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New World Wine Maker Blog - New World Wine Making Students

Going Ape for the Non-sulphur Grape

It’s in everything, from jam to fruit juice. Sulphur, as a simple molecule, is seriously abundant. Some people even refer to humans as sulphur-DNA based life, owing to the glue-like role it plays in keeping our DNA wound up. Its role is not arbitrary. Its highly powerful, life-giving chemical properties are also what give it it’s extreme antimicrobial abilities. It’s nuclear for yeast and bacteria; the gestapo of must, showing little mercy or discrimination.

As much as you might not want to accept it, we primates are pretty similar to fungus. We’ve both got proton pumps, ATP pumps and supercoiled DNA coding. We both love sugar, and yes, believe it or not, alcohol is toxic to us both. And so is sulphur. The same biological pathways that sulphur devastates in yeast are damaged in us too when we ingest this controversial substance. Unsurprisingly, many would agree it’s a repulsive compound, and for those of you blessed enough to have come close to the pure form – it’s certainly not a fresh ocean breeze that caresses your inner nostrils. It’s more like sandpaper spinning on the end of a drill-bit forced up your nose.

It’s no surprise people go ‘ape’ for anything lacking it. Biodynamic wines fly off the shelves locally and internationally; people hate the stuff so much they’ve convinced themselves it’s an “allergen”. Actually it’s just quite nasty.

The problem is, it’s not easy to make a non-sulphured wine. Sulphur dioxide is as ubiquitous in winemaking as the wooden barrel; more so, in fact. It serves a plethora of purposes in protecting the wine against microbes, oxygen and flavour degradation etc. Since these risks appear daily in a winery, it’s necessary to have the ultimate prevention. It’s a bit like seat belts in your car, if your car happens to be driving the Dakar Rally.

It’s not impossible though. An esteemed winemaker, or two, has said “good grapes, good winemaking”. To clarify: good grapes are healthy, non-rotten grapes – preferably with a nice low pH (a nifty natural wine protectant); and good winemaking includes cellar floors, surfaces, pumps and pipes that are clean enough to perform surgery on. After that, if it survives the first week in bottle it’ll go all the way … or so I’ve been told. And there’s plenty of examples to show.

It’s generally a bit of a dicey argument to suggest zero sulphur content in your wines. A great many wineries work hard to protect their wine and simply add the utter minimal, which acts as a failsafe more than anything to prevent flavour loss from oxygen contact. This seems to work, resulting in a severely reduced sulphur content compared to the norm. Of course, this becomes incredibly difficult when working with large quantities of wine, and not everyone has the luxury of working with healthy grapes.

It’s all, however, an unseen hypocrisy; a perversion of ‘the ignorance is bliss’ scenario. Sure, don’t spray chemicals on my lettuce, chia seeds and paleo diet. Fine, don’t ruin my weight loss, low blood pressure and increased self-esteem with sulphur. Wine has a fraction of a percentage of sulphur, please get rid of that, it’s harmful for me and my unborn baby. But…you can leave that toxic 13% alcohol in there – no problem there!

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Supermarket Saves

Have you ever experienced that immensely overwhelming feeling of exponential confusion when standing in the wine aisle at your local supermarket? Yeah, me too. The kaleidoscope of labels, hieroglyphic cellar and estate names, endless cultivars and blends and price ranges as wide as the Amazon River can easily have you flat on your back with TMI (too much information). To tell you the truth, there is no easy way of choosing a “good” wine from such a great variety. However, here are some of the nifty tips and tricks that I use when I’m facing the wine aisle gauntlet.

The first one is a no-brainer: specials. That is one of the best perks of buying at a supermarket. Stores regularly have specials and promotions and many times the prices can compete with those that you might find at the cellar-door. And yes, sometimes you might buy six bottles of wine where you only needed one, but its wine so who’s even counting?

Secondly, there is the all-important factor of price. For most people this is probably the variable that carries the most weight when deciding which wine to buy. And this is also very dependent on personal preference. For instance, I myself am very comfortable with drinking wines that are in the price range of R50 – R70 and I will even splurge a bit more when it is for a special occasion. I generally prefer to stay under the R100 mark when buying from a supermarket- but that’s just me.

Then of course there is the ever-confusing label. I personally do not care much for reading back labels. It has happened too many times that the back of a wine label has been completely misleading. Instead, I look for back labels that DON’T give much information on the specific bottled wine. Labels that have a story of the history of the farm or estate or even the block of vineyards the wine is made from are much more intriguing to me and does not fill my mind with expectations that are most likely not going to be met. Also, a bottle of wine with a creative front label has rarely disappointed me before. If they put as much effort into making the wine as they have into designing the label, you must be in for a treat (fingers crossed).

