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New World Wine Maker Blog - New World Wine Making Students

Wine tasting: an endurance sport

Written by Geena Whiting

Any athlete would agree that one cannot simply succeed on talent alone. Practise is key to becoming one of the greats. One cannot simply wake up and decide to run a marathon or swim an endurance race that same day. Your body is not the only thing that needs to be trained, mental endurance plays a major factor in achieving anything.

Recently, I had the privilege of being invited to sit on a judging panel. What a fantastic opportunity, to be able to sit with outstanding members of the wine community and taste some of the best wines our country has to offer.

Sitting there bright eyed and bushy tailed I was blissfully unaware that I had just stepped onto the starting block that would put my mental endurance and my passion to the test.

Generally a standard tasting at a wine farm is 5 wines. Where you can sit with your friends and laugh and chat. You enjoy the ambiance as the time flies by, sometimes easily spending 10 – 15 minutes tasting one wine as you are immersed in conversation and taking in the view. It is easy for 2 hours to slip by without ever glancing at the time.

Each day of tasting was spanned over about 4 hours; one would assume this is ample time for a great tasting. However this was no ordinary tasting, the wines were bought to us, twelve glasses on a tray. Each wine had to be carefully analysed: if any faults were present, for colour intensity, aroma, taste on palate, mouth feel, linearity of the flavours, the body and balance of the wine and of course the finish. For any avid wine taster this may seem standard practise, I too thought (quite naïvely so) it would be easy enough to analyse a couple of wines and then break early for lunch, but the trays just kept coming, like a turbid ocean the waves never seemed to stop.

At wine 52, I could feel myself wavering and we had already had our tea break.

“Wine 53, wine 54, wine 58… wait… did I skip a few? I haven’t written any scores since wine 53! I can’t even recall whether I rated them highly or not… Do we seriously still have 20 more to do? This is harder than I thought it would be; I can’t do this.”

Many thoughts such as these passed through my head. I felt overwhelmed as I watched how the other judges analysed wine after wine with precision and accuracy; it seemed to be easy as breathing for them.

“I cannot give up.”

I recalibrated myself, had a cracker to cleanse my palate and a glass of water to wash it down.

“Deep breath, start from number 53…”

It was imperative that I applied my mind equally to every wine, to give each wine a fair opportunity for analysis and the chance to amaze me.

Everyone has preferences: Tea vs. Coffee, Soccer vs. Rugby, Cats Vs Dogs. The same obviously applies to wine: White vs. Red, Sweet vs. Dry, Cultivar vs. Cultivar.  Looking a bit deeper into wine there can even be preferences of different styles under a Cultivar, different styles such as  fruit driven,  oaky/spice driven, a wine trying to be true to its terroir, full bodied or light bodied. Even details down to cellar management/practises can be tasted and preferred in wines.

By wine 50, day 1, it became more difficult to judge the wines as naturally I favour a certain style over others. It was important to constantly recalibrate and give the wine credit for its specific style.

One must also be very aware of the possible terroir influences that the wine may present, i.e. is there a fault in the wine or is the wine simply representing its terroir. Is the wine degrading and showing early onset tertiary characteristics or is it displaying qualities due to poor cellar practises. All of these things needed to be constantly contemplated whilst tasting quantities of wine on such magnitude.

The more and more I taste and learn, the more I realise how little I know and the more excited I get to learn more. Aspiring sommeliers and wine makers, the only thing we can do to improve our tasting skills and our mental endurance when it comes to fully analysing wines, is to taste more wines and when I say taste, I don’t mean to simply visit more wine farms. We must sit and analyse the wines we drink over a meal, we must organize tastings with our colleges, we must become more exposed to wines not just in or immediate region but from all the wine regions this country has to offer. The only way to improve our palate and become mentally stronger is to taste and analyse more.

Each wine, like a snowflake, is unique. Quality cannot be based on preference. One must have a keen mind and a good understanding of wines and wine faults. Which is why in my opinion to judge and taste many wines of the same cultivar in that have been made with different stylistic approaches requires the mental endurance of an athlete.

