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New World Wine Maker Blog - New World Wine Making Students

Dessert in a Glass

Autumn colours swiftly make a splash through the vineyards as winter slowly creeps in on the Western Cape. Driving along one of the country’s beautiful wine routes, one can’t help but gaze at the beautiful canvas-like vineyards, painted with beautiful shades of amber reds, burnt oranges and golden yellows that would make the sunset jealous.

Something else comes to mind as these colours flash in front of me, it’s the season of blazing, wood-crackling fires and dessert wine. Much like the vineyards’ deep reds, I am reminded of a lively, warm Cape Vintage. The infamous South African dessert wine, made in a Portuguese style that mimics Port, yields a flavoursome battle between the sweet, red berry and stewed fruit characters of red wine cultivars and the warm cinnamon, dark chocolate and smoky wood aromas.  A Cape Vintage is the ideal dessert wine style for the sweet-toothed red wine fanatic.

The more famous South African anti-freeze, Old Brown Sherry, is loved by many. It has a slight bitterness that cuts through the sweetness of traditional dessert wines, while it creates a small fire that grows in centre of one’s body. Apparently, OBS isn’t only good for the creaking bones of a cold human body in the heart of winter. While visiting family friends, I noticed my mother’s friend, Sandra, giving a small tot of OBS to her well-aged cat, Patsy. I stared in disbelief as Patsy lapped up every morsel of OBS, while Sandra explained that it keeps her nice and warm and provides some relief to her arthritic joints. I am by no means telling anyone to feed their four-legged companions alcohol, but if the little critters are as eager to lap up a drop or two as Patsy is, why not spare them a tiny tot?

This brings me onto our next dessert wine, while the golden colours of the vineyard grow darker its hard not to think of the beautiful liquid gold Noble Late Harvests and Hannepoots. My horse, Sunny, ironically enjoys a drop of sunshine (Hannepoot) every now and then too. Noble Late Harvest dessert wines can be made in two very definitive styles: The sweeter than honey, apricot jam and guava roll-loaded syrupy delight and the tart, yet perfectly balanced, lighter styles that focus more on the stone fruit characteristics while preserving some of the fresh cultivar acidity. Both styles are equally enjoyable, I often find myself enjoying the former with a dense, full fat vanilla ice-cream, while the latter style I prefer in a glass, as a post-dinner delight. What makes Noble Late Harvest different to other dessert wine styles, is that it cannot always be achieved every vintage and relies solely on the climatic conditions and terroir. Botrytis cinerea, or noble rot, is a type of mould that forms in the vineyard under the right micro-climatic conditions. It not only brings intense flavours out of the berries, but it also allows for a much more concentrated sugar level. These wines are often tricky to work with due to their higher viscosity and may take a few filtration and fining attempts to master, however the end result is well worth the hard work and determination.

The orange hues of the vineyard remind me of a well-aged Muscadel, with its sweet scent of raisins and apricots, who wouldn’t love this winter-warmer? I recently tasted a 2009 vintage, which had been aged in small 50l oak barrels for 5 years. The beautiful cinnamon-like scents enthralled with the raisiny sweetness are the perfect plus one for a chilly autumn evening.

Another popular dessert wine style, with a slight fiery kick to it, is the much loved Jerepico. The winemaking process is described as a marriage of the alcohol and wine components, and there is no better way to describe it. The sweet must forms a perfect balance with the warmth of the alcohol, whilst wood aging provides a lovely undertone of nutmeg and cinnamon spices.

Dessert wines are not only enjoyed in winter, I have often been told that noble late harvest wines pair perfectly with a dollop of ice cream on a warm day. These wine styles can often act as a syrup substitute and taste extraordinary when drizzled over various cold desserts. I personally enjoy sweeter wines as a stand-alone dessert, nothing beats a small glass of chilled Muscadel or Noble Late Harvest on a warm summers evening after a braai.

Although dessert wines are not always found on a conventional tasting room wine list, if you do find one or two I would definitely suggest giving them a try. If you are particularly set on a specific wine style, don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. A full, hearty glass of Cape Vintage could be just as enjoyable as a full bodied red, but I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

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The winding road of winemaking

by Geena Whiting. 