My next point is quite a controversial one: cork versus screw cap. This one is 100% completely up to personal preference. There is no right or wrong and the jury is still out on which one is better for the wine- if there even is a slight advantage for either. I tend to choose a screw cap when I am buying wine that I am going to take to a braai or a party at some else’s place and I choose corked red wines when I am cooking red meat for my family and close friends at home- there is nothing like the sound of a cork popping to start a wonderful evening of merriment and chatter. Whereas screw caps work better for picnics and braais (no searching for a bottle opener or a cork stopper to close the bottle back up again).

If you do have a bit of wine knowledge it will definitely count in your favour. Especially when it comes to familiar or “trustworthy” wine cellars. Most people have a favourite winery and if you particularly like one of their wines, the chances are quite good that you will like some of their other wines as well.

Another simple solution when choosing a wine: phone a friend! I have relied on wine recommendations from my friends countless times. And we all have that one friend with whom you share the exact same taste in wine. So next time you know you are heading to the wine aisle, pick their brain a little. Nobody knows your taste in wine better than your friends.

And if all else fails, do what I do- experiment. Every time I go into a supermarket to buy wine, I buy a different bottle. I make sure to try different wineries, wine styles and cultivars or blends. I see the immense variety of wines we find in supermarkets as a great privilege, instead of a daunting mass of information. In South Africa we are absolutely spoilt for choice when it comes to wines and now we don’t even have to drive to the estates to buy exclusive wines at cellar-door prices- your nearest supermarket has done the job for you.

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Old enough to rock and roll; too young to die

If you look on iamold.com you will see a map of old vines in the Western Cape. This map is not small, and what it shows should not be seen as a minor detail; it describes an antiquated viticultural landscape in a country that seems in its infancy on the international boutiques scene.

Like the California gold rush, Old Vines are being scooped up by winemakers all over the country (and by farm workers, pulling them out). If you’ll excuse and allow the continuation of the parallel, the liquid gold of Chenin blanc – and various other white varieties – is being sifted into the hands of those willing to get to it and produce it, be that journey by helicopter or yak ride. Seriously, some of these vineyards require a full blown Spanish conquest to get to!

That being said, the results are generally always worth it. If the vineyards have been standing there for 50 years with somewhat minimal attention, odds are, the vine is more than happy to continue doing just that. After some rejuvenation: a delicate “reprogramming” procedure involving very precise pruning, suckering and other practices the vine is set to produce again, at a quality level nearly unattainable in younger vines, usually with the downside of quite pathetic yields. A bit like when you go to a fancy restaurant and get a steak the size of a R5 coin.

These vines do make incredible, incredible wines; the rule of thumb is that older vines do tend to make better wine. Whether this is due to a physiological balance or witchcraft, I don’t know, but I’m happy to accept the fact. However, the big problem with old vines is that they are old. To qualify as “old”, they must be at least 35 years old. I couldn’t have an old vine pinotage on my doorstep even if I wanted one. Not even Kim Jong Un could have that, he might be able to get a nuclear missile, but an Old Vine is only made one way: waiting. Independent producers are grabbing any old vines they can and wineries are putting their vine’s age on the front of the bottle.  As such, these vines are set for unavailability and potentially auction level prices when people come with their money. There is already a big problem with co-ops rolling in the big paychecks and buying out sites from under producers’ feet.

The solution is two-fold: keep planting vines designed for the long term growth, not the usual co-op milk-them-’til-they’re-dry-and-pull-them-out approach that usually sees a vine last no longer than 25 years, largely based on the vine’s decreased yields with time. Secondly, train our young vines to be old. Basic viticulture – crop load, water stress, vigour and good sap flow. Make sure your vine is planted in the right place, with the right clonal components. Basic, but very intricate. The heart of viticulture. Don’t push the vine to produce too much; don’t irrigate it and fertilise as if it were a tree. If managed correctly, the results can mimic that of old vines.

Old vines have prestige, no doubt, and manage themselves to some degree. The problem is, no one has got time to wait around 35 years for a vine to balance itself out. Be a strict parent to your vine and gently whip it into shape. Like a drill instructor dressed as a bunny, posing as a masseuse.

