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New World Wine Maker Blog - New World Wine Making Students

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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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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Nutritional Wine Labels: The New Best Way to Lose Weight

A couple of months ago I started following a strict eating plan in order to shed some extra kilos. This plan, however, requires me to keep track of my daily calorie intake and output as to stay under a specific amount of net calories per day. This is all fine and dandy as the app that I am using can scan barcodes which makes the process of keeping track quite easy. But it wasn’t long before I found myself with quite the predicament- I can’t accurately count the calories in my glass of wine. And being the wine lover that I am, this is a serious problem. Yes, they do have generic examples of how many calories there would be in a glass of dry red wine (it can be anywhere between 110 and 200 calories), but being the scientist that I am, a guesstimate is not quite going to cut it. And why on earth in this day and age do wine and other alcoholic beverage labels not have nutritional information on them yet? It seems that everything else has them. An investigation is required!

So it turns out that in Europe and specifically in the UK, they are making some progress to include nutritional information such as calories on wine labels. Popular supermarkets in Britain are already including this information on their own bottled wines. Although the inclusion of nutrient information is not enforced by the European Union yet, it seems they want to encourage wineries and producers to come up with their own solution to the problem before penning down a new policy.

This is all very good news for a calorie counter such as myself, but I still can’t help to wonder why the wine industry is so hesitant to make this information available to the public. Do we not deserve to know what we are putting into our bodies? I don’t think this is the primary concern of the industry. I can only speculate, but the inclusion of nutritional information might seem like a counter intuitive action because it might lead to a decrease in wine sales. The thought is probably that consumers will drink less wine if they are aware of how many calories it contains. In the industry’s defence, I would say that is a fair assumption to make and there will be people that will think twice before finishing a bottle on their own after they have had a look at what is in it.  But isn’t that also an issue that is important to the industry? Promoting responsible drinking? Perhaps it is a good thing if that label stops someone that still has to drive home after the party from opening a second bottle.

Whatever the case may be, I personally look forward to the day when nutritional information is going to be included on wine labels, because let’s be honest it is inevitable. Until then, I will keep enjoying my glass(es) of wine- in moderation, of course- as it is still a better option calorie-wise than most other alcoholic beverages like beer, ciders and your favourite (I truly hope not) brandy & coke.

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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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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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Lasting Impressions

I have been wanting to write this blog article for a couple of months now, but truth be told, I have been putting it off because I was scared. Scared that I was going to sound pretentious and obnoxious and scared that I was going to upset some people by voicing my opinion. I have recently overcome my fear since I figured the world will probably still be so upset with Donald Trump’s obnoxious opinions, mine probably won’t even show up on the radar. Be that as it may, let me just reiterate that this article is written as the opinion of one wine consumer (and previous wine tasting room employee) that wants to offer some friendly advice to tasting room staff across the nation (well, mostly the Western Cape, to be fair). So here goes…

I have attended quite a number of wine tastings in the few short years that I have found myself in this industry. They have been in tasting rooms across most of the wine growing regions in the country. I have had unbelievable experiences that I will never forget in a lifetime. Stories that I will one day tell my grandchildren (when they are old enough, of course). I have attended tastings that were presented with so much energy and enthusiasm that I bought a bottle of wine even though I couldn’t actually taste the wine – seeing as I had a terrible cold – thank goodness it turned out to be a great bottle. I have also attended tastings that were just so simple and elegantly presented that I ended up buying a R400 bottle of wine- and for a student that is quite an expensive bottle of vino that is now lying in the cupboard waiting to age for another two years.

Yes, I have experienced many above average wine tastings, but what puzzles me is the shocking amount of poor wine tasting experiences I have had. I have attended tastings that left me with more questions than answers. I have attended a tasting where it seemed like the guy who served us would have preferred presenting us with a tasting of protein shakes, which, frankly I would not have minded, if it would have sparked at least some interest from him. I have been in tasting rooms where the staff completely forgot that we were there and on another occasion staff couldn’t have cared less that we were there. So it’s safe to say that along the way I have had my fair share of bad tastes left in the mouth by tasting room personnel. But I thought that I would put my experiences to good use and hopefully help SOME wine tasting attendees avoid the disappointments that I had to face.

Now, I know I am generally a tough critic but with wine tastings there are just a few simple things that I require from the person that is presenting wine to me. First and foremost, this person has to assume that I know absolutely nothing about the wine that they are presenting to me. Don’t assume that I have heard of it before or that I know what “Blanc de Blanc” means. You, as tasting room assistant, need to tell me everything I need to know about the wine so I can tell my friend about it if I like it so she or he can buy it too. Then, just some basic wine knowledge will count in your favour (and mine). Know which type of oak is more likely to develop which flavours in red wines and know which cultivars are found in a Bordeaux-blend. Most of these things are fairly easy to find on the internet so if it gets quiet in the tasting room after lunch time, read up a little bit, empower yourself. Lastly, show some enthusiasm and interest in the product that you are presenting and ultimately trying to sell. I can very easily notice when someone has just memorised the winemaker’s tasting notes and are reciting them to me like it’s supposed to be a lyrical poem, but that’s not what I want to hear. I can download the winemaker’s notes from the internet if I want his or her opinion on the wine. I want to hear what YOU think of the wine. YOU as a fellow wine consumer and now member of this incredible industry. We need more people showing initiative and less parrot learning.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to the people that are in managerial positions. As a manager, you have to make sure that you employ staff that are passionate about wine and that want to build a career in this industry. But also, as an industry we have a responsibility to educate tasting room staff from all walks of life so that if that passion isn’t there right from the start, it can be developed over time through wine education and practical exposure. As one of the top wine producing countries in the world, we definitely need to up our game in terms of tasting room contact and it needs to start at the cellar door.

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