannins, with a light ruby colour form.

Under optimal conditions, leaves can get lazy. This can come in the form of, vine leaves not contributing to the process of photosynthesis. During harsh conditions and high radiation, the sun causes the outer leaves of the canopy to shut down over lunch time. During this time, the radiation is too high for the leaf to withstand the heat and causes the leaf’s stoma to close. It is then up to the shaded leaves deeper in the canopy to produce photosynthetic products that will ultimately keep the vine alive. Thus, allowing the grapevine to deal with high sunlight exposure and water stress on its own.

During this significant drought, our wine farmers have been pushed to the brim. Winemakers have been challenged and have had to look for new methods to help sustain vineyards and find a perfect balance between quality and quantity. Vines found in regions like Breedekloof, Stellenbosch and Worcester delivered a smaller harvest, but wine of a high quality.

At the end of the day, wine lovers can sleep well at night as the hardened nature of grapevines and the innovative management practises of viticulturists and winemakers, provides us with high quality wine that can drive us through this tough period. Needless to say, this drought is a huge problem, and we should do everything in our ability to try and keep our water usage as low as possible.

Be sustainable and drink a glass of wine instead.

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Spies in the tasting room

The Scene: Picture an old black and white detective movie along with jazz filling the air, creating an atmosphere of intrigue and mystery.

Beware those who work in a tasting room, that group of students may not be as unstudied as they seem. Keep a look out for the students who analyse the tasting sheets and bring pens to tastings. Note that they might not be on WhatsApp but actually typing out notes on the wine or even on your presentation skills. Take caution, the students who practise correct wine tasting etiquette; they may have a secret. They may be wine students.

Wine students are received in two ways:  Tasting room assistants assume they know everything and thus give no information, or they bombard the students with technological information that baffles their companions.

Thus the mission was simple: blend in as a student without being identified as a wine student.

An attire of a smart-casual, no perfume or scent applied, a black pen discretely tucked into the coat pocket along with a neatly folded piece of blank paper. A reservation made for a group larger than three people, a driver drops the group off at the tasting room. The manager sees them, expecting the worst:  Students are here.  Sending over a tasting room assistant, the manager retreats, unsuspecting to the spy in their midst.

The tasting room assistant, trying to be upbeat, cannot hide disdain as students are notorious for ‘tasting’ a lot of wines and not buying anything. Leading them down the standard tasting route, the tasting room assistant tries hard to entertain the group, talking the usual small talk as the spy swirls the first wine in the glass. The legs drip down and re-merge with the pool of wine at the bottom of the glass. Sniffing it, the spy tries to stifle a grin, knowing that even though the tasting room assistant assured the group it was one of the farm’s best – it was the most standard, bottom of the range wine that the farm had to offer.  The spy lets the assistant off the hook for that one, after all one can’t be blamed for trying to make a sale.

The second wine is bought out, a pale pink rose’. Typical cotton candy and strawberry and cream on the nose, nothing special but none the less the spy continues to record the aroma analysis. The group seems to enjoy it, empty glasses spread over the table except for one. The spy will not finish their glass but rather throws it in the spittoon.  The spy looks around and decides to take photographic evidence, hurrying the group to take selfies in-front of an easy to recognise farm logo. Searching, the spy notices that the cellar is visible through glass windows in the tasting room, again the click of a photo being taken of the cellar. The spy is stealing with their eyes.

The group sits down once again, awaiting the wooded white wine. The tasting assistant comes over and spins a web about the wood making it buttery and how they used different types of oak to enhance mouthfeel, never once mentioning malolactic fermentation or the bacteria added to induce it. The spy smiles a knowing smile. Some of the group loves the wine; others dislike it, irrespective all the glasses stand empty after the wine has been ‘tasted’, all except one. Once again the spy pours the wine out into the spittoon after analysis.

