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New World Wine Maker Blog - New World Wine Making Students

Reputation: Taylor Swift vs. Chenin blanc

In my fourth and final year of university studying winemaking one of the topics discussed frequently in class has been the future of wine in South Africa and particularly the identity we need to establish in order to firmly place ourselves amongst of the most reputable wine exporters. One of the problems identified as being the speed bump for South Africa has been the lack of identity amongst our wines, particularly with that of Chenin blanc.

The most widely planted cultivar in South Africa, for better or for worse, is Chenin blanc. The problem comes in with the plethora of wine styles Chenin is subject to. Clean-cut and fruity wines are set next to wild-ferment wines next to overripe, orange wines and the consumer (apparently) is confused by the ever changing identity. Thus, Chenin is left with a murky reputation. Not bad but not good and definitely not consistent.

Recently I’ve been trying to describe this phenomenon to my non-wine drinking friends and explain why this lack of identity is seen as a problem, at least by some members of industry. When I began talking through my personal plan of action I stumbled across the perfect metaphor. Chenin blanc is South Africa needs to become Taylor Swift.

Now, bear with me here. I realise not everyone is a T-Swizzle fan and that’s okay. But no one can deny that the singer-songwriter has an eye for publicity and damn, if she doesn’t have a reputation then I don’t know who does.

At the start of her career Tay Swift was the squeaky clean country singer from Nashville. She wrote pining love songs about first boyfriends and soul mates. She established herself as the good girl and started gaining her fan base. Now, this is where Chenin needs to start taking notes. Not everyone liked the squeaky clean Taylor and she was often mocked for being the goody-goody girl but she still sold 8.1 million copies of her second album across the world. Success was no stranger. Now, if Chenin can adopt this same persona some magic could happen. South Africa needs to produce the squeaky clean, good girl Chenin with crisp citrus and stone fruits to attract its fan base. The wholesome, simple wine with a fixed reputation. Everyone who hears Chenin (much like early Taylor Swift) knows exactly what to expect and either hates it or loves it.

This feat is by no means simple or easy. Chenin will be rebuffed by the Khanye-Cabernets and will constantly be told they will never be good as Beyoncé. A very unfair accusation; Beyoncé and Taylor are completely different artists. It would be like comparing Chenin blanc to Sauvignon blanc.

Once Chenin has done that it can start developing its reputation. Taylor is infamous for her numerous boyfriends who all seemed to be “the one” and all ended up leaving her broken hearted and armed with new writing materials. These boyfriends or “pairings” if you will can also help Chenin. The best way to elevate a wine from the average table wine to the blockbuster wine used at weddings and award shows (two places where Taylor Swift is also often associated) is to establish a good food and wine repertoire. The clean cut Chenin has an array of food pairings from cheesy brie (Taylor Lautner) to the herby meat dishes (Joe Jonas) and more.

So now we have the established Chenin/Taylor with a loving fan base and impressive reputation. Love it or hate it; it’s here to stay. This is where the fun can begin. As Taylor entered the world of pop and sass, Chenin can enter into other wine styles as well. No longer clean, innocent and fruit-driven it can become edgy, full bodied and powerful. It’s time to get out of the woods, shake it off and fill in the blank space in the wine rack. During the 1989 album era of Taylor Swift she started to appeal to a new crowd of people without losing her original fan base. Chenin is no different; it starts off in one style but can then jump across to another. From clean citrus fruit to woody and spicy, it will attract a new crowd of wine drinkers to revel in its versatility. And one day, Chenin blanc can dabble in the often orange wine exports, just as Swift started rapping.

If Taylor Swift could overcome adversity (another valid point with the South African wine industry, there’s always a Kim with their snapchat stories exposing the South African working condition and deterring sales), jump genres and cement her reputation in the music industry then Chenin can do so in the wine industry. Maybe it just needs to have its heart broken a couple times…

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To taste or not to taste?

Wine tasting can be split into two broad groups: professional and amateur.  Each group has its pros and cons but the one similarity can be boiled down to one simple question: why do we taste wine.

It’s relatively simple to deduce why people drink wine, but why people taste wine is a completely different matter.

If you ask a winemaker, they might say it is simply to test if your product is good enough, to see if the wine is finished fermentation, to see if the barrels need to be blended of to taste if something is wrong.

If you ask a sommelier, they might say it’s a lot more complex than simply to see if the wine is faulted. You have to analyse the wine’s acidity, sugar, tannins, body, depth, complexity, aroma, sterility and colour. You have to see if the wine matches up to its region, its terroir and if it is typical of the cultivar that it has been fermented from, you must compare it to previous years, and from its taste and smell deduce what methods were used in making it. Was it whole bunch fermented or were individual berries chosen? Did it undergo malolactic fermentation to make it less acidic or did the grapes just have a low acid to start with? Was there any wood contact? What yeast did they use and how long was this wine lying on the lees for? So many things can be asked and answered by simply tasting a wine.

