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New World Wine Maker Blog - New World Wine Making Students

Brandy in a different light

“Branne-branne-branne-brannewyn het nie brieke nie”, a simple Afrikaans song symbolizing the South Africans outlook on brandy. We are so conditioned to the culture of brandy, mixed with coke, that red stained cheeks are no surprise to such a ‘sophisticated’ drinking nation, ultimately neglecting the intricate science behind the brandy we so readily buy off our convenience store shelf.

As a fourth-year student of BSc Viticulture and Oenology, I have not come in contact with the distillation of wine as much, but rather the making of wine itself. During one of our courses this semester, we were fortunate enough to receive lectures form Distell. These professional scientist and marketing managers from Distell, completely reformulated my narrow-mind outlook on brandy  and excitement towards the brandy industry and an appreciative approach towards brandy as we do not know it. Amongst other things we learned the science behind it, we learned about the alcohol recovery, the difference between column still and pot still brandy and most excitingly the blending of brandy.

In one of our practicals were lucky enough to make up our own brandy blend. We were divided in to groups and we had to make a traditional pot still brandy. As I am not an experience brandy drinker this was a new and exciting challenge. Not knowing how to go about the blending, as scientists, we started off with calculations. In order to make a proper pot still brandy, you need an end alcohol concentration of 38%. In order to achieve this, the alcohol percentages for the brandy blending components needs to be known. This is then calculated in order to determine the amount of water that needs to be added in order to dilute the strong alcohol.

We received the best of Distell’s brandy, which included a 3-year-old, a 5-year-old, a 10-year-old distilled hanepoot and a 12-year-old. Each of these components had different aromas and mouthfeels. We started by smelling all of the different components and our group ended up with a blend that consisted of a 3-year-old, 5-year-old and 10-year-old.

At the end of the practical we were all thrilled and inspired. We just blended our own brandy and we could each take a bottle home to show our friends. I claimed to have ‘made my own brandy’, I felt very impressed with myself.

Looking back on this experience and the divine science behind distilling and blending brandy, I can confidently say that ‘brannewyn’ might not have brakes after all. It is such an amazing drink with hundreds of years’ worth of stories to tell. It is a multicultural, multi-lingual drink that is still to peek in South Africa.

Me, as a young female, with a deep appreciation for grape growers, farmers and the science of alcohol had an epiphany: brandy is a stylish drink. We should embrace the years of “klippies and cola” and never stop innovating and upgrading our perspective.

I would like to thank Distell for the knowledge and the insight your bought to us as aspiring wine makers. It was truly an enriching course and I am now forced to say that the stereotypical South African outlook needs to give brandy a brake.

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We are wine enthusiasts

What is it about wine that we love? What is it that makes us meticulous in the cellars? What is it that captivates our minds and has us watching videos about obscure places and buying copious wine books on the off chance they might say something new?

As wine enthusiasts we are of a rare breed. Not only do we want to know about how the wine was made, we want to know where the grapes come from, the history of the region, everything down to how the weather was when the grapes were picked. Seriously, we are obsessed. When you drink a wine from a specific region, you drink a little of its history, its terroir, the passion of its people.

As wine enthusiasts we are passionate. If your eyes twinkle when you speak about wine or your heart jumps when you find a new vintage at an affordable price, then your passion for wine is bubblier than a freshly disgorged MCC.

As wine enthusiasts we are explorers, hiking up mountains to find a hermit wine maker because according to legends his Cabernet Sauvignon is fit for kings.  Discovering new cultivars and exploring different countries to find the best wines possible.

As wine enthusiasts we are hopeless romantics. Although some of us prefer to be lone wolves, we cannot deny the pleasure we get when we smell an old barrel cellar. How special we feel when we  drink an untouched wine that has been sitting in the barrel for 2 years.

As wine enthusiasts we are scholars. Always learning the history of the farm and regions. Researching new and diverse methods of making and enjoying wines.  There are countless courses for one to learn how to enjoy, judge and serve wines – obviously we want to know it all!

As wine enthusiasts we are chefs. Great Wine needs to be paired with great foods, this has us looking up recipes and going to early morning markets to get those fresh ingredients that will pair perfectly with the wine we have been saving for a special occasion.

