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New World Wine Maker Blog - New World Wine Making Students

The Grape Fun of Harvest

March 2017, my very first harvest. As a student, you never quite know what to expect beyond your textbook, and so when our harvest finally started, we all eagerly queued up in the minute cellar beneath the JH Neethling building, not quite knowing what challenges awaited us. To be honest, we were thrown in the deep end, but I’ve come to learn that knowing how to swim is an important skill to have in the cellar.

With our Felcos and refractometers at the ready, we were set loose on the poor Welgevallen vineyards. I don’t think anyone was quite as enthusiastic to wake up at 5am (to take the routine ballings) as I was during that period. I was adamant that our group had to be in the vineyard to take readings while it was still cool in the mornings, and so by 6 we were ready to sample our rows and get a grip on our harvest. I don’t think the other group members quite enjoyed me pointing out that there was a possibility that a few of the grapes we’d been tasting more than likely contained a bit of an extra protein factor (worms, bugs etc).

You’d think that the enthusiasm would have worn off after week 1, but I ended up spending my weekend work shifts begging my bosses, at a boutique winery, to let me help out with punch downs too. This is where things got a little bit more interesting and a whole lot messier.

The plastic fermenters were just a little bit too tall for me to use the pigeage (punchdown) stick, initially I decided to only use my hands to do the punch downs (with help from the tasting room manager and one of the winemakers). I quickly came to the realisation that the customers (I am a wine steward) might not take to my now purple stained fingers, hands, arms, elbows…you get the idea. I then had the very bright idea to climb on top of the tanks, that had a rim thickness of only 5 cm. But wait, the cellar antics and health and safety infringements don’t stop there, I was wearing open sandals with no grip – yikes!

After boosting myself on top of the tank, my boss handed me the punchdown stick and I proceeded to break through the bubbling shiraz pomace at a steady pace. Not long after, I realised that there was a cooling plate in the tank, and so I thought, “Hmm, no problem, I’ll just press down lightly until I just touch the plate”. Just as I leaned in, my boss decided to move the cooling plate, and all I could see was certain death flashing before my eyes. In all honesty, there are worse ways to go than falling into a big tub of wine. After flailing in mid-air for what felt like a few seconds, I managed to grab hold of a thin hook that just happened to be perfectly positioned on the wall behind me. With only two fingers, I managed to pull myself up.

I would have been slightly more shaken if the tanks were slightly taller and fuller – in reality I could probably have just stood up, had I fallen in. What did I say earlier about learning how to swim?

So, after an interesting weekend in the cellar, I made my way back to Stellenbosch (to be in the department’s cellar). After telling one of the experimental winemakers, Edmund, about my weekend’s antics, he made 100% certain that I was always wearing my cellar boots, whether I had decided to rock it out in my gumboots and a sundress or hippy pants, he would spot me from the moment I set foot into the cellar. On one occasion, I was not wearing my boots and my dreaded sandals made a reappearance. I thought I could get away with only doing lab analyses that day, but alas! – I was caught red-handed and promptly reminded of the importance of wearing closed shoes in the cellar. The other winemaker, Marisa, threatened to throw things at the students’ toes if she caught our feet armed with anything other than closed, non-slip cellar boots.

Although my sandals didn’t make a reappearance, my hippy pants definitely did. I now call them my grape pants, because they’re grape to wear… pun intended. Pressing red grapes (merlot) while wearing lightly coloured pants, leaning over the little press and getting elbow deep into grape skins, while you’re supposed to be monitoring and adjusting the press’ pressure is not the smartest thing to do. The pressure on the grapes was just a little bit too high, causing berries to rapidly pop (explode) rather than lightly being crushed and squeezed. The other group members and I ended up looking like we had just facilitated a berry genocide, with gory bits and pieces of grapes and deep red juice splattered all over ourselves! Needless to say, the grape hippy pants were covered!

After two cellar mishaps in one week, one of my lecturers suggested that I leave these stories out of my harvest internship interviews. Although I ignored this advice (made for an interesting interview), I am now a reformed cellar-mishap-maker and have decided to take health and safety hazards a little more seriously, but I can’t promise that the hippy pants won’t make a grand come-back!