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An Easy Guide to Cultivar Identification

The most common wine related advice that I get asked by my friends and people that come to realise that I have wine knowledge is how to identify different cultivars of wine. What is the difference between a Shiraz and a Cab? Or how to tell your Chardonnay from your Chenin. And it’s quite a simple thing, really. If you learn the inherent flavour characteristics of the grape variety and have an idea about the style of wine it is most commonly made in, it is easy to judge if a wine is true to its cultivar or not. Here are a few simple tips to help you to identify the most well-known wine cultivars in South Africa.

Sauvignon blanc

The wine that is produced from this white grape cultivar is very much dependant of the climate that the grapes are grown in. Grapes that are grown under warm climatic conditions tend to produce wines that have a floral or fruity aroma that is sometimes said to be reminiscent of tropical fruits like guava or pineapple. Whereas “green” Sauvignon blancs hail from cool growing regions that generally receive gentle sea breezes during the ripening period. These wines usually have flavours and aromas similar to grass, asparagus or figs. All Sauvignon blanc wines, regardless of the climate the grapes are grown in, tend to be quite dry and acidic- making it the perfect wine for a hot summer’s day.

Chenin blanc

Like some Sauvignon blancs, Chenin is also characterised by the flavours of tropical fruits. But unlike its blanc cousin, Chenin is not quite as acidic and is more commonly found in heavier, wooded wine styles. However, these days light and fruity Chenin blancs are becoming a lot more popular and care should be taken not to assume that all Chenins are heavily wooded or even aged in oak at all.

Chardonnay

This cultivar is mostly used to produce wines that are pleasant and delicate. Typical flavours include citrus, peaches, tropical fruits and nuts. Wooded styles tend to have a creamy, almost buttery flavour that makes it the perfect accompaniment for chicken or fish.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Commonly considered to be the King of red wines, this red cultivar’s reputation most certainly precedes itself. However, it is not an easy wine to place in a flavour or aroma category as so many different clones of Cab are now commercially available. The most popular clones exhibit flavours similar to berries, raspberries, olives, nuts and eucalyptus. South African Cabernet’s can occasionally also have a green characteristic that is associated with grass, green pepper or mint. This is sometimes considered to be a negative characteristic, but really it is all a matter of personal preference.

Shiraz

To me, this is a cultivar that doesn’t play games. It hits you in the face right from the get-go- whether you like it or not. And let me tell you, most people do like it. The spicy or peppery flavour of this wine makes it a crowd favourite. Other flavours that are associated with this cultivar are berries, fruit and smokiness. Its sharp acidity and strong tannins make for quite a dry red wine.

Merlot

The baby brother of red wines. Merlot is generally considered to be softer and easier to drink than most other red wine cultivars. I often recommend trying Merlot to people that are weary of drinking dry red wine as it is usually well balanced and not as dry and pungent as some others may be. When drinking a typical example of Merlot you can expect to experience flavours of fruits, especially berries, and also a hint of greenness.

Pinotage

Our own proudly South African cultivar can- in true rainbow nation style- exhibit quite a few different flavour profiles depending on the wine style it is made in. Generally, there are two types of Pinotage wines- the popular coffee-style and the more traditional fruity and leathery wines. The coffee or chocolate-like flavours that are so prominent in many Pinotage wines are not because someone added a cup of Nescafe or bar of chocolate to the tank but it is rather a result of the oak barrels that the wine is matured in or oak wood chips that matured with the wine. The other style can be intensely fruity or it can have an aroma that is reminiscent of sweet cigars and leather.

Hopefully this simple guide will help you to impress some friends and family in the near future. And just remember that this is only a guide to the most common flavours and aromas that are associated with each cultivar when they are made in wine styles that are true to their genetic cultivar characteristics. So be on the lookout for strange and interesting wine styles and don’t get a fright if your Merlot suddenly tastes like a Shiraz. That is one of the weird and wonderful things about wine- you can never be 100% certain what you are getting in your bottle without tasting it first.

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Why wait?

In popular music, there is group named the “27 Club”. This isn’t a vicious gang from the Cape Flats nor a new-and-improved version of S-Club 7, but it sort of involves elements of both. It is macabre selective of particular stars throughout history that burnt out; a membership that can only be awarded posthumously; think Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the recent Amy Winehouse. All dead at 27, all with resounding legacy.

From the most complimentary, optimistic perspective, South African white wine seems to have it’s own 27 (Wine) Club membership. The general consensus is that it’s damn good, but doesn’t last long. One might say, the candle that burns twice as bright, lasts half as long.