As wine enthusiasts we are scientists. We are perfecting microbiological processes to bring out the best expression of terroir and cultivar. Measuring everything from pH to potassium levels to ensure that the yeast we use will give us the wine we want.

As wine enthusiasts we are drinkers. To unwind from a long day at work – drink a glass of wine. To celebrate a happy occasion – drink a glass of wine.  When we are upset – drink a glass of wine. When we are tired – drink a glass of wine. No matter how we feel, we can find a glass of wine that will match our mood.

As wine enthusiasts we are creative. We have paired wine with cupcakes, nougat, ice-cream, biltong, fudge, food, music, art, painting, gaming, reading. We have invented glasses that don’t spill and glasses you can plug right into the top of the bottle, so for the worst days you don’t have to keep refilling your glass.

As wine enthusiasts we are patient. We are gifted at waiting for wines to mature in barrel or bottle for them to reach their ultimate potential.

As a wine enthusiast I love discovering new wines, exploring farms I have never been to, tasting styles I’ve never heard of, getting people to enjoy wine and experiencing the diverse history of this industry.

As a fellow wine enthusiast what do you love about wine?

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What’s Causing Your Wine Flu?

Have you ever gone wine tasting and overheard the dreaded, “How much Sulphur is in this wine?” or “I am allergic to Sulphur”? Tasting room stewards often fear these remarks, while customers often make them under the presumption that they are allergic to Sulphur Dioxide. I’ve often wondered how some wines could affect me so severely that I’d get almost hay fever like symptoms after two or three sips, while others are perfectly fine. Strangely enough, after working in tasting rooms for almost 4 years, I have never once received a complaint about a white wine induced migraine or sulphur allergy, whereas red wine often receives some batting due to the presumption that they have a higher sulphur dioxide level. Something I have definitely received in my years of wine drinking, however, is a few nasty hangovers and migraines, I’m talking about those crippling kinds that make you wince…..for like 5 seconds before you’re ready to drink another glass.

What if I told you that there is another unspoken of culprit causing your migraines, that there is another sneaky crook causing those dreaded red wine hangovers? An almost silent word in the wine industry needs to be brought to light and taken more seriously by winemakers, “biogenic amines”. Produced by both yeast and malolactic bacteria, biogenic amines are hard to avoid. Poor Sulphur gets the blame for most of the damage caused by Biogenic Amines, well I intend to serve justice on the Sulphur’s behalf! – Okay, semi-justice, Mr Sulphur Dioxide isn’t entirely innocent.

Mr Sulphur D is not entirely as innocent as we’d like it to be, as some consumers are sensitive to higher levels of sulphur in wine, it should be noted that fruit juice and dried fruit products as well as many other foodstuffs have far higher (double to triple) quantities of sulphur dioxide in them than the levels of which are found in wine. Further, many of the allergic reactions triggered in consumers were found to occur in only red wine, while white wine cases are far less. This makes one wonder if Mr Sulphur D was solely responsible for the allergic reactions, or if it had an accomplice (Biogenic Amines).

Red wines undergo malolactic fermentation in order to soften the palate by increasing the pH (less acid), whereas in white wines the higher acidity (lower pH) levels are more desired, less white wines therefore undergo malolactic fermentation. Spontaneous malolactic fermentation is a risky business, the indigenous bacteria lottery isn’t always in your favour. Most indigenous bacteria produce higher levels of biogenic amines while spontaneous fermentation takes place, where the amines are released to act as a buffer against low wine pH. Histamine, a type of biogenic amine, is well-known to trigger allergic reactions. The reactions induced by the five biogenic amine types found in wine include heart palpitations, migraines, rashes, stomach ache and a respiratory reaction wherein an almost asthmatic response may be triggered.