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Parings for seasonal parties

The holiday times and merry seasons are filled with good food and great wine. One wine and food paring can either make or break the party that you have been planning for the last two months. To help prevent these regrettable situations, here are a few tips to help you on your way to a delicious holiday season.

Let’s first tackle the way the food interacts with the wine:

Sweetness and Umami in food both can increase the perception of bitterness, astringency, acidity and the warming effect of alcohol in wine. It can decrease the perception of body, sweetness and fruitiness in wine.

Acidity in food can decrease the perception of body, sweetness and fruitiness in wine. It increases the perception of acidity in wine – have you ever eaten a lemon with a crisp sauvignon blanc?

Salt in food can increase the perception of body in the wine and decrease the perception of bitterness, astringency and the acidity in wine. It can also enhance fruitiness and soften the tannins of the wine.

Bitterness in food will obviously enhance the perception of bitterness in wine (no dark chocolate with fresh out of the barrel Shiraz)

If you live more on the wild side and are preparing a chilli dish it’s important to note that chilli heat in food increases the perception of bitterness, astringency, acidity and the effect of alcohol in wine and it can decrease the perception of body, richness, sweetness and fruitiness in wine.

There are some high risk foods that need to be paired with specific wine styles in order to ensure that the combination is palatable.

Dishes high in sugar should be paired with a wine that has at least as much sugar as the dish.

Umami in the food will emphasise the astringency and bitterness of the tannins and thus the wine needs to have the necessary components, such as concentrated fruit flavours to be able to cope with the change in the wine. High levels of umami in the wine can be balanced by the addition of acid or salt providing this keeps with the character of the dish.

Dishes high in bitterness will emphasise the bitterness in the wine.  White wines or low-tannin reds should be considered.

Dishes with high concentration of chilli heat should be paired with white wines or low-tannin reds, each with low levels or alcohol. A wines fruitiness and sweetness can also be reduced by chilli heat so consider wines with higher levels of fruitiness and sweetness to make the effect less severe.


If you haven’t gotten around to designing a menu for that holiday party coming up soon here are some good ideas for meals and wine pairings. Please note that the pairing is based on wine styles rather than a specific brand. It’s very important to work from light style wines and progress to the heavier reds and finish off with a desert wine.

Starter:  An impressive, easy to make and relatively pocket friendly idea is Parma ham and melon cube skewers.

Parma ham is relatively high in fat and thus an acidic white wine would be recommended, preferably a fruit driven Sauvignon blanc or Chenin blanc should be paired with this meal in order to cut through the richness of the fat and have the tropical fruit compliment the sweet melon.

Main: A classic and all around crowd pleaser is pot roast beef prepared with an assortment of roasted vegetables.

Most recipes already contain a dry red wine; a good pairing would also be a dry red wine with a lower acid that has smooth tannins and a lower astringency.  If you are partial to a Shiraz, Cabernet sauvignon or a red blend an older vintage is recommend as the tannins would have mellowed out and the wine would have an overall smoother mouth feel as well as a beautiful spiciness that will pair well with the roast. A more pocket friendly idea would be a Merlot or a Pinotage that has been grown in a warmer region providing subtle winter spices with a beautiful fruitiness and smokiness that will pair well with the roast.

Desert: A traditional trifle containing jelly, custard, Swiss roll slices, a drizzle of brandy/sherry/fruit juice, peach slices, whipped cream on top with granadilla drizzled over for aesthetic appeal.

The trifle can be served with a natural sweet, late harvest or even noble late harvest.  It is important not to oversaturate the trifle with brandy or sherry to ensure that the fruit flavours pair well with the wine, in my opinion if a pairing is conducted, tropical fruit juice should be used instead. A honey and stone fruit driven style is recommended.