There was a night this past month in which I battled to sleep. Exhausted from a hard day’s work in the cellar I lay in bed tossing and turning. Sleep eluded me, tentative excitement bubbled in my stomach. The next day I would be getting my very own grapes, to make my very own wine.

The Sauvignon Blanc grapes arrived in the early morning. The grapes themselves were crisp and green, with a medium thick skin that disintegrated easily when chewed and a watery pulp with flavours of tropical fruit and freshly cut grass.  Into the crusher de-stemmer they went; anticlimactic as they were led straight from the crusher de-stemmer into tank thirteen by a pipe.

A juice sample was drawn off the tank and needless to say I was underwhelmed and nervous. The juice was murky and had a dusty mustard hue to it. That tropical fruit was still evident on the nose, but a boring green apple was the main flavour on the palate. A sample also had to be drawn to be sent to the lab, and my first mistake happened in this step. Instead of adding 0.08ml of Sulphur to the sample (to prevent it from fermenting), I had added 8ml of Sulphur! So naturally the results that came back were a bit skew. But over the hurdle I went and sent in a new sample the next day (with the right amount of sulphur you will be glad to know).

Two days after settling the juice was a far more pleasant colour, a pale lemon-green with tropical fruit and some bell pepper coming through on the palate. I was feeling more confident, I racked off the juice into separate tubs to add the different treatments (acidifying and de-acidifying the juice prior to fermentation). This was simple enough and then after I simply decanted the different treatments into their respective kegs. The juice was allowed to homogenise over two days and a final sample was taken from each keg and sent in for analysis.

After the two day wait I was eager to get my “keg babies” fermenting.  The yeast was rehydrated and the juice inoculated correctly, no hick-ups thus far. On day 2 of fermentation the balling started to drop and like a proud mother hen I fluffed up my tail feathers and clucked around the cellar. Satisfied that this whole wine making thing isn’t as hard as it looks. Well it’s all well and easy to think that when everything is going your way.

Fermentation continued until about day 9, that’s when disaster struck (well in my eyes it was a disaster). The Balling hadn’t changed for the last 3 days, the fermentation was stuck, I was distraught, I had done everything correctly and why wasn’t it working??? Then after some tears and a discussion with my mentor, he suggested it was the cooling system that was making the fermentation sluggish. Yeast need “Warmer” temperatures to ferment effectively, and my kegs were sitting at a very chilled 12°B. Removing them from the cooling system and just letting them sit there the fermentation came right once again.

With them having had a sluggish start, reduction soon followed and daily stirring with a whisk was required for each keg over a period of three days. Needless to say I think I can now whip cream without an electric beater! The reduction soon passed and all seemed well. But this was not the end of the trials, it was not as they say smooth sailing ahead.

Kegs are pressurized containers, so when you have fermenting wines in them, one must never close it fully, otherwise it will be difficult, almost impossible to get it open. And low and behold a keg was closed to tightly, I tried to use the pressure valve to get some air out but it was no use, instead of air wine came bubbling out. In the heat of the moment I viciously kicked down on the lid and BOOM! Out sprays half of the keg… well done Geena, well done. Distraught that I had wasted half of the one keg I vowed to myself to always handle the kegs with respect and love.

Fermentation was coming to an end and everything had aligned itself nicely. Until one fateful morning I walked into the cellar and gawked, looking at the spot where my kegs should have been, and then two meters to the right where they were lined up neatly in the same order I had left them in but open, open to the heavens and the elements. Freshly off the ferment wines just left open. I ran toward them, hoping that somehow they were alright, but hope can be a fickle thing. My once glorious green-lemon wine was now brown with a hint of pink, a slight red apple sherry smell had replaced the tropical fruit. I collapsed on the ground in a heap of tears, the culmination of my entire education had been ruined by a bystander.

Gathering myself together I once again turned to my mentor not thinking it was fixable, and yet he seemed un-phased and simply said sulphur is a winemakers friend. Thus I added 80ppm of sulphur to each get and gave the empty space at the top of each keg a healthy dose of CO2 to prevent any chance of someone opening them or the wine getting oxidized. Two days later I tentatively opened each keg to see the damage, and they were back to their glorious lemon green colour and expressing beautiful aromas. They were saved by some sulphur and are now sitting happily in the cellar awaiting bottling.