Onto the red wine, the tasting room assistant pours out the last dregs of the bottle into the spy’s glass. The spy sniffs the wine: wet dog and very musty. Beckoning to the assistant that the wine is corked, the spy worries that their cover is blown. The tasting room assistant raises their eyebrow, sniffing the glass themselves; they apologize and retrieve a new bottle of wine. After the new round is poured the tasting room assistant retreats and observes how the spy analyses the wine. Suddenly it clicked; this student is no ordinary student:  this student is a wine student.

Trying to redeem the tasting; the tasting room assistant brings out a premium red blend.  Not making a fuss, the prestige is played off as a gift from the assistant. The spy knows their cover is blown, analysing the last wine knowing it would be superior to its predecessors; the spy sits back and enjoys the last glass. A full page of notes on the wine made and a record of the fame, date and assistants name was neatly folded back and placed in the spy’s pocket.

Never confirming whether or not the spy enjoyed the tasting experience, never confirming whether or not the spy enjoyed the wine, the group left with only the payed bill and a tip remaining. The spy walked ahead of the group, comparing and contemplating their experience to others experiences before, the mission was successful.

So beware those folks of whom work in a tasting room, there may be a spy in your midst.

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Gone with the Wine: The Great Wine Love Affair

Wine is the ex-boyfriend I will never get over. My first love if I may be so bold. I met him when I was barely 18. I was old enough to want to get to know him and to prove to myself that I had progressed from the cocktails and ciders of my underage drinking youth. But, I was young enough to ignore all his flaws and too stubborn to admit it.

He was sweet. Sickly sweet. He made me giddy and reckless, and to be honest he always left me with a headache. Blushed and looking at him with rose-tinted glasses I was blissfully happy. We only met out in clubs and bars where the atmosphere was frivolous and care-free. It was a tumultuous relationship. Each time I woke up with a pounding headache and skin littered with blemishes from the sugar, and I swore it would be the last. But how could I write off the fun times I had had? For every morning plagued with hangovers, was a night filled with happy stories and memories that made my heart swell.

But alas, it was a love that could not survive the test of time. After one too many headaches, disapproval from my family and the promise of something new I broke off all ties.

As with any break up the time that followed was filled with ups and downs. The “ups” consisted of the excitement of new wines – why not try a fruity Sauvignon blanc, a flirty Chardonnay or… maybe even the bold and robust Cabernet Sauvignon rumoured to steal everyone’s heart. But with any great love story there was the inevitable “down”, the retreat. A late night out in town and I found myself with a glass of a sickly impersonation of the wine I once loved.

Except, it doesn’t taste quite as good anymore. Sure the memories are there and I can appreciate it for what it once meant to me. But we have both moved on. The sugary affront does not agree with me and I insult him disguising his flaws with ice and mixers. He remains the fun easy-going wine to be drunk by those not looking for commitment. They have come to experience wine without the work that is required to go into a mature relationship. I, however, have moved onto wines which I can introduce to my parents, I can eat meals with them and can take them to celebrations with friends.

With this knowledge I was inspired to try even newer and bolder wines. With my friends encouraging me and my peers guiding me I stumbled across my first grassy Sauvignon blanc. A summer love affair. A transitional wine as I refer to it now. It helped me move past my alliance to the sweet rosés. But winter came too quickly and I had to progress to richer red wines. Full of body, young fruits and the hint of mocha chocolate, they kept me warm at night. Once again I was drunk and rosy cheeked with infatuation. But something was still off. These wines lacked the depth and balance I was looking for.

So again I had to grow. I stumbled from these entry-level wines and learnt to look deeper. I stopped taking a wine for its label and fancy descriptions. I got to know them for who they were and what they had been through. I discovered the bolder wines, wines which have aged and matured. They are not dominated by fruity flirtations or cool, but somewhat overwrought, oak-y personalities. These wines have been developed and hid more beneath the surface. The subtleties are often missed and they are appreciated by few.

By now my heart no longer belongs to just one. I have pledged allegiance to Bordeaux blends, but I could never say farewell to my flamboyant champagne, nor could I turn away a sneaky Sauvignon or even some dominating Cabernet. I am committed to Chenin but I could never stray from Syrah. And my heart longs for Riesling but I can be persuaded with a Pinotage.