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A South African abroad

Or rather 11 South African wine students plundering through the European wine scene …

It all started in February. We received the enthusiastic whatsapp in the midst of harvest. All of us 5kgs lighter, exhausted and covered in bruises we all dreamt of a summer holiday. Pairing cheese fondues and chocolate with Chasselas in Switzerland and then progressing onto Sangrias in San Sebastian, Mojiňos in Madrid with a few wine tastings sprinkled in-between.  What more could one want?

Four months later, and after 18 hours of flying, the class arrived in Geneva for our Summer School adventure. We arrived – tired, hungry and cold ready for a European summer only to be greeted with rain. But very quickly the situation was rectified by the consumption of Chasselas. Chasselas – the Justin Bieber of Swiss wine. You either hate it or you love it. Or you hated it until it started releasing bomb singles like “Love yourself” (or in wine terms – the 1992 vintage).

And so began the daily assault on our bodies. Each day we were exposed to a plethora of Chasselas and other early ripening cultivar wines – from cheeky Gamays to sophisticated Pinot noirs. Pickled with the high acidity wines of the northern hemisphere we were then satiated with bread, cheese and cold meats to soak up the alcohol so we were ready for more tastings, cellar tours, industry-related trips and technical knowledge lectures.

The Swiss wine industry was a total game-changer – with its 1% total export it’s like the quiet kid in the class who keeps to themselves but once they open up you realise the dynamic (or biodymanic) personality inside which totally shocks everyone with their Dungeons and Dragons skills (which again, like Chasselas, you either get it or you really, really don’t).

In frenzy of drinking our way through the Swiss countryside we took a day to drive to France – to Burgundy in particular. Where we enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy…) the oxidised white  wine style of Jura, explored the underground Disney villain-esque cellars of Burgundy, and ended the day with a visit to Clos Vougeout, a massive 50,4 ha single vineyard of Pinot noir.

Our time in Switzerland came to end and we said au revoir to the green landscape, Mount Blanc and Chasselas and shouted Hola to Espaňa!

Starting at the north of Spain we experienced our first taste of true Spanish wines. From the old-world cellar which, to put it delicately did not know what cellar hygiene was, to the clean-shaven, oxidation-phobic bodega we could not have picked two more contrasting wineries to visit. The petri-dish cellar, overgrown with penicilium and other fungi even David Attenborough wouldn’t talk about, produced some distinct metallic wines (possibly as a result of the flour/blood combo still used to treat the fermentation barrels) while the Taylor Swift (young, trendy, expensive and high maintenance) cellar produced full-bodied, fruity Tempranillos which suited the South African palate like a brandy and coke on night out.

In the middle of Spain we experienced the Spanish culture, starting with tapas and sightseeing and ending (like any self-professed Stellenbosch student would) with the debauchery of the Spanish nightlife where even the chaperones Despacito-ed the night away.

Further south we started to hit the top shelf of the liquor cabinet. While some still can’t drink brandy without the bitter memories of first year’s bad decisions  the rest enjoyed learning about the similarities between the South African and Spanish brandy-making methods (with a discrete scoff and “Nah, South African’s better hey” when out of earshot of the winemaker). The sherry tasting was more successful, with a flick of his wrist and a long silver taster (which personally I think was a wand because you’ve got to be magical to pour sherry like that without spilling) the winemaker poured barrel testers for us into glasses 1m below.

We ended the trip with an excursion to the eastern coast of Spain. And what better way to end off a trip of a life-time than to be supplied with bubbly in Barcelona? The tour through the 6 storey riddling and aging cellar for one of the Cava producers rivalled the 4 storey night club in Madrid.

Finally we returned, with impressive technical knowledge, damaged livers, a higher tolerance for alcohol, international connections, a close knit group of friends and an eagerness to blow up the wine industry with our dreams of installing cranes in cellars, oxidising white wines and planting Chasselas.

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Grape juice: a Microbial battle field

A sip of context: In one of our Oenology modules we are learning about the biochemical makeup of grape juice and how the yeast is built to combat the difficult environment it’s placed in and still manages to produce the glorious product of wine.