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The Tasting Evolution

By Jenna Higgins.

After recently attending a MCC base-wine tasting hosted by the exclusive Cap Classique Association, I found myself wondering about how much effort goes into analysing and tasting a glass of wine. In my case, wine tasting formed a part of my tertiary education – I loved this, as it gave me an excuse to tell people that tasting wine was “beneficial to my education”.

Basic wine tasting etiquette is taught to wine students in the second semester of their first year of studying, where we are normally all greatly disappointed to find out that it is in fact a common courtesy to spit your sip of wine out, as apposed to actually drinking it. I remember a fellow classmate tentatively asking if we had to “spit with a specific technique”, as if there were some kind of finesse to it.

Following being thoroughly disappointed by the instruction to spit out our lovely class-time inebriants in our first year, we were then introduced to the concept of blind tastings and cultivar identification in our second year. To be fair, though, they started us off easy, we simply had to taste wines out of blacked-out glasses and determine whether the wine was red, white or pink (rosé). Initially, while some of us struggled to identify more than two prominent aromas on the wines, it soon became apparent that some of our fellow classmates clearly had a little bit more tasting experience than the rest of us.

After slowly introducing our tastebuds to wine, our senses were further stimulated with small foil covered bottles, each containing a different wine aroma. We then had to identify the various aromas that lay within each bottle. Aromas such as chocolate, cinnamon, orange blossom, guava, pineapple and peach were easy to identify, while others such as elderflower, jasmine, quince, violet and tomato leaf were more difficult. Most of us had never smelled these scents before, it was an entirely new experience. On a side note, I still can’t pick up guava aromas to this day (I was told everyone has a ‘blind spot’ on their nose, I guess that’s mine!).

Once our noses had been calibrated, the tastings advanced to a combination of bottled aromas and cultivar specific wines. We were asked to identify which aromas presented themselves in the wines, after smelling the varietal’s characteristic aromas in the bottles. Gradually, we came to associate Sauvignon Blanc with either guava, passion fruit and gooseberry, or on the greener spectrum, elderflower, lemon grass, asparagus and green peppers. Pinotage became recognisable by aromas of strawberries, mocha, banana and plums, and so we learnt how to distinguish between cultivars based on smell.

Colour analysis was the next step in our wine tasting journey, where we would soon come to realise that not all rosé was actually classified as rosé, and red wine could be as dark as midnight or as light as cranberries. At the time, it seemed fascinating that one could distinguish between cultivars based on colour (while the wines bouquet was still kept in mind), a few years down the line this concept appears to be entirely logical and almost of a second nature when tasting.

Things got really interesting when the WSET team took over our midday tasting praticals, our palates were tantalized by wines from Italy, France, Spain, New Zealand, Chile and many more. We were taught to differentiate between acidity and astringency, as well as primary, secondary and tertiary wine aromas. Here, we also learnt that wood tannin and wine tannin are two completely different things and that their influences on the palate also vary.

Third year threw us a lovely curveball by the name of ‘wine faults’; we were now considered to be “experienced tasters”, we had levelled up from our first year “gesuipery” and advanced to a more professional level of wine tasting. Up until this point, I was only aware of cork taint, though I had little to no skill when identifying it in a wine. Picking up wine faults was definitely not my strong point, I kept confusing Brettanomyces spoilage with the TCA derived aromas of cork taint… I even thought the oxidised wines smelled quite fruity. Some of my class mates had better luck than I did and went on to participate in the faulty wine identification course. Fast forward a few months and everyone had successfully managed to gain a sound knowledge on wine faults.

Zoning out of my three-and-a-half-year flash back, I now find myself sitting at a MCC base wine tasting with a table of tasting experts, while I try my best not to let my inexperience show. At first, I doubted myself, much like I did in first year and then as the winemakers around the table began to voice their opinions, I noticed that many were similar to what I had written on the page in front of me. Although I wouldn’t quite consider myself to be an experienced taster, looking back at the hard work my lecturers  have put into refining the palates of generations of winemakers-to-be, I can’t help but to feel a tingle of excitement for the years of learning and development to come.

