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New World Wine Maker Blog - New World Wine Making Students

Let’s give it up for the wine bars, baby

Any wine lover, wine maker and wine connoisseur worth their weight can tell you one of the largest problems with the South African wine industry is the total lack of local market interest. The current South African wine drinkers are predominately rugby moms who drink iced Chardonnay and while watching Jan play his Saturday morning match against Paarl or tragically basic, young teeny boppers who drink “rosé all day”. The rest of the population sticks to “branners and coke”, beer or ciders.

As a student I have found myself confined to the four Bs – Bartinney, Bramptons, Balboa and Bohos. Now the first three are what we need in South Africa if we want to encourage a new generation of informed, interested and adventurous wine drinkers. The latter – not so much. Robertson box wine  may be a successful product but I am a firm believer that wine should not be drunk from a juice carton and served with a beer glass of ice.

As it is, the only time the average student is exposed to a “Savvy B” instead of a “Sauvignon Plonk” is if they’ve ventured out to the surrounding wine farms, usually only for the pre-dance fashionable photos, because no one can afford the übers fees for a weekly wine tour. Luckily for wine students this occurs more often due to enthusiasm from all your class mates to go for a sneaky tasting after every minor accomplishment. Yay! We finished a prac report let’s go wine tasting. Yay! We attended all out classes today let’s go wine tasting.

Ironically, Stellenbosch as the wine capital of South Africa has a serious deficiency of wine-drinking platforms for students, particularly those who don’t confine their drinking times to 10am until 5pm as most wine farms do. University is the place of innovations, where trends are born and die and sadly, the trend of wine drinking starts and stops at “Tassies” and “Four cousins”, not to say these aren’t well-respected wines in their own right, but let’s be honest, any wine snob would be horrified to find themselves with a glass of tassies while unwinding after a horrible test.

I have been fortunate enough to travel many places within and outside of South Africa. The wine lists littered across the rest of South Africa are depressing and it’s no small wonder that wine is not the hot accessory we need it to be. In international metropolitan areas, like Barcelona and London wine is the answer to everything. Hot new wine bars open up more often than a cellar intern stress-cries during harvest (which in my case was at least once a day).  And this is where South Africa is seriously lagging behind. With so much to offer to the new untapped hipster, trend-setter consumers we seriously fall short.

Part of South African wine charm is the diversity (if you like clichés we could say rainbow nation of wine). We have historic Constantia wines to the reputable Stellenbosch powerhouses and now we also enjoy the yuppie, alternative Swartland surprises.

Wine is seen as snobbish and elusive by the majority of the population. But, that is something so easy to change. Bring out the screw caps, crown caps and orange wines to the young population. We’re all equally lost, alone and confused when it comes to the apricot-bomb Viogniers or orange Semillon. It’s the great equaliser that we’ve been waiting for and together students can become the pioneers in the alternative wine movement.  Once wine can be viewed as trendy and hip then the young adults will flood the market and perhaps we will have a local wine consumption to be proud of.

So why is it so difficult to get these wines to break into the new market of the young trend setters, ubiquitous across campuses? Why are there no wine bars populating every nook and cranny of South Africa’s CBDs? Bring on the hipster wine bars where Malbec comes in a mason jar and we get deconstructed Pinotage tastings.  Every youth with their  vintage clothing, vinyl records and “Rocking the Daisies” wristbands from 2017, 2016 and 2015 will show up to experience the alternative and innovative wines on offer.

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The Hard-Working Hands of Harvest

“Meisietjie, Lena is die Wingerd-Aaantie (aunty)”, this was one of the very first sentences I heard when I started my internship this year (2018). While I sit here, taking a hefty sip of chilled Sauvignon blanc, I can’t help but think about all of the unseen and almost unheard of hard work that has been poured into each lingering sip of wine.