If you ask a wine lover/amateur they might say a lot of what the sommeliers say, however a more personal approach would be taken. People may come to love the taste of certain wine because they had it on a special occasion, or they associate the taste with fond memories or simply because they get a good tasting wine at a good price.  The prestige of going to a wine farm that’s been around for a hundred years might be enough to lure some people in to tasting that farms wine. The story spun by the winemakers and the atmosphere in tasting rooms might be enough to get you hooked on a monthly wine tasting.  The more experienced wine lover might taste the wines for the purpose of knowing the product they are buying or comparing this vintage to the one that they are used to drinking. It may be a form of bonding for you and your friends to go to a different farm every month and try different pairings.

A food lover might tell you it is important to try wine so that you can pair it with your food without masking the flavour of it. Sweet dishes (desserts) should be paired with wines that are just as sweet. High levels of umami in food can be balanced by a more acidic wine. Bitterness in food can be lessened by a white wine or low-tannin red wine. Chilli heat can be made bearable by paring the food with low acid white wines that have a good level of fruitiness and sweetness.

At the end of the day we must remember that wine tasting and wine preference is a very personal thing, not everyone loves a heavy red blend that fills your mouth and makes you feel like you’ve licked fruity flavoured wood, and not everyone loves acidic whites or desert wines that are sickly sweet.

In my opinion we taste wine not only to analyse the specifics and parameters of the product, but to taste the story of the region of that time. A wine is a fingerprint of its terroir and region, when the region has suffered from drought and harsh soil conditions the wine will tell its tale of woe, when the region has had optimal conditions the wine will rejoice in its premium status and velvety colour. We taste wine to hear the stories, some pleasant and some dreadful but all interesting to experience.

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Cheap is not Nasty

Cheap wine. No, it’s not a swear word, although it is sometimes used as one in the wine industry. Cheap wine and nostalgia often go hand-in-hand, as one begins to reminisce about “the good old days”. Memories of late nights, good times, bad times, happy times and sad times may come flooding back to mind, and whether these memories make you smile or not, there is one important thing to remember: drinking cheap wine did not kill you!

Inexpensive wine is no new find to us students, we are all quite familiar with Bohemia’s two-for-one box wine specials, and it shouldn’t be an undiscovered treasure to the broader market either. Recently I have had to swallow my pride, and some very cheap wine, only to discover that cheap does not mean low quality, undrinkable nor unpalatable. Can you imagine my shock?

In fact, I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that most of the wines priced under R50 a bottle were of a pleasant and lively character. I know I may sound a bit pompous, but you probably know at least one or two avid wine consumers who also believe that cheaper wines are inferior to pricier wines. Initially I was very weary of my newly developed taste for cheaper wine, I wondered if perhaps it was just a phase that I was going through. Perhaps I had just developed a liking towards the ‘wine-style’. Then began the internal debate and finally a conclusion, “Cheap is not a wine style, Jenna”.

I have been led to believe that quality always trumps quantity and that it is incredibly difficult to achieve a quality wine in a large quantity. Bulk wine, another word us winos dislike, should not automatically be written off as wine of a poorer quality, nor should it readily be associated with cheap wine. Yes, it is true that most bulk wines are cheaper, however the quality cannot be judged unless one has actually taken a walk through the vineyard(s). It is often hard to believe, and easy to forget, that some of our box wines come from the very same block of grapes that various premium wines might.

Taking a glance at wine ranges, many consumers cannot understand why their R200 per bottle 2015  Cabernet Sauvignon is not as easy drinking as the R50 bottle, and here is where the stigma arises. Bulk wines and cheaper wines are not made to be kept on a shelf for 20 years, they are made for consumers to enjoy now. This does not make them poorer wines by any standards, however the winemaking behind these wine styles is a completely different ball game. These wines are made with the aim to sell  as soon as possible, to meet consumer demands and to ensure that you are receiving the same product every time. Wineries would go bankrupt if they only produced 3 to 5-year barrel aged ultra-premium or reserve selection wines at R200+ per bottle.

Being a winemaking student, and telling winemakers as well as lecturers that you prefer a bottle of sweet, pink, carbonated bubbles to the finer, more complexed MCC is a no-no. Should this be something to look down on? NO. Each consumer has their own preferences and this is what makes the wine industry so diverse. It is very easy to forget that ‘expensive taste’ and ‘tasting expensive’ are two very different things.

It doesn’t matter if you enjoy a dryer than the desert white, a sweeter than honey suckle nectar rosè or a mixed berry fruit-salad red, you can almost always find a bottle of whatever tickles your fancy for less. Chances are, if someone had presented me with a very expensive wine and an incredibly cheap one, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between either’s prices based on their taste.

Cheap does not mean nasty, cheap means inexpensive. Wineries know that students, for example,  would rather pay R25 for a beer (x3 or 4) than buy a bottle of wine, so they make various wine styles available to their consumers at a more affordable price. Personally, if I had to choose between paying R50 for a bottle of wine that I am familiar with, that is rock steady throughout the years and almost guaranteed to taste how I’d expect it to, over paying R25 per beer/cider, I’m going to choose the wine.