Our culprit, Biogenic Amines, stands guilty of posing threat to consumer health. So, what can we as wine enthusiasts do to debunk the Sulphur myth? We can educate our consumers on biogenic amines, while still remaining sensitive to those who do really struggle with sulphur allergies. As winemakers, it is important to remember that the indigenous lottery isn’t always in your favour, while using a commercial strain may be much safer. Most commercial strains that have been isolated for malolactic fermentation, contain bacteria strains that produce less biogenic amines due to their improved tolerance to more acidic wines. It has also been shown that co-inoculation inhibits the enzymes found in O. oeni that break down amine groups to form biogenic amines, while sequential inoculation may still produce biogenic amines. The quantities produced by commercial strains are far less than those produced by indigenous strains.

Before learning about biogenic amines, I’d often thought of myself as one of the many wine drinkers that suffer from a severe sulphur allergy. My throat starts to close up after a hefty glass of red wine, but the reactions were far worse when I drank guava juice or mango juice. Beyond having an evident sulphur allergy, I started to realise that I didn’t have a reaction with all wines. White wines, that often have much higher sulphur levels, I could drink with ease. What happens if you’re allergic to sulphur and there are biogenic amines in your red wine? Well, luckily there are plenty of low sulphur reds out there, but as winemakers, the only solution to a lower biogenic amine count in your wine is to inoculate your wines with a commercial strain of O.Oeni.

It could be concluded as a court (of wine drinkers, winemakers and wine enthusiasts) we hereby find Biogenic Amines guilty of causing insufferable hangovers, migraines and the likes, while we see no reason to detain Mr Sulphur D – we will however charge him to do some community service for his role in triggering some allergic reactions, despite his good intentions to keep the wine clean and oxygen free!

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The Case of the Vegan friendly wines

Written by Geena Whiting.

221B Baker Street, sitting in my armchair reading the newspaper with a Sherlock Holmes frame of mind, I cannot help but notice the front page title screaming at me: VEGAN WINE: THE NEXT BIG THING?? The detective in me is intrigued, surely all wine is vegan? Or wait, is any wine vegan?  Come with me my dear Watson we have a case to solve.

To some a vegan is a somewhat mystical creature, a fully functioning human being that can survive without bacon, eggs or milk. The internet defines veganism as the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products, particularly in diet and an associated philosophy that rejects the commodity status of animals. In layman’s terms this means that anything made from or produced by an animal is a no go.

Our first suspect on the case: the yeast. Is this living organism the reason why wine cannot be considered vegan friendly?

In one of my earlier blogs I wrote about Jerry the yeast and his awesome journey to making a great wine. He was very sweetly anthropomorphized however the question needs to be asked is yeast a living creature? The dictionary defines being alive as the condition that distinguishes organisms from inorganic and dead organisms, being manifested by growth through metabolism, reproduction and the power of adaption to the environment through changes originating internally.

Yeast is alive, however is it an animal? The Dictionary defines an animal as a living organism belonging to the kingdom Animalia that possesses several characteristics that set them apart from other living things such as: being eukaryotic (Having a membrane bound nucleus), being heterotrophic (relying on other organisms for nutrients), lacking a cell wall,  being motile and having special sensory organs for recognizing stimuli and adapting to the environment.

Yeast are in the fungi kingdom and are eukaryotic, single celled micro-organisms, chemoorganotrophs as they use organic compounds for a nutritive source and do not need UV light to grow. They also have a cell wall which eliminates them from the animal kingdom. Therefore although yeast is alive it is not an animal and is thus vegan friendly.

If it’s not the yeast that could potentially make wine non-vegan friendly then what makes some wines vegan friendly and other wines not?

Hitting a wall in our investigation I decided to go through the case files – the wine making process again – there has to be something, and then it hit me like a full bodied Shiraz:

It’s elementary my dear Watson it is the Fining agents.

Fining agents are substances added to wine with the purpose to soften the astringency or bitterness, remove protein hazes and reduce colour. The fining agent reacts with the wine component and precipitates out forming a layer at the bottom of the tank/bottle/glass that is separate to the wine.

Common fining agents include gelatine, isinglass, egg white, milk, casein, PVPP and bentonite.

For colour removal the most common fining agents used are carbon, gelatine and casein. The most efficient fining agent for tannin removal is gelatine and for clarity and stability the most efficient one is bentonite.