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A Cellar Intern’s Survival Guide to your First Harvest

Excitement bubbles over as the eager new intern arrives at 06:30am, a whole 30 minutes prior to her actual clock-in time. This lasts for about a week; after the second week you’ll be missing your Monday morning 8am lectures and 9am Neelsie coffee breaks (I have now revealed myself as the first-time-intern).

As the weeks speed on through you learn to, in the words of Johan Malan, either “ride the harvest wave, or miss it”. The first few weeks are and always will be tough, with all the MCC grapes ripening simultaneously while other white cultivars pick up the balling-chase to the cellar, just tailing the MCC cultivars. There were always a few nights a week that got my hopes up, encouraged by cheerful cellar workers telling me “ons gaan vanaand vroeg chaila (we are going home early tonight)”, only to have my hopes crushed by the sound of a bursting press door, or a load of grapes arriving at 21:00 because the lorry broke down. Those 3am nights will make or break you, and so, after pushing through some very late nights I thought to myself, “Girl, you need a survival plan!”.

Firstly, you need to be open to making new friends during harvest, mainly because your social life only involves a very deep-felt love for your bed. You will make two very important new BEST friends, their names are Berocca boost (or Vitathion) and coffee. These rock-steady companions will get you through the latest of late nights, the earliest of early mornings and the two-hourly punch down shifts.

When the coffee fails, learn to appreciate the smaller things to get you through the day. Open your senses to the things around you. One morning, after a long shift, I felt completely deflated as I walked past the nartjie trees lined outside the cellar. I hadn’t noticed that they were in blossom; the sweet citrus-blossom aromas instantly brightened up my day and added an extra spring to my step. After feeling so happy for noticing something as small and seemingly insignificant as a delicate citrus aroma wafting outside the cellar, I started to take note of other things too. Morning ballings became a lot more interesting when I realised that the fermentations all offered unique aromas that triggered many childhood memories. For example, one section of the cellar smelled like bubbaloo bubble gum for about a week, while the MCC must happily fermented. Another section of the cellar smelled of raspberries and strawberry jive ice-cream.

Eventually, the MCC and white wine grapes give way to the red wine cultivars, which slowly take their time to roll into the cellar and fill up the tanks. This is a completely different ball game, white wine won’t stain your favourite pair of jeans, let alone your hands. After struggling to get my hands clean for about a month, I finally discovered the beauty of citric acid and tartaric acid. To remove the anthocyanin stains from your hands, once a week to avoid damaging your skin, use either as an exfoliating hand scrub with some warm water. Your hands will be left feeling soft and stain free!

Another helpful hint to all harvest interns out there: if you break a balling meter (or three, in my case), it doesn’t mean your going to be doomed as a winemaker, it just means you were a little bit clumsy and that’s okay! However, if you know you’re clumsy or accident prone, I would definitely suggest a good pair of non-slip boots, they last forever and are definitely a lot cheaper than any potential hospital bills.

Following the non-slip boots, a very important and often over-looked harvest essential is a reasonable amount of good, thick pairs of long socks. You will be on your feet all day, every day. Long socks save you from any nasty heel-blisters, as well as keeping the edges of your jeans tucked in to prevent any chaffing. I am almost certain the winemakers at work think I have a very questionable fashion sense, every day I wear a pair of brightly patterned long socks with my ankle boots, because it not only brightens up my day, but it also makes everyone around me smile to themselves a bit, even if its at my expense.

Investing in a pair of insteps is also a very good idea. After my first month of harvest, my feet started getting quite sore so I removed my hiking boots’ insteps and put them inside of my cellar boots, and it made a worlds difference! I wasn’t getting tired on my feet anymore, which put me in a much more positive frame of mind. See, what did I say about the small things?

Always keeping a hat, a pair of harvest scissors/pruning shears and sunblock handy in your backpack or car is also a good idea, you never know when you’re going to be sent off to explore the vineyards, do harvest predictions, retrieve samples or be asked to cut a few bunches. Always be prepared, don’t forget: working in the cellar also involves the vineyard.