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Wine not?

With the heart of winter looming heavily over the wine producing regions of South Africa and the coldest part of the year slowly creeping in, red wine shows a higher preference amongst its consumers. South Africans are already well-acquainted with our beautifully crafted, full bodied and spicy red noble cultivars, but few are aware of their lesser known tantalizing relatives.

The chill of winter can often be fought off with a tot (or two) of port, now known as Cape Vintage, especially if said winter-delicacy is accompanied by a roaring, wood-crackling fire. Few consumers know that one of the major Cape Vintage producing cultivars, Touriga-Naςional, also produces a full-bodied varietal wine, driven by dark fruit and a smooth mouth feel, that is just as welcoming on a chilly winter’s eve.

So, instead of grabbing the well-known bottle of Pinotage, leaning into the comfort of a hearty glass of Cabernet Sauvignon or welcoming the familiar pizazz of a Shiraz, I want to encourage and challenge you to try something new and different. As you reach for that less familiar bottle of Touriga-Naςional, Malbec or Mourvèdre, think, “Wine not!”.

The next time you venture out to one of our many well-known wine retail stores, take a closer look at the order in which wine is shelved. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to note that even South African retailers have recently taken to the increase in non-noble varietal wines and no longer shelve these wines together. Each cultivar now has its own section! I love being able to approach a section in a shop and know exactly where to find the Touriga-Naςional, Malbec or Mourvèdre. This leaves us, avid wine consumers, with an increased awareness of these wines. This also boosts their popularity and familiarity in the market because they are more visible in stores.

Our winemakers are now beginning to challenge larger wine producing countries like Argentina and Chile, by producing outstanding varietal wines from cultivars, that were previously better known for their excellent blending capabilities. You may have heard of some of these cultivars before, Barbera and Malbec for example, were previously used in blends mainly for their beautiful and deep colouration, which often added extra colour to lighter cultivar wines. Malbec, a familiar Bordeaux style cultivar, is fast proving that it can in fact find its legs, without the help of its four well known blending counterparts (Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot).

Elegant and full bodied SMV and SMG Rhône style blends have also shown face in the South African wine industry, both blends sharing a mutual cultivar of Spanish origin, Mourvèdre. This cultivar is certainly capable of creating beautiful varietal wines and is no longer considered for the sole purpose of blending. The typical wine characteristics of Mourvèdre include aromas of liquorice, violets, dark fruits and a long, lingering finish on the palate. If you ever get stuck while trying to identify a glass of red wine, Mourvèdre is most recognisable by its predominant ‘anys’ or liquorice aromas.

Familiarising yourself with these cultivars can be quite entertaining too! I often catch myself and other inquisitive wine-lovers pronouncing these unfamiliar cultivar names with a dash of Italian, Spanish and French flair on the tongue. This becomes increasingly fun after a glass or two of wine, after which creative pronunciations and various accents begin to surface. Malbec, for example, is an easy wine to integrate into our South African ways, simply by remembering that the wine is indeed, “Mal-in-my-bek”. A wine like Barbera rolls off one’s tongue, Barrr-Ber-rah, much like the wine rolls over one’s taste buds with fruity and spicy notes. Mourvèdre, also a bold wine, offers an almost tantalizing tango of flavours that dance on the palate much like the sound of the word itself.

If the winter chill does not deter you from drinking white wine, fear not! Cultivars such as Roussanne, Riesling, Viognier and Gewürztraminer are also on the rise. Many of these white wine producing cultivars are packed with fruity, floral and Muscat-like aromas that have proven to be particularly refreshing on a warm summer’s day. If the good and trusted Chardonnay and Chenin blanc no longer excite you, try something new and different. New cultivars are constantly introduced into the South African market, one of the most recent and lesser known cultivars being of Austrian origin, Grüner Veltliner. This cultivar produces softer wines, displaying an almost hybrid flavour profile combination between Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay. In America, this cultivar is more well-known as Gru-v, a rather fitting name for a very groovy wine!