Another benefit of not turning my nose up to cheaper wine, is realising that paying corkage at a restaurant for a good wine (that I’ve paid much less for than the options on the menu), saves enough money to allow me to order dessert too!

If you find yourself on the fence about the idea of trying out something a little less expensive, grab a bottle or two of something that catches your attention the next time you go shopping and give it a try. Taste is subjective, the same wine won’t get a 10/10 rating from everyone sitting at the table drinking it, but if you enjoy it that’s all that matters. Try different brands too, that way you can build up a list of wines that you enjoy and know that you can readily pop/crack open the next time you’re craving a glass. I am by no means saying that you shouldn’t buy expensive wine, I’d still encourage it, but if you’re going to a braai, a girl’s night or a dinner party, grab a bottle of something cheaper in a similar style to the more expensive bottle you’ve been saving.

Introducing yourself to various wines is always a great idea, don’t get too hung up on how much the bottle costs or what others may think if you’re caught drinking a specific brand of wine. As long as you are enjoying what you are drinking and making more memories as you do, then who are we wine snobs to turn our noses up at a glass of wine merely because it’s cheaper? If it’s good, it’s good!

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Winemakers – as explained by David Attenborough

A darks screen appears. Slowly glimmers of light start to peak through to form a word – WINEMAKER. Gentle soothing music plays as we zoom out on the Earth. Then swiftly cut to a vineyard. Ladybugs fly happily. A cricket or two sings in between some bunches. All of a sudden the roar of quad bike disturbs the peace. The ecosystem is in pandemonium, a hand reaches into the canopy removes some grapes and then retreats. The quad bike disappears and the ecosystem recovers from the chaos and returns to its peaceful activities.

*David Attenborough voice  starts* Winemakers. The world’s greatest profession. The only career on Earth to witness the full majesty of fermentation. There is much more here than we ever imagined.*Cut to shot of David Attenborough standing in barrel storage* I am standing right where the winemaker would taste his vintage wines for the first time each year. To the north of me is the bottling line. To the west is the tasting room. Behind me is the most exciting place of  all – the cellar. From the shiny fermentation tanks to the cool barrel store – rarely seen places and untold stories. There’s nowhere in the world where wildlife puts on a greater show. This is the last place on earth where you can come eye to eye with the greatest animals that walk our planet. This is the winemaker.

Today we delve into the habitat and life of a wild creature that roams our land. From exotic locations like Australia and California, from France to South Africa this creature has been moulded and developed wherever the climate permits. The results of convergent evolution have never before been as evident as with the winemaker.

Let’s start by identifying a winemaker in the wild – there are a few key characteristics to look out for. The easiest way is to look at the feet, typically a winemaker will be wearing a pair of practical sturdy boots – waterproof and preferably  dark brown colour to hide any red wine or chemical staining. In the winter it more difficult to find a winemaker, you need to have a keen eye to find the small giveaway details, jeans or khaki pants equipped with a tank sample key or  the faint smell of wine in their clothes.

In the summer it is far easier to identify a winemaker. A tell-tale sign you’ve encountered a one is to look at their hands , if it is stained red and covered with cuts, blisters and plasters then you know you have stumbled across one. During the summer time the winemaker always smells like yeast and sugary grape must. They have shred the excess winter weight during a natural phenomenon called “harvest bod”. They need to do this in order to be nimble and quick during harvest ; climbing presses, fitting between barrels and cleaning out tanks. In addition to this it is also necessary for the winemaker to look at its prime to prevent their mate from leaving them in this period – the lack of attention the winemaker’s mate experiences during this time causes tension in the relationship.

The natural habitat of the winemaker varies slightly from winemaker to winemaker but they all live in an environment with one common factor – a cellar. The cellar is the building which a winemaker may spend up to 70% of the time. The other 30% is spent between the vineyard, the local watering hole and their residing area.

The diet of the winemaker, like most wild animals, is dependent on the season. In the cooler months of winter the winemaker needs to form a layer of padding to survive the harsh conditions of the cold barrel storage room and the icy cellar. This is done through a high consumption of red wine and braaivleis; for the South African winemaker only, other winemakers may feast on barbeque foods.  As the warmer months approach and the commotion of harvest starts the winemaker survives off shots of grappa and coffee in the morning hours and then progresses to wine and ends off each day with a cold beer to be drunk with their wolf pack namely the assistant winemaker and interns.

Now, we have explored the habitat and the habits of the winemaker. Their wild ways are less of a mystery and another one of Earth’s great wonders has been illuminated. The next time you encounter a winemaker in the wild – do not be scared. During summer or as they call it “harvest” the winemaker may be irritable and snappy due to lack of sleep and stress but they can be tamed with good wine and company. While in the winter they are more approachable and appreciate any distraction from their life of filtering and bottling.

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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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