The most important lesson I learned this harvest was that if you push through the hardest parts, you start having a lot of fun. Don’t be discouraged when things get difficult, instead, take it as a challenge. Don’t pine after an “easy” harvest, push through a difficult one so that you will be as prepared as ever if mother nature decides to throw you another curve ball like the 2015-2018 drought. Stay positive, appreciate the small things and have as much fun as possible, because I promise, it is possible.

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What do I smell?

This has often been slurred after one to many glasses of Chardonnay has been gulped down or heard whilst serving a guest who for the fifth time has not heard you explain that you’ve served them a 2011 Syrah. It may seem like one of those completely obvious questions with the answer simply being: you are smelling wine. It still remains a standing joke in lecture halls when we have our tasting practicals for someone to pipe up that it seems to in fact be white wine in the glass in front of us.

For those who like to dive deeper into the glass and deeper into thought the answer is for more fantastical and complex.

First let’s look at some biology and how the sense of smell works (this is a Crip notes version by an oenology student not a biologist). Flavour molecules slowly evaporate off the exposed area of the wine; these molecules are then inhaled when you sniff the wine. Inside your nose are receptor sites which the molecules are ‘bound’ to. The receptor then sends off an electrical signal that is received by the olfactory bulb and translated and sent off to the olfactory cortex which then interprets the smell of the compounds.

Never be upset when the more advanced taster finds more flavour’s than you in the wine. The more practice you get the more you will be able to differentiate between the different molecules and the more your olfactory cortex will be able to remember that this smell is elderflower rather than just a floral aroma.

The flavours we taste in wine are broken into primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary flavours are derived straight from the grape, some are precursors to flavonoids that evolve during fermentation and others are evident in the final product. These would include your berries and grassy/green notes. Secondary flavours are developed during fermentation; the primary precursors are bound with other ions and evolve into complex aroma characteristics such as volatile thiols and terpenes. These would be the tropical fruit aromas you can identify. Tertiary flavours are developed during maturation in the bottle, on the lees or in the barrel, allowing for smoother wines, cooked fruit, wooden flavours and rising bread.

Let’s go on a journey to illuminate the vastly unknown territory of flavour compounds:

Floral varietals such as Muscat, Gewürztraminer and Riesling contain monoterpenes such as linalool which can be perceived as orange blossom or lavender.

Fruity aromas that can be identified in most young wines are given off by esters. Esters are present in two different forms: Ethyl esters and acetate esters. Ethyl esters are formed during the enzymatic reaction between alcohol and acetic acid. An example of an ethyl ester is ethyl hexonate that gives rise to aroma characteristics such as stone fruit, strawberry, liquorice and green apple. Acetate esters are formed during amino acid metabolism and containing an acid group and a higher alcohol group. South Africa’s very own cultivar Pinotage can sometimes be guilty of having an over baring concentration of the acetate ester: Isoamyl acetate which gives off that infamous banana flavour.


Green and grassy aromas that you either love or love to hate in Sauvignon blanc, Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc and many other cultivars. These can be given off by compounds called methoxypyrazines. Methoxypyrazines are secondary products of amino acid metabolism and are nitrogen containing compounds.  There are three major methoxypyrazines that have been identified: Isobutyl-Methoxypyrazines which give off bell pepper and cape goose-berry flavours, Isopropyl-methoxypyrazines which gives some Sauvignon blancs and semillions that cooked/pickled asparagus flavour, and secbutyl-methoxyoyrazines which also gives off green aromas.


Mouth-watering tropical fruit that make wines a bit too easy drinking are formed by volatile thiols. The three most predominant and evident in wines are 3-MH, 3-MHA and 4MMP, they are formed during fermentation by binding precursors to sulphur molecules. Aromas such as granadilla, guava, grapefruit, boxwood and gooseberry are given off by these molecules. They are very evident in Sauvignon blanc, Chenin blanc and Chardonnay.