One of the rarest white wine cultivars in the world, produced by less than five South African wineries, is Bukettraube. With only seventy odd hectares of Bukettraube left in the world, approximately sixty-eight of which are planted in South Africa, it is a wine not to miss out on. This unique wine is not only a blast to attempt pronouncing, it is also equally packed with a blast of crisp stone fruit flavours and a refreshing acidity on the palate.

Popping the cork on a bottle of one of these ‘bad-boys’ can add something unique to any experience. Whether its experimenting with friends and family at a braai or impressing a first-date at dinner with your wine knowledge, bringing something different to the table can be a fun and memorable experience for both you and those close to you.

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A Dear John Letter to Balling meters

Dearest balling meter,

Our relationship has always been a delicate one.  You have been there when I needed you and have offered me insight and support when everything around me was in pandemonium.

But it has also been a hazardous relationship.

You have always been around. Gathering dust in a draw for 9 months of the year only to be yanked out and used by a novice but you see past my fumbling moments when I have been dense. Because that’s what you do. You take density and calibrate the sweetness.

We saw each other every day. Twice a day. For three months. Every morning I would walk into the cool cellar still sleepy and tired from the labour of harvest the day before and there you would be – waiting for me in the lab, ready to be plunged into 30 samples of cold white fermenting must. Then again at the end of day – covered in a mess of sugar and yeast I would return to you and we would complete our bi-daily ritual.

It’s not you – it’s me. I was too young. I didn’t have years of experience. Our interaction was still one of bustling activity and commotion. Everything was going at full speed. I did not give you the gentle nurturing care of an experienced winemaker living their glory years in the cellar.

And that is how I broke you.

The first time it happened I was so scared. I did not mean to break you so brutally. I was worried. What would people say? How would we survive without your utility and convenience? I did not realise the fragile state in which you existed. I promptly promised never again to break you and I intended to fulfil that promise.

But then it happened again. This time it happened by dropping you from the stainless steel stairs.

It was so quick. We seemed fine but then I turned my back and you rolled away from me. I only heard the soft tinkle as you shattered on the dark orange tiles near the robust red wine tanks.

The third, fourth and fifth time became a blur. I could not say how or when it happened. Only that it did. Each time the clean-up became swifter; gathering glass in tissue paper; rinsing the floor or any discarded shards apparent of your destroyed state… and finally the hasty disposal of any evidence which could be incriminating.

You are a luxury I cannot afford. I am a student living off a measly intern salary. My idea of a luxurious date night involves going to Spur on a day when the two for one special isn’t on. So, I can’t afford your R500 aesthetic upkeep. No matter how pretty you come in your new packaging and the beautiful slip of calibration paper that accompanies you.

The cellar has always been the hub of chaos and dishevelment. To be honest I don’t know how managed to survive through the mayhem of previous harvests. You are far too delicate to survive in this robust environment. It’s a tough world and your lack of tough exterior is the fatal flaw in your design.

But I know why we keep you around. You offer a valuable service by tracking the rate of our tricky friend, fermentation. There is no better tool to measure density and we would be lost without your guidance.  Without you we have no way of knowing when to add our nutrients. When to adjust temperatures. When to rack. You are the decision-maker and because of that you are irreplaceable.

So I ask you. Why are you designed this way? Why are you made of flimsy glass and filled with mercury? I have heard it is the only way you work. Archimedes first uncovered the secret to your success when he stated his buoyancy principle. Thomas Thomson knew what he was doing when he designed the shape and material of your frame. Winemakers celebrated when they realised the impact of your function.  Your way of determining specific gravity is nothing short of remarkable.

You have been there for tiring times and I am indebted to you – as is every other cellar worker, intern, winemaker and cellar master. But our relationship cannot survive. You deserve someone who will treat you better and I need someone who will not break so easily.

I have been told that I am the weak link in our partnership; my mentor has only broken you once in 17 years.  Maybe one day I will be able to treat you with the respect you deserve – fulfilling your purpose in life. And I will be happy knowing you have done your job so that I may do mine.

