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New World Wine Maker Blog - New World Wine Making Students

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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Is barrel aging even ethical?

Yes, I know that does sounds like clickbait. While it may seem I am writing a promotion piece for Greenpeace, or a stainless steel tank company, this piece is coming a different angle, so to speak. In fact, I cannot even name a steel tank company off-hand. The title question may send tingles of annoyance, or smirks of dismissal, but it begs the question: is barrel aging in new oak a flavour enhancer? Well, yes, factually this is true. Is it cheating, in so far as creating a product not created from grapes, and thus….fraud? Yes, but no one cares – and that’s frankly over dramatic and hyperbolic. However, lets explore…

Not too long ago, a scandal took place, involving flavour additives/concentrates being added to Sauvignon blanc. The concentrate was wholly organic – pressed straight from a fruit, or blended or whatever. The details differ, the source material (the fruit) remains the same. The process and product was harmless. The offense lay in the perversion of industrial honesty, whatever that is.

Bureaucracy is a theatre stage, the paperwork props and curtains can often distort right from wrong; presentation and delivery often create their own morality. Our friends above were none too subtle, had they used pepper stems or something a little more creative, I’m sure their careers may be more intact.

In my opinion – and I think this is indisputable, when scrutinised – barrel extraction and pouring green pepper concentrate into wine are identical process, when we speak in terms of intentions. They are both literal flavour additions, the latter technique just lacks refinement. Yes, barrels have a multitude of other benefits, most notably, micro-oxidation, but the toasted oak extraction is often the most desired benefit – else, why spend such money on new oak? As a point of consideration, micro-oxidation might also seem like a flavour additive, but now you can see the rabbit hole digging itself. We shall remain more direct in our examples.

Moving to something less direct, but far more profound, we can consider sulphur. The effect sulphur dioxide has on wine is without parallel, hence its ubiquity. It’s an antioxidant, antiseptic and a colour stabiliser. A wine with a good sulphur wack six months down the line, tastes very different from one without. The common mantra is that a bit of sulphur keeps the wine’s integrity. From here, we start to enter the realms of metaphysics: sulphur is a preservative, it cuckolds oxygen and bullies microbes, as such, it keeps the flavour mutators at bay and therefore, whatever flavours that were there already, in place. So are we preserving grapes or are we creating wine? Wine is not grape juice, it has been transformed. We strive so hard to preserve these grape flavours with careful oenology, and yet try equally hard to ensure our wine is as wine-like as possible. Something of a paradox.

Setting the riddle of sulphur aside, its pure effects are powerful. Furthermore, sulphur itself is a nasty chemical to boot, and yet we allow it. While I have got sidetracked on the issues above, the takeaway message is one of hypocrisy. Some products are permitted for manipulation of wine and some are not, for seemingly inconsistent reasoning. Some have more direct flavour effects than others, though direct or indirect it doesn’t matter, the only reason something would be added to wine would be to influence the organoleptic properties of the wine, as that is the ultimate purpose of the stuff. Wood has heritage, sulphur is too important to skip. Adding green pepper juice is perhaps just a push too obvious, too direct, too in slavery to marketing: an offense to the art. There seems to be a line here, that divides wrong from right, but it is very skew.

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Uncorking Hidden Treasures

For the novice wine drinker, the world of wine can be quite a daunting place. With all the lingo and jargon like tannins, blanc de noir and terroir, it can be as confusing as learning a new language. And then we haven’t even talked about the wines themselves yet. The endless amounts of cultivars out there might make it seem like an impossible task to familiarise yourself with them. But, as with learning a new language, all it takes is practice, practice and more practice! As I have written a previous blog about the most common wine cultivars in South Africa (see http://www.newworldwinemaker.com/2017/01/an-easy-guide-to-cultivar-identification/ ), I thought it would be good to tell you a bit more about the lesser known cultivars that you might stumble upon at one of our amazing wine farms. And once again, the pronunciation of the names will also take practice, practice, practice.

Viognier (“vee-own-yay”)

This white grape variety has its origins in France, but its popularity here in SA has grown substantially over the last couple of years. The wines made from this cultivar can be slightly on the heavier side of the white wine spectrum. It leans more towards the creaminess of a Chardonnay than the crisp of a Sauvignon blanc, although it can be made in both a creamy and a fruitier style. The goldish colour of this wine is reminiscent of autumn sunsets and that happens to be the perfect time to enjoy this wine (according to me, at least). Aromas of tropical fruits, rose petals and orange blossoms fill your nose when you swirl the golden liquid in your glass and you might experience flavours of ripe peaches, mango or honeysuckle when you take a sip. These grapes are often used in blends to compliment other wines, but it is truly remarkable when it shines on its own.