From the list above only three out of the seven common fining agents are considered vegan friendly, not all farms use vegan friendly fining agents.

The case seemed to be solved however there was one loose end that needed to be tied up. In our investigation I came across an interesting vegan friendly fining agent: Vegecoll®.

Vegecoll® is an organic fining agent that is vegan friendly, it can be used as an alternative to gelatine and egg white. It is a negative protein that is derived from potatoes. It is used for the stabilisation of colour and tannin removal. A promising substitute as a fining agent, but after asking around, it seems opinions vary from “will never touch the stuff” to “will never use old methods again”. To this detective it seems to be a love it or leave it scenario.

From my investigations and our case work it can be determined that wines using vegan friendly fining agents can be classified as vegan friendly products. Most wine farms don’t even bother to label their wines as vegan friendly because it seems obvious, however with the younger generation of wine drinkers becoming more aware of environmental issues and following a vegan life style more and more labels are showing “vegan friendly”. Do not fret if your favourite drop doesn’t display this label, a quick google of the A number on the back of the bottle should tell you all you need to know.

The case is closed for now Watson, but there have been rumblings of green and blue wines and Koshure wines making an appearance. We have only scratched the surface of the mysteries in the bottle.

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Winter School, Summer Ready

The post-harvest blues have slowly started to sink in as the familiar snip-snip-snip of pruning shears drifts through the vineyard. While the viticulturists are hard at work, the fourth year cellar interns have returned to the comforts of campus life, or so we thought.

Back at our old stomping ground, the university, we have been hard at work doing a winterschool programme, designed to get us industry ready. In six months time, we are going to be released into this close-knit industry, but there aren’t enough positions available for all of us. Many students will opt to go into marketing, to study further, to become sommeliers, wine buyers and some of us will go on to become winemakers and viticulturalists.

The winter school programme has remodelled the way that we think and approach situations, through a course called the “six thinking hats”. One of the questions we focused in in a session was, “how can we ensure that wine competes with beer”. This was an incredibly difficult topic to tackle, given that beer is unfortunately still the beverage of choice amongst the general public. A few interesting ideas emerged, like wine on tap, wine in a can, wine coolers, wine marketing during rugby games…unfortunately most of our ideas weren’t the most viable, however the exercise did teach us how important it is to alter our way of thinking.

After the six thinking hats, we moved on to wine marketing. In this short course we learned the importance of being able to design and sell your brand, as well as learning how to understand the different markets we would be selling our wines to in the future. With regards to the local market, students were taught how to identify the various target markets we would be selling our wines too, and the importance of having a story that makes your target market want to try your product.

IPW and SAWIS courses were also offered to us, the whole final year class underwent training at Elsenburg for the IPW guidelines. I personally enjoyed this the most because after the IPW training, we were invited too braai with the Elsenburg students. Here we were allowed to catch a glimpse of their world. From cinsault barrel tastings, to drinking gin and wine on the stoep, we somehow managed to strip away any preconceived stigmas we had about each other and just enjoy the company. A few bottles of wine made the rounds between us, and after three boerewors rolls and great company, we headed back to the university (with heavy hearts might I add, the afternoon really was lovely!).

SAWIS came at us like a ton of bricks on the first day of training, it was a lot of information that we suddenly had to take in. The second day was spent teaching students how to fill in the green and pink cards, as well as various other SAWIS forms, during the winemaking process. We were surprised with a quick SAWIS exam, that didn’t turn out quite as badly as we had all expected it to. I definitely feel more appreciative of all of the hard work winemakers have to do behind the scenes, admin is tough!

From SAWIS, we moved on to Toastmasters; a course designed to teach us how to prepare speeches and face the terrors surrounding public speaking. We learned a lot about each other during this course, one of my classmates revealed that she had a blackbelt in karate by the age of 12, another had dressed up as a Zulu impi at the world cup a few years ago, one has a shoulder that randomly pops out of joint and another rode his uppity horse through the Durbanville McDonald’s Drive through to pick up a lunch order! Impromptu speaking presented a little more of a challenge, however by the end of the week I can wholeheartedly say that I am a part of a class of word-wizards!