I am older and wiser. I have learnt what I do not like and what I do, the body, the character, the aftertaste. I have developed along with the wines, together we grow and mature. But in every new, complex wine I endeavour there will always be the faint memory of where I started. And sure enough, the next day the headache will return. Just as it always did when I was young and 18 and drunk off my first wine.

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The Grape Fun of Harvest

March 2017, my very first harvest. As a student, you never quite know what to expect beyond your textbook, and so when our harvest finally started, we all eagerly queued up in the minute cellar beneath the JH Neethling building, not quite knowing what challenges awaited us. To be honest, we were thrown in the deep end, but I’ve come to learn that knowing how to swim is an important skill to have in the cellar.

With our Felcos and refractometers at the ready, we were set loose on the poor Welgevallen vineyards. I don’t think anyone was quite as enthusiastic to wake up at 5am (to take the routine ballings) as I was during that period. I was adamant that our group had to be in the vineyard to take readings while it was still cool in the mornings, and so by 6 we were ready to sample our rows and get a grip on our harvest. I don’t think the other group members quite enjoyed me pointing out that there was a possibility that a few of the grapes we’d been tasting more than likely contained a bit of an extra protein factor (worms, bugs etc).

You’d think that the enthusiasm would have worn off after week 1, but I ended up spending my weekend work shifts begging my bosses, at a boutique winery, to let me help out with punch downs too. This is where things got a little bit more interesting and a whole lot messier.

The plastic fermenters were just a little bit too tall for me to use the pigeage (punchdown) stick, initially I decided to only use my hands to do the punch downs (with help from the tasting room manager and one of the winemakers). I quickly came to the realisation that the customers (I am a wine steward) might not take to my now purple stained fingers, hands, arms, elbows…you get the idea. I then had the very bright idea to climb on top of the tanks, that had a rim thickness of only 5 cm. But wait, the cellar antics and health and safety infringements don’t stop there, I was wearing open sandals with no grip – yikes!

After boosting myself on top of the tank, my boss handed me the punchdown stick and I proceeded to break through the bubbling shiraz pomace at a steady pace. Not long after, I realised that there was a cooling plate in the tank, and so I thought, “Hmm, no problem, I’ll just press down lightly until I just touch the plate”. Just as I leaned in, my boss decided to move the cooling plate, and all I could see was certain death flashing before my eyes. In all honesty, there are worse ways to go than falling into a big tub of wine. After flailing in mid-air for what felt like a few seconds, I managed to grab hold of a thin hook that just happened to be perfectly positioned on the wall behind me. With only two fingers, I managed to pull myself up.

I would have been slightly more shaken if the tanks were slightly taller and fuller – in reality I could probably have just stood up, had I fallen in. What did I say earlier about learning how to swim?

So, after an interesting weekend in the cellar, I made my way back to Stellenbosch (to be in the department’s cellar). After telling one of the experimental winemakers, Edmund, about my weekend’s antics, he made 100% certain that I was always wearing my cellar boots, whether I had decided to rock it out in my gumboots and a sundress or hippy pants, he would spot me from the moment I set foot into the cellar. On one occasion, I was not wearing my boots and my dreaded sandals made a reappearance. I thought I could get away with only doing lab analyses that day, but alas! – I was caught red-handed and promptly reminded of the importance of wearing closed shoes in the cellar. The other winemaker, Marisa, threatened to throw things at the students’ toes if she caught our feet armed with anything other than closed, non-slip cellar boots.

Although my sandals didn’t make a reappearance, my hippy pants definitely did. I now call them my grape pants, because they’re grape to wear… pun intended. Pressing red grapes (merlot) while wearing lightly coloured pants, leaning over the little press and getting elbow deep into grape skins, while you’re supposed to be monitoring and adjusting the press’ pressure is not the smartest thing to do. The pressure on the grapes was just a little bit too high, causing berries to rapidly pop (explode) rather than lightly being crushed and squeezed. The other group members and I ended up looking like we had just facilitated a berry genocide, with gory bits and pieces of grapes and deep red juice splattered all over ourselves! Needless to say, the grape hippy pants were covered!