Some of my fellow cellar-dwellers have been working in the industry for longer than I have been alive; it very quickly dawned on me that these men and women are fountains of knowledge and quirky stories. A winemaker is only as good as the team supporting them, this is a very important lesson for any young or aspiring winemaker to learn. As far as my winemaking internship goes, I can wholeheartedly say that I have landed with my bum in the butter. In my very first week, I had already been taught (by the cellar team) how to build lines, operate pumps, pressure-rack barrels, set up acid and alcohol trials etc..

Almost two months down the line, I can very clearly see why my colleagues are so eager to get to work in the mornings. Each time the viticulturalist brings in grape samples from the vineyard, one of the cellar workers rushes to find me and tell me that I must come and do ripeness asssesments. Within the same breath, forgetting that I have not yet taken any sugar readings, I either get asked, “Where is the sugar lying? Wanneer gaan ons pars (when are we going to harvest)?” or promptly told, “No, no, they are not ready yet”. I couldn’t help but feel a little envious of the winemakers, to have a team that is this enthusiastic and motivated to start harvesting.

In the vineyard, I am constantly greeted with smiles, and even though I don’t yet know the entire team’s names, they all know my name. Every opportunity I have to work in the vineyard is met with people enthusiastically asking me to work with them, as they show me the do’s and don’ts of the day’s vineyard tasks. I think, as consumers, it is very easy to give the winemakers all of the credit when we taste a phenomenal wine, and it’s equally as easy to forget that no person can make a great wine on their own. It’s definitely a team effort.

As much as the teams are teaching me, I have found that learning and teaching work both ways. While doing some crop dropping (green bunches were removed) in order to allow for the Merlot bunches undergoing veraison to ripen, one of the team members said she could taste something familiar in the berry but couldn’t quite put her finger on it. I was very quick to pop a berry in my mouth, purely out of curiosity, and rapidly replied with, “it’s minty, and tastes a bit like bell-peppers”. Her face lit up as she recognised these flavours and agreed with me, where after she explained to me that it made a lot of sense as the viticulturalists wanted us to do the crop-dropping in order to try and lessen the green characteristics of the berries.

I would like to take my hat off to all of the men and women behind wine and thank them for the countless hours of hard work they have put into each vintage. From working long days in 30-40°C weather, to working 15+ hour shifts during the harvest season, I have not heard a single complaint. I am constantly surprised by the amount of passion and hard work the teams put into every task they’re given and how readily they offer help to anyone who struggles. They hold each other accountable for their work, truly working as a team by making sure everyone is doing their work properly.

When harvest started, I didn’t expect anyone to remember me after my pruning practical on the farm in June, however very few had forgotten. While walking through the vineyards on a very hot day, hanging up containers with biological control agents (parasitic wasp eggs), I bumped into one of the suckering  teams. I was immediately recognised and greeted with a smile, while being called over to come and see what the team was doing. I was feeling exhausted, and quite honestly did not want to walk all the way back to the other side of the row I had just hung the control agents in. I somehow mustered up enough motivation to put one foot in front of the other and make the journey. What should have been a quick “hi-and-bye” turned into a 45-minute chat about everything from insects, to love advice and weekend shenanigans. I learned another important lesson that day, sometimes, all someone needs is a smile and a good story or two to motivate them and give them a little bit of encouragement. After talking to some of the team members, I had forgotten all about my exhaustion and immediately felt more energized.

Remembering something a viticulturalist had once said to me about the workers always being loud and chatty in the vineyards, I finally understood why. When you’re enjoying your work and the company, laughing and singing while you get through the day, you begin to look forward to tomorrow. Hard work is made a lot easier when it’s appreciated. So, here’s a big THANK YOU, to all of the winemakers, cellar workers, viticulturalists and vineyard workers for all of the hard work that goes into each divine sip of wine!

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When in Drought

“Rain, rain go away, come again another day”, I remember singing these words as a child, while staring at the drenched playground outside. Thick clouds, the pitter-pattering of rain against the window sill and  misery was all that accompanied those wet days as I looked towards the garden through the water-tinted glass. Fast-forward 15 years, and here I sit, staring out of a sun-dried window, searching the horizon for any sign of those heavy grey clouds.