 

Yours sincerely

The intern who broke you

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Deciphering the language that is wine

We’ve all been there. Sitting in a wine tasting room and wondering by ourselves when the tasting presenter walks away from the table- “What on earth did he just say?” From tannins to lees to blanc de blancs, I have to admit that the wine industry has not always made it easy for consumers to understand what they are talking about. As the “wine language” was developed in Old World wine countries (mostly European countries that have been making wine for many centuries), a lot of the terms are in French, Italian and Spanish. But there are also quite a few scientific terms that wine presenters sometimes use that can be just as confusing as something spoken in another language. To the average person these terms and phrases might seem intimidating and that is why I decided to write this article. These are only a few of the most common, but yet confusing, terms that I get asked to explain often to my friends and family.

Anthocyanins: A chemical pigment found in plants that give leaves and fruit a red, blue or purple colour. Skins of red grapes are abundant in these compounds and they are responsible for the colour of red wine.

Aroma: The smell of a wine that is sensed by sniffing through the nose. Usually refers to the smell that is inherent to the grapes as opposed to smells that developed through barrel aging (referred to as bouquet).

Barrique: An oak barrel that is used for aging wine and holds approximately 225 L.

Blanc de blanc: A white wine that is made entirely from white grapes as opposed to a white wine that also contains red grape varieties.

Blanc de noir: A white wine that is made from red or black grape varieties. The juice is squeezed from the grapes and fermented without the skins. These wines may also have a light pink hue.

Bordeaux blend: A wine that is made by blending at least two of the traditional grape varieties that are grown in the Bordeaux region of France. These include Cabernet franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Petit verdot.

Brut: Refers to a very dry sparkling wine or Champagne.

Claret: A term that refers to red wines from the Bordeaux region of France.

Cooper: A person that is skilled in the art of making wine barrels.

Decanting: The process of gently pouring wine from the original bottle to a different container (called a decanter or carafe) to separate the wine from its sediment and allows the wine to be oxidised. It is important to let the bottle stand upright for a period of time to allow the sediment to settle at the bottom of the bottle before decanting.

Demi-sec: A French term that refers to a semi-sweet wine.

Enology or Oenology: The science and study of winemaking.

Fermentation: The process that turns grape juice into wine through the conversion of sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide by yeast.

Fortified wine: A wine that has an alcohol content between 15 and 22 percent alcohol by volume which was obtained by alcoholic fermentation of grape juice and the addition of brandy or another wine spirit.

Late harvest: A term used to describe wines that are made from grapes that were harvested later than normal, usually with a higher sugar content (Brix). These wines are usually sweet, dessert-style wines.

Lees: The sediment that remains in the tank or barrel during and after fermentation has completed. This includes dead yeast cells, grape seeds, skins, stems, pulp and harmless tartrate crystals. Usually the gross lees is separated from the wine through a process called racking after fermentation has concluded. In some cases wine is left to age for an extended period whilst still in contact with the dead yeast cells (fine lees). This can enhance a wine’s complexity and add richness.

Legs: The viscous droplets that can be seen on the inside of a wine glass when the wine is swirled. It usually indicates a wine that is full-bodied with a fair amount of alcohol.

Method Cap Classique (MCC): The traditional method that is used to make sparkling wines that are fermented in the bottle. This is the same method that is used to make Champagne.

Noble rot: A mould called Botrytis cinerea that grows on ripe wine grapes under specific climatic conditions. It dehydrates the grapes which causes the sugars and flavours inside the berries to concentrate. The wines made from these grapes are rich, complex and usually has a high sugar content.

Oxidized: A term that describes a wine that has been exposed to oxygen (air) and has turned a brownish colour, lost its freshness and now has a honeyed or Sherry-like character.

Resveratrol: A natural chemical compound that is found in wine and grape skins as well as many other foods including blueberries and peanuts. It has been shown to have many health benefits including protection against cancer, cardiovascular diseases, Alzheimer’s, type-2 diabetes and many others.

Rosé: These are wines that have a pink or salmon-coloured hue. They are made from red grapes that have had limited contact with the grape skins, giving rise to the lighter colour.

Tannins: Natural chemical compounds that are most prominent