After two cellar mishaps in one week, one of my lecturers suggested that I leave these stories out of my harvest internship interviews. Although I ignored this advice (made for an interesting interview), I am now a reformed cellar-mishap-maker and have decided to take health and safety hazards a little more seriously, but I can’t promise that the hippy pants won’t make a grand come-back!

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Parings for seasonal parties

The holiday times and merry seasons are filled with good food and great wine. One wine and food paring can either make or break the party that you have been planning for the last two months. To help prevent these regrettable situations, here are a few tips to help you on your way to a delicious holiday season.

Let’s first tackle the way the food interacts with the wine:

Sweetness and Umami in food both can increase the perception of bitterness, astringency, acidity and the warming effect of alcohol in wine. It can decrease the perception of body, sweetness and fruitiness in wine.

Acidity in food can decrease the perception of body, sweetness and fruitiness in wine. It increases the perception of acidity in wine – have you ever eaten a lemon with a crisp sauvignon blanc?

Salt in food can increase the perception of body in the wine and decrease the perception of bitterness, astringency and the acidity in wine. It can also enhance fruitiness and soften the tannins of the wine.

Bitterness in food will obviously enhance the perception of bitterness in wine (no dark chocolate with fresh out of the barrel Shiraz)

If you live more on the wild side and are preparing a chilli dish it’s important to note that chilli heat in food increases the perception of bitterness, astringency, acidity and the effect of alcohol in wine and it can decrease the perception of body, richness, sweetness and fruitiness in wine.

There are some high risk foods that need to be paired with specific wine styles in order to ensure that the combination is palatable.

Dishes high in sugar should be paired with a wine that has at least as much sugar as the dish.

Umami in the food will emphasise the astringency and bitterness of the tannins and thus the wine needs to have the necessary components, such as concentrated fruit flavours to be able to cope with the change in the wine. High levels of umami in the wine can be balanced by the addition of acid or salt providing this keeps with the character of the dish.

Dishes high in bitterness will emphasise the bitterness in the wine.  White wines or low-tannin reds should be considered.

Dishes with high concentration of chilli heat should be paired with white wines or low-tannin reds, each with low levels or alcohol. A wines fruitiness and sweetness can also be reduced by chilli heat so consider wines with higher levels of fruitiness and sweetness to make the effect less severe.

 

If you haven’t gotten around to designing a menu for that holiday party coming up soon here are some good ideas for meals and wine pairings. Please note that the pairing is based on wine styles rather than a specific brand. It’s very important to work from light style wines and progress to the heavier reds and finish off with a desert wine.

Starter:  An impressive, easy to make and relatively pocket friendly idea is Parma ham and melon cube skewers.

Parma ham is relatively high in fat and thus an acidic white wine would be recommended, preferably a fruit driven Sauvignon blanc or Chenin blanc should be paired with this meal in order to cut through the richness of the fat and have the tropical fruit compliment the sweet melon.

Main: A classic and all around crowd pleaser is pot roast beef prepared with an assortment of roasted vegetables.

Most recipes already contain a dry red wine; a good pairing would also be a dry red wine with a lower acid that has smooth tannins and a lower astringency.  If you are partial to a Shiraz, Cabernet sauvignon or a red blend an older vintage is recommend as the tannins would have mellowed out and the wine would have an overall smoother mouth feel as well as a beautiful spiciness that will pair well with the roast. A more pocket friendly idea would be a Merlot or a Pinotage that has been grown in a warmer region providing subtle winter spices with a beautiful fruitiness and smokiness that will pair well with the roast.

Desert: A traditional trifle containing jelly, custard, Swiss roll slices, a drizzle of brandy/sherry/fruit juice, peach slices, whipped cream on top with granadilla drizzled over for aesthetic appeal.