South Africa is no stranger to drought, we’ve been experiencing these “dry-spells” over the decades, with increasing frequency since 1997. Although it is true that we produce some of our best wines under a little bit of (water) stress, how much can the vines really handle? How much can we handle?

In 2009, 2015 and 2017 South Africa saw some of its best vintages, with wines scoring well into the 90s (Wine Spectator). Stats have also shown that our overall harvest has actually increased by 1.4% from 2016 to 2017 (VinPro), which was not the overall expected outcome following the 2016 dry period. Could water stress be responsible for the slight increase, or are we perhaps still trying to use every last drop of water while it’s still available to us?

Recently, water stress has been emphasised in both our Soil Science and Viticulture courses. Research, evaporation minimalization, efficient irrigation scheduling and the science behind water stress in the vine have especially been highlighted. However, the costs and expenses involved in the implementation of drought control strategies seems to have slipped out of our teaching somewhere.

I only realised this when visiting a well-known rootstock plantation in the Paarl/Wellington region. One of the viticulturalists posed a question to our class: “Wat kan ek doen om waterverbruik te verminder (What can I do to reduce water consumption)”. Having just been taught this in Soil Science 344, many of us were eager to jump at the opportunity to share our new-found knowledge, oblivious to the trap he had set for us. He showed us that it is easy to think of a solution, however the costs implicated in the implementation of the best solution prove to be a difficult hurdle to overcome. This unfortunately leaves many farmers, in the wine industry and other agricultural sectors, with a very limited set of options on what seems like a very long list of solutions.

“How would you advise a farmer on how to manage his crops in such a way as to minimise the effects of drought and evaporation in the vineyard?” – This is a typical example of a test question or class discussion topic that a third-year student would be expected to answer. Answers would run along the lines of the use of mulches (plastic or organic), the installation of micro-drip irrigation systems, the regular measuring of soil water content using a tensiometer, vine water stress monitoring using a pressure bomb, installing irrigation lines beneath plastic, installing a wind break, the use of netting, the use of drought resistant rootstocks…the list goes on. These all seem like logical answers to a student, who has no idea on how to budget.

I took a drive through Stellenbosch recently, and the reality of the situation unfolded before my eyes. Vineyards are being pulled up, left to sprawl out through collapsing trellising systems and farms are being sold and auctioned off. A harsh reality for a youngster like me to face, is that more often than not, farmers are victims of unforeseen circumstances like drought, fire and flooding (wouldn’t that be lovely? – just not during harvest, please!). What can we expect for the 2018 harvest with the conditions ever-worsening and the expenses forever increasing? We can hold on to hope and faith in the mean-time; I hope that our rain will come soon, and I have faith that our beloved vines will cope if it does not.

Dry-spell feels like an appropriate word to use, doesn’t it? The upside of feeling like we are being bewitched by drought, is that any spell can be broken. A beam of light does shine through the current crisis, our yield has not yet seen an overall decline and our wine quality is still improving. Our red wines, in my opinion, have seen few better vintages than our drier years.

Why is this? Well, if water stress is applied at the right stages of ripening, berry metabolites and anthocyanins as well as other crucial wine components begin to accumulate into the berry. The vine goes into, what I like to refer to as an, “Oh shoot, ek gaan vrek” stage, meaning most of the vines reactions are pushed into a survival or reproductive mode. This could very well be a contributor to the deeper colours as well as the more full-bodied texture and mouthfeel of our fruit-packed wines.

Moving forward, I think the South African wine industry is going to experience a major shift in white wine production due to the drier conditions, focusing on a drier yet more tropical fruit driven style with slightly higher alcohol levels. White wines in particular, may need some kind of acid adjustment to reach a desired level of acidity due to the lower natural acid levels in ripe grapes. Red wines however, may become much darker and may require less skin content due to the higher anthocyanin accumulation at phenolic ripeness. More full-bodied, heavier and fruitier (dark berries and red fruit) driven red wines can be expected, adding more character to the wine and its complexity.

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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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