Jerry, an unsuspecting Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast, was produced the normal way, along with all his 1×106 brothers was frozen and stored. A happy life, he was content to sit and wait until his strain was chosen to go to the cellar. Some called the cellar the Promised land, others called it the battle field. Either way Jerry knew his life would never be the same, he was no longer allowed to sit idly by; he would have to live up to his potential.

The protective bag he had once called home was cut open; a giant scoop bore down on him and a sample of his kin. They were then placed in a warm liquid, all the while enjoying the change in temperature. A strange powder was pored over them, suddenly the cells were filled with energy, Jerry thought to himself ‘this must be that energetic yeast nutrient we’ve heard about’. A larger yeast cell made his presence known: “Attention cells! You are no longer in your small protective bags anymore! You are now part of a population, we are expected to expand and grow for the next 10 days, but first a test. You will be exposed to the harshest environment you could ever imagine; Sauvignon Blanc. We are talking a pH of 2.9 and an acidity of 10.11 g/l. There will be sulphur, there will be other microbes that want to take our supplies and through all of this, if we succeed we will die anyway. This is your chance to shine, this is your purpose, are you ready!?”

Jerry was tentative, however the yeast nutrient made him feel strong; he could feel his cell membrane expanding and his size increasing. He was ready.

The first wave of Sauvignon Blanc was on its way.  Still exposed to the heat, Jerry could feel his energy increasing, he watched the skies as the Sauvignon blanc rained down on them. A couple of his brothers fell as soon as the juice touched them. Others wavered a little; however the majority of them, including Jerry, remained strong. The bigger cell was right, the conditions were harsher than imaginable, but in same environment there was plenty of nitrogen and sugar for Jerry to use.

Glucose, a beautiful six carbon chain emerged in front of Jerry, he actively transported it into his system, hoping it would form something none toxic. That was the catch 22, he had to consume it to survive, but what it produced all depended on his internal environment.  On the horizon he spotted an amino acid, it wasn’t proline so he knew he could consume it. He couldn’t believe his luck, amino acids were in high demand now that the population had expanded to a little over 1×107 and showed few signs of slowing down. Actively he consumed the amino acid; fortunately it was a branch chain amino acid; meaning it would go through transamination and oxidation to form a fatty acid, from there it would react with ethanol and become something beautiful: an ethyl ester.

Thinking about the lovely smell surrounding him, he was grateful that some of the ethanol was consumed to make it. The ethanol had been increasing at an alarming rate, so much so that the microbes he once considered competition had already died off.

A day later the population had already reached 1×108 cells. Nitrogen was in very short supply and the sugar reserves were depleting. The environment had become harsher, the sugar that once sustained them had been converted into alcohol, and the only way to get some nitrogen was to scavenge from the husk of what was once a yeast cell. Everywhere Jerry turned he saw one of his kin, trying to absorb as much sugar as possible, with the hope it would turn into a flavour compound and not something toxic.

Jerry began feeling weak; he could no longer oxidize fatty acids to expand his membrane and walls. The acid levels were high and the sugar levels were low. Glycerol made movement difficult and the ethanol levels started to get to him.

All though the environment was harsh, it smelt nice, sort of like cut grass on a summer’s day mixed with dashes of stone fruit and citrus. This is what that big cell must have been talking about, what Jerry and his clan have been working for, for all this time. Jerry started to sink to the bottom and settled in a layer of husks, although this was the end he was satisfied that he had achieved his purpose: he created a fantastic wine, and his legacy would last for months or even years to come.

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Cellar vs Garage

Recently, I was lucky enough to be gifted a wine-making kit, from my grandfather. Being a winemaking student, I couldn’t fight off the excitement and curiosity to give garage-fermenting a bash. Before getting too excited and starting this home-ferment experiment, I would strongly recommend doing a little bit of research.

After making wine in a cellar, the poor wine-kit’s instruction manual was subjected to a lot of scrutiny from my side. For start, what appeared to be a rather fun and easy task turned out to be a lot more complicated than I had hoped it would be. After consulting with my ‘Yeast Prof’, ‘MLF Prof” and ‘Wine Prof’, we had concluded that, for the sake of producing a drinkable wine, I would have to deviate from the wine-kit’s original instructions. Topping up my Shiraz reserve with water on a regular basis just wasn’t going to cut it for this young lady!