What’s the problem? Is the soil pH too low? Is the wine pH too high? Well, South Africa does have low pH soils, and high pH white wines, but the answer to both of these questions is no. Many white wines across the country have the potential to age for more than 10 years, and are aged, and taste great. It’s just you and I don’t get to taste them. To deny their existence is a bit like saying the dinosaurs didn’t exist because you can’t see them. Thankfully, I cannot see a real dinosaur right now. The trick lies in the cellaring.

But, why do they even need to be aged?

Having read a great article by Tim James tackling this question my opinion has changed. It seems these days wine can be made to such a high standard, post production, that aging isn’t necessary – from a sensory-chemical point of view. Our understanding of oxygen-tannin binding allows for any red wine to be crafted to a soft drinkability a couple years after harvest; long, hot summers (in South Africa) give winemakers a choice of any picking date, allowing dissolution of enamel-stripping acids. James points out that perhaps in the cooler and very much romanticised, bleak past, summers in Europe were far shorter and perhaps meant grapes needed to be picked far less ripe than is possible today. Thus, that tart and harshness of younger vintages, and hence the need to age.

Of course half the appeal of buying a bottle of wine is the aging. Putting them in their little cellar cubby hole, knowing they are sitting there safe, and just checking on them when you need them. Even beer drinkers know that the older a wine, the better it is; right? Well, regardless, for the more wine literate of us, we know it’s a bit more selective than that, but it is a satisfying feeling, knowing everyday that wine we put down is improving.

But, is it improving?

Unequivocally yes, in many cases, but, also no. Yes, there are uncompromising red examples out there that undoubtedly reveal their complexity, and become softer in time; there are plenty white wines that caramelise into toffee and truffle flavours in time. However, in my experience, often age on wine – quality wine – simply is a change, and not necessarily an improvement. Do you want fresh, ester flavours on your merlot or tomato, savoury top notes? Probably neither, because it is merlot, but essentially the point can be reapplied to most cultivars. In aging, we look for softening in the mouth and complexity – this is frequently supplied in premium quality in wines only 1 or 2 years post vintage across South Africa. The flavour profile is apt to develop, moving from primary fruity flavours to the earthy tertiary. Question is, what do you feel like?

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And the win(n)er is …

Winning an award is an honour- a prestigious and boast-worthy event. And winning an award for the production of a fine wine is even more special as it honours the meticulous planning and handling of so many variables that went into the production of this noteworthy wine. In addition to the shimmering new trophy and the oversized cheque, as a bonus the winemaker also gets to boost his or her wine sales by slapping a shiny sticker onto their prize-winning bottles of wine and just like that- triple the price per bottle. I mean, who doesn’t want to buy a wine that won double gold at the annual Veritas Awards- who cares about the cost?

Unfortunately, I have recently started to notice the “cheapening” effect that award stickers can have on a bottle of wine. These days there are so many wine competitions across the globe- too many to count and some winemaker’s and wine marketers believe that the more competitions you enter, the more awards you win and the better your wine is or the better your wine be perceived. Now I believe that there is a few issues with this way of thinking. The first problem is that a lot of these competitions are open for any and all to enter- therefore you can never be sure that your wine is weighing up against the best that the industry has to offer. For all you know, you might be competing against an old ‘oomie’ in the Northern Suburbs that is making wine (or should I say vinegar) out of his garage- it doesn’t mean much to win against him, does it? Secondly, the information regarding the judging of these awards are sometimes questionable. Depending on who the judges are, how many judges there are and what kind of scoring system they use, the results can be variable for the same wine that is judged under the same category in different competitions. And yes, like with all other competitions- the more you enter, the better your chances are of winning but this also may or may not lead to a false sense of bravado as well as your bottle of wine looking like a disco ball.

Sadly, it has been proven that marketing your wine as an “award winner” by licking some shimmering stamps and pasting them on your wine bottles will definitely help to get them off the shelves. But ultimately you as a winemaker have to decide if you want to use these awards and competitions as a way of marketing or if you actually want to compete with your wine and earn legitimate bragging rights that you and your team have earned and can be proud of. If you want to achieve the latter, less is often more when it comes to entering wine competitions- as long as you enter ones that have a standing, positive track record and is carefully curated.

People are different. Wines are different. How people react to and experience a bottle of wine that is covered in numerous award stickers, are different. It is up to you if you want to attract consumers to your wine like magpies with shiny stickers or if you want to stand proud above the rest with a wine that is honoured for the blood, sweat and tears that you and your team have put in to create it.

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