The trifle can be served with a natural sweet, late harvest or even noble late harvest.  It is important not to oversaturate the trifle with brandy or sherry to ensure that the fruit flavours pair well with the wine, in my opinion if a pairing is conducted, tropical fruit juice should be used instead. A honey and stone fruit driven style is recommended.

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A South African abroad

Or rather 11 South African wine students plundering through the European wine scene …

It all started in February. We received the enthusiastic whatsapp in the midst of harvest. All of us 5kgs lighter, exhausted and covered in bruises we all dreamt of a summer holiday. Pairing cheese fondues and chocolate with Chasselas in Switzerland and then progressing onto Sangrias in San Sebastian, Mojiňos in Madrid with a few wine tastings sprinkled in-between.  What more could one want?

Four months later, and after 18 hours of flying, the class arrived in Geneva for our Summer School adventure. We arrived – tired, hungry and cold ready for a European summer only to be greeted with rain. But very quickly the situation was rectified by the consumption of Chasselas. Chasselas – the Justin Bieber of Swiss wine. You either hate it or you love it. Or you hated it until it started releasing bomb singles like “Love yourself” (or in wine terms – the 1992 vintage).

And so began the daily assault on our bodies. Each day we were exposed to a plethora of Chasselas and other early ripening cultivar wines – from cheeky Gamays to sophisticated Pinot noirs. Pickled with the high acidity wines of the northern hemisphere we were then satiated with bread, cheese and cold meats to soak up the alcohol so we were ready for more tastings, cellar tours, industry-related trips and technical knowledge lectures.

The Swiss wine industry was a total game-changer – with its 1% total export it’s like the quiet kid in the class who keeps to themselves but once they open up you realise the dynamic (or biodymanic) personality inside which totally shocks everyone with their Dungeons and Dragons skills (which again, like Chasselas, you either get it or you really, really don’t).

In frenzy of drinking our way through the Swiss countryside we took a day to drive to France – to Burgundy in particular. Where we enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy…) the oxidised white  wine style of Jura, explored the underground Disney villain-esque cellars of Burgundy, and ended the day with a visit to Clos Vougeout, a massive 50,4 ha single vineyard of Pinot noir.

Our time in Switzerland came to end and we said au revoir to the green landscape, Mount Blanc and Chasselas and shouted Hola to Espaňa!

Starting at the north of Spain we experienced our first taste of true Spanish wines. From the old-world cellar which, to put it delicately did not know what cellar hygiene was, to the clean-shaven, oxidation-phobic bodega we could not have picked two more contrasting wineries to visit. The petri-dish cellar, overgrown with penicilium and other fungi even David Attenborough wouldn’t talk about, produced some distinct metallic wines (possibly as a result of the flour/blood combo still used to treat the fermentation barrels) while the Taylor Swift (young, trendy, expensive and high maintenance) cellar produced full-bodied, fruity Tempranillos which suited the South African palate like a brandy and coke on night out.

In the middle of Spain we experienced the Spanish culture, starting with tapas and sightseeing and ending (like any self-professed Stellenbosch student would) with the debauchery of the Spanish nightlife where even the chaperones Despacito-ed the night away.

Further south we started to hit the top shelf of the liquor cabinet. While some still can’t drink brandy without the bitter memories of first year’s bad decisions  the rest enjoyed learning about the similarities between the South African and Spanish brandy-making methods (with a discrete scoff and “Nah, South African’s better hey” when out of earshot of the winemaker). The sherry tasting was more successful, with a flick of his wrist and a long silver taster (which personally I think was a wand because you’ve got to be magical to pour sherry like that without spilling) the winemaker poured barrel testers for us into glasses 1m below.

We ended the trip with an excursion to the eastern coast of Spain. And what better way to end off a trip of a life-time than to be supplied with bubbly in Barcelona? The tour through the 6 storey riddling and aging cellar for one of the Cava producers rivalled the 4 storey night club in Madrid.

Finally we returned, with impressive technical knowledge, damaged livers, a higher tolerance for alcohol, international connections, a close knit group of friends and an eagerness to blow up the wine industry with our dreams of installing cranes in cellars, oxidising white wines and planting Chasselas.

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