Now that we have more of an understanding of what we smell it’s important to remember some simple tips to improve your tasting profile. Firstly, a sip or two is more than enough per wine in order to taste it, judge it and see if you love it. Secondly spitting is not gross, it is necessary in order to be able to taste every wine and remain a good level of sobriety toward the end of the tasting. Thirdly, have a designated tasting notes book, it may be hard to recall a specific wine from that tasting at that place that one time, so it’s great to have a reference. Lastly if you would like to expand your taste buds, don’t simply refer to the red fruit you smell in the pinot noir, elaborate: Is it fresh, cooked or cured? Is it a sour cherry or a sweet strawberry? Try and be as specific and elaborate as possible, it will also make it easier to identify a wine you have tasted before.

Happy tasting!

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An insight to wine making you may not have heard before

You may imagine walking through the vineyards in the early morning light, picking a plump grape off a bunch , looking at its colour, admiring its bloom, pinching it slightly to see how easily the pulp emerges from the skin. The juice crisp and clean to taste and the pip slightly tannic as you bite down on it. The cool atmosphere of the barrel cellar with that earthy wooded smell as you taste a voluptuous shiraz that has been maturing for the last 3 years. The neat promenade of tanks, clean and lined up, awaiting harvest. Yes this may be what you imagine everyday wine making is like, quiet and romanticized.

You may have a more clinical idea, silver labs and weighing boats, refractometers, thermometers and pH meters all in the correct position awaiting calculation. Beakers lined up neatly, reeking of a food safe disinfectant. The store room, tool room and Chemical storage room all fill and perfectly organized, simply awaiting use. All the pipes not in use, simply out of sight until needed. Yes a perfectly sterile environment that never smells of anything but disinfectant and the slight reduction coming of a miss behaving tank. This may be your idea of a working cellar more a laboratory than a cellar.

Well even though some of these elements may appear in the everyday habits of a winemaker, this is not the only part to it. No one seems to talk about the scrub work that needs to be done every day so that you can sit on your easy chair and enjoy that lovely Chardonnay.

Firstly winemakers cannot sleep in, the early mornings are the best time to taste the grapes and take accurate samples. The sample grapes need to be randomly selected and collected which requires a lot of walking, don’t think you can just take 10 bunches from one vine!  Those grapes then need to be crushed, the juice settled and then tested for acid, sugar and pH. The juice should also be tasted to see aroma expression. These results all have to be recorded, nothing can be forgotten or left out. This process is repeated twice a week for 4 weeks before the grapes come in.

Speaking of the grapes coming in, all machinery that comes into contact with the grapes must be washed and disinfected, all the nuts and bolts need to be greased with food grade grease, the wires need to be checked and the mechanism must be running smoothly.

The whole cellar should be cleaned (sustainable farming), from top to bottom to ensure no weird flora or yeast are hanging around to contaminate the grapes coming in. Scrubbed from the ceiling to the floor – including the outsides of the tanks and barrels.

The barrels needed for the new vintage need to be emptied into tank,  that wine then needs to be filtered and bottled which is an ordeal. The Barrels then need to be checked, marked, rinsed and transported to a facility where they burn sulphur inside the barrel to sterilize it. All transport of barrels needs to be done with a forklift because even an empty barrel is pretty heavy. The barrel cellar then needs to be rearranged with the wines still maturing moved to the back with the new barrels in front.

The pipes that are so neatly tucked away need to be washed thoroughly inside using a foam ball and a closed system of water. Even though the pipes are hollow, they are really heavy! A team of 3 is needed to move a 20m long pipe.

All aerators and pressure releasers need to be cleaned out and checked for rust. Any equipment that comes into contact with the grapes, juice or wine should be sterile!

The chemical store that’s so neat and accessible?  A stock take needs to be done and every batch number and expiry date has to be checked and new products ordered and packed. The tool store needs to be cleaned out, broken things thrown away, miscellaneous clutter disposed of and replacements bought.

This described a mere two days of the build up to harvest, its brutal and hectic and invigorating. When you step into a cellar again, remember all the nitty gritty things that need to be done before the grapes can be bought in or the wine can be made. There are the romantic parts, the scientific parts, and the other work that just has to be done. It all intertwines into this beautiful tapestry that is the art of winemaking. Being actively involved in this industry means you have to do each part, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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