A few helpful tips to keep in mind when attempting a home ferment, regardless of what the bizarre instruction manual recommends: The instruction manual will tell you to thoroughly read and follow instructions; do not fall for this trickery! If you are uncertain about something, I would definitely suggest asking someone in the industry for their opinion, if you are new to the winemaking-game and are using the kit as your first attempt at making wine, don’t hesitate to ask Google.

Using a beer kit fermenter is recommended, it is easy to clean, store and already comes with a fermentation/bubble cap. Winter is the perfect time of the year to use your garage as a type of cold room for a white wine fermentation, the cooler temperatures act as a natural and more cost-effective cooling system for your fermenter. In summer, I think red wine would be a better option due to the much warmer and more ideal temperatures.

The kit I have strongly suggests (they tell you…) that you rack your wine a few days after inoculation. They reason that this is due to the secondary fermentation that should occur straight after fermentation, yet they supply consumers with no malolactic-bacteria and the Shiraz reserve is pasteurized. It is also said that one should rack again after an additional 10 days, a full secondary fermentation/MLF in 10 days? – A winemaker’s dream! I would therefore skip this step altogether, this also lowers the risk of oxidation inside your fermenter and increases the palatability of the final product.

During the garage winemaking process, I would also suggest that you collect as many empty wine bottles as possible. It isn’t necessary to buy new bottles, as you can sanitise the used ones before filling and sealing them with a cork. Corks can be sourced online and are also fairly inexpensive. If you prefer beer to wine, fear not, you can also use beer bottles and screw caps. These offer a perfectly sized portion of wine (2 glasses) and can be enjoyed chilled, straight out of the bottle! If using screw caps, it is important to remember that wine can continue fermenting in the bottle, even if fermentation appears to be complete, for this reason I would suggest that you drink the wine as soon as possible.

It is incredibly difficult to produce a faultless wine from one of these kits, due to the constant risk of contamination as well as a higher oxidation risk. It is my personal belief that any garage winemaker that can produce a drinkable final product, should consider furthering their skills by taking a winemaking course or making wine in a cellar. If your wine isn’t drinkable, remember that you can always cook with it instead!

Garage winemaking is incredibly fun but unfortunately falls short in comparison to the cellar. There is nothing quite as exciting as hand selecting your grapes and being elbow deep in fermenting skins and juice doing punchdowns.

After my first harvest, I quickly learned to stop apologising to every winemaker I met for my tannin and red-wine stained hands, mostly because everyone else’s hands looked exactly the same! Feeling small berries burst as you push down on the crush-cake in the basket press and watching deep purple droplets splatter out against your ‘harvest jeans’ cannot be replaced by diluting grape must in your garage.

It is also a lot easier to control the wine and fermentation process in a cellar, with Carbon Dioxide tanks at the ready to combat oxidation, and temperature regulated tanks to ensure optimal fermentation conditions, it’s hard to go wrong. Winemaking is by no means an easy task, you are constantly kept on your toes and have to watch your wines like a parent watches a pre-schooler with a pair of scissors – on high alert and ready to pounce if something goes wrong.

I don’t think anything can quite compare to the anticipation of popping the bung on an oak barrel, religiously checking up on your wines and watching them improve weekly. Wood chips in a plastic fermenter just aren’t the same. If you are a wine enthusiast, a wine drinker or even just perhaps a curious bystander, the garage wine-kit can be a very exciting and new process to try. If you are a winemaker, it may be a bit difficult to overlook the minor things like, “do not rehydrate the yeast” or “leave an air gap of about 1 litre”, but I would like to encourage and challenge you to give it a go. Even if the final product isn’t amazing, it is still a very entertaining and enjoyable experiment!