Toastmasters was aimed to help us combine our knowledge on the wine industry as well as our new-found wine marketing knowledge, enabling us to feel comfortable in front of an audience while talking about wine, essentially equipping us with the ability to market and present our wines in the future.

A few students were offered the opportunity to take part in a wine evaluation course, wherein they learned how to identify wine faults and how to judge wine accurately. The three day course enables students to participate as a student judge or an “extra judge” in various wine competitions, such as the ABSA Pinotage Top 10. This was a fantastic opportunity awarded to students who passed the initial wine faults test, I unfortunately have always known that my wine drinking skills far outweigh my wine tasting skills, and failed dismally.

To end off the winterschool period, the class was invited to attend a pruning workshop with Livio (the Italian vineyard man), who showed us how to master a new and very interesting pruning technique that involves minimalizing pruning wounds, while building the bearing positions up to create stronger sap flow to next season’s shoots. The method took some getting used to, however it made a lot of sense. I for one feel incredibly enlightened after the past month of training. These sessions have taught us valuable skills that we can take with us into the industry next year, hopefully allowing us to produce and sell top tier wines!

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The one where we tried to make wine

By winemaking student Geena Whiting.

I grew up in KwaZulu Natal, on a small holding that was a hodgepodge of different agricultural sectors. We had chickens that ran around and horses and cows that roamed. Fields of lavender and tea tree that left the air smelling sweet and fresh. A veggie garden that when given attention provided delicious veggies but in general it was a space for wild herbs and rouge mielies to grow.  Eight dogs that were supposed to patrol the farm, but spent most of their days lying on the stoop (or to my mother’s irritation) on our carpets and couches.

We also planted 12 grape vines, that over the years had been left to grow wildly and every second winter or so they were hacked back, to what the untrained person would have been considered as pruning. The leaves were big and the grape flesh was sweet, the skins too tannic to eat. To this day I have no idea what cultivar it was.

This was the year my mother decided “If we have grapes, we may as well have wine too”. Easier said than done mom.  We harvested on a Saturday morning, our first error was not harvesting early enough, in the sweltering Durban summer it felt like it was 38 °C at 10 in the morning the hot African sun beating down on our skin, sweat beading in the furrows of our foreheads and the humidity bordering on the stereotypical. We set about our task of harvesting, having no idea the balling of the grapes or the acid levels, we had just decided they had been up there for long enough. The leaves around the bunch zone had not been cleared so it was a lot like playing hide and seek with the grape bunches.

Eventually all of the grapes had been harvested and in the midday heat we washed our feet and proceeded to do the overly romanticized grape stomping. I recall initially stepping very lightly as I was scared of being stung by a bee that may have been resting in between the grapes.  Eventually I found my courage and started to stomp vigorously, all the while the grape must was being exposed to temperatures above 26 °C and excessive air contact.

The 80 litre yield of must and skins were then transferred to white buckets with lids, and the yeast was rehydrated by my mother and added. I have no idea how she went about the rehydration, but we bought one of those “make-your-own-wine” kits, and she seemed confident that all was done correctly. The buckets were then stored in the broom closet under the stairs and left for who knows how long.

I recall when we bottled that the wine reeked of vinegar and sherry and was so high in alcohol it burned to swallow. There were no fruit or other flavours and it seemed pointless to bottle it and call it wine. To change the old saying: when life gives you off –wine, make moonshine! That is exactly what we ended up doing. Distilling it off and getting the alcohol and adding cordials made from the fruit trees on the farm.

From a wine making point of view, so many things went wrong; I don’t even think we knew what malic acid was, let alone that we must conduct MLF to get rid of it. I know so much more and could probably make a drinkable wine out of that unknown cultivar on my childhood farm.

And yet knowing how to do things correctly cannot make up the fond memories of the process, sneaking around and opening the buckets to smell the wine,  gripping my father’s arm so I didn’t fall over while stomping the grapes, our dogs trying to eat the berries as we harvested them.  There is space for automatization in our cellars; it is necessary to take our industry to the future; however there must also be space for experiences such as the one in my childhood. Wine is like history in a bottle, we must make history while making wine.

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