Sémillon (“sem-ih-yon”)

This very underappreciated white grape is also originally from France, but it was one of the very first grape varieties to make its way to the Cape with the settlers. At one stage, almost 90% of South Africa’s vineyards were planted under Sémillon. But for some, mysterious reason, its popularity declined so much that it is hardly a speck on our statistics now. Some smart people in the industry believe that it might be because of its similarities to Chardonnay and that the old golden girl herself, just out competed the more modest and delicate Sémillon. Much like Chardonnay and Viognier, this cultivar produces wines that are full-bodied and flavoursome, but the flavours you might experience are on the fresher, fruitier side. Green apple, lemon and papaya are just some of these delectable flavours commonly described for these wines. Like Sauvignon blanc, the flavours and also mouth-feel of the wine is determined by the climate the grapes are grown under, i.e. a warm climate or a cool climate. Cool climate Sémillon tends to be more fresh, fruity and crisp, whereas Sémillon from hotter regions are a bit heavier with a creamy or buttery profile. This is the style most commonly found in SA. Its susceptibility to noble rot also makes it a great cultivar to use for dessert wines, like the famous Sauternes from France.

Pinot gris (“pee-noh-gree”)

Although many people believe this cultivar originated in Italy, it too is actually from France. It is also known as Pinot grigio (“pee-noh-gree-joe”) in Italy, where it is one of the most adored wine grape varieties. Another interesting thing about this wine is that it is a white wine made from grey-red grapes. The wines made from these grapes are usually dry, crisp and fresh with excellent acidity. The flavours range from lemon-lime, green apple and nectarines, to riper styles of almonds and honeysuckle. These wines have been cast in the shadows by many wine critics for being “too simple”, but that is mostly because its popularity in Italy and America has led to the production of cheaper, mass produced wines of poorer quality. Luckily for us, we have been blessed with some very good Pinot gris from our own shores so keep a look out next time when you are in the supermarket.

Malbec (“mahl-bek”)

Although this cultivar is also from (you guessed it) France, you will not find many single cultivar Malbec wines in its country of origin. Instead, it is included as one of the five red grape varieties that are used to make Bordeaux style blends (the others are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet franc, Merlot noir and Petit Verdot). It did however, make a name for itself in the Mendoza region of Argentina in the 1800’s and to this day it is known as the home of Malbec wines. The wines that are produced from these grapes are a deep, purple-red colour and have fruity flavours that are dependant of the climate the grapes ripened in. Cooler climates will be more likely to produce wines with flavours of red fruits like cherries, raspberries and pomegranate, whereas warm climates might lead to the development of plum flavours, or blackcurrant. Other flavours that you might pick up on are tobacco, leather, chocolate, coffee and black pepper. Unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec does not have a long finish (astringent aftertaste), so it pairs very well with lean red meats. Can anyone say flame grilled ostrich burger and a big glass of Malbec? Yes, please!

Carignan (“care-in-yon”)

This medium-bodied red wine has recently become one of my favourites! Originally from France, where it is mostly grown in the Southern parts as a blending wine, this variety was under scrutiny for a long time, because like Sémillon, it used to have a bad reputation for being the main ingredient in some very badly produced bulk wines. But winemakers have gone back to some of the very old Carignan vines and realised that with time, these vines produced grapes of greater and greater quality- of course leading to better wines. Carignan is almost synonymous with fruit flavours like raspberries and cranberries. Nuances of baking spices, including cinnamon, nutmeg and star-anise are just some of the reasons why this wine is considered to be a favourite at Thanksgiving dinners in the United States. This is also why Carignan is famously known as “the food wine”. Its fruity, yet savoury flavours, medium-body and less bitter tannins allows it to compliment lighter dishes like turkey or duck, while it can also stand up to a hearty beef brisket. And although there aren’t many wineries in South Africa that produce Carignan, the ones that do, usually do it really well.

I hope this will inspire you to be a little adventurous when you are at your next wine tasting or just buying wine in the supermarket. There are many more interesting and exciting wine cultivars out there and they are all worth a try- at least once! And as they say; he who dares, win(e)s.

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