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The jetsetter

During the June/July holidays, I had the privilege of traveling to Dublin, located in the heart Ireland country; it truly was a breath taking experience. Being a wine lover/maker, it was my first opportunity to really get a grip on whether or not international wine (Irish wine) was worth bragging about. During my short stay in Ireland, I ate too much and spent most of my time trying to get past their self-proclaimed beer and ever enriching Irish culture.

Oh yes, wine, well in my personal opinion, which is an opinion that means quite a lot to me from time to time, I could not understand how the Irish got their famous phrase, “The luck of the Irish”, if wine is so far down there To-Drink-List. However, I looked past this little blunder of theirs and decided to pack as much as I could into the short 8 days I was there for.

So let’s face the facts here, we would all much rather crack open a full bodied, high tannin wine and enjoy it over some good company, thick steak and a light salad, sprinkled with balsamic sauce. Guinness Pints were at the forefront, along with imported beer form Amsterdam, which I highly enjoyed. Traveling to any country abroad and being proudly South African, you will always have moments where you reminisce about your homelands, as our summers and farmland atmospheres that are decorated with green vineyard patterns mountain views are hard to forget.

Ireland and me got on just fine, as I fell in love with the finer details that lined the inner city of Dublin. On my 3rd day, I was quite sick of drinking their delicious beer, so I decided to do a quick personal research manoeuvre at a local grocery store. In desperate need of a bottle of red, I scanned the shelves from top to bottom and ended up buying an imported French bottle of wine for €8.99. Okay, so it was French, but being so close to France I might as well. Needless to say, the cheapest bottle of wine did not meet my expectations.

While drinking my overpriced French wine under the night haze of Dublin, I could not come to grips with the fact that 5th century monks at the Cistercian monastery in Co. Kilkenny planted vineyards, attempting to produce wine, but today, Ireland’s wine industry is not one to write home about. Strangely enough, Ireland is now listed as a wine producing country and has actually benefitted from global warming, slowly heating up their 2 weeks of sun they call their summer. With global warming heating things up, the country has slowing been emptying its pints to fill it up with ‘Lusca’ as it is commonly known as. Lusca is an Irish wine produced by David Llewellyn in Lusk County, Northern Ireland.  I was unfortunately unable to get my hands on a bottle of Lusca.

Besides the Lusca, another wine that caught my attention was Móinéir. Winemakers, Pam and Brett (originally from Napa Valley, California) are responsible for establishing fruit wines in the Wicklow Mountains. They produce two types of wine being, strawberry wine and blackberry wine blended wild elderberry juice. They use up to a 150 berries per bottle of wine which celebrates Ireland’s beauty and bountiful countryside. A bottle of Móinéir roughly costs between €20 to €25.

Before I knew it I was boarding the plane back to South Africa, I was very pleased to discover that a full 3 seat row waiting for me. During take-off I immediately fell asleep. Upon waking up half an hour later I was unpleasantly surprised to find a gentleman sitting at the end of my row.

A few hours later, the man leaned over and tapped me on the shoulder. We got chatting and I soon learnt that he was from India on a three-day business trip with his colleagues. They had previously been on an airplane for nine hours, six more to go.

Later that evening an air hostess passed us and ask if we wanted anything to drink. So I, of course being wine deprived, asked for a glass of wine. My friend from India did the same. He explained that he was not a wine drinker and it was not common in India. I explained to him that I am studying BSc Viticulture and Oenology in Stellenbosch. By the time we reached Cape Town we were three glasses in and had exchanged travel itineraries. I told him to try to make time for a wine tasting or two and recommended a few farms in Stellenbosch and emphasised the Constantia wine route, seeing as it is the oldest wine route in South Africa.

Surprisingly, a few days later I received an email form my Indian friend informing me that he and his colleagues were on their way back to India. He closed off his email stating his newly found love for wine. I felt very proud and even more impressed with South Africa and our high quality wines and wine makers.

During my short trip, I learned that wine is the true jetsetter. Breaking down international boarders and creating the perfect opportunity to start a conversation with a stranger. South African summers are happy warm and festive where in Ireland I learned that even the coldest of summers can produce something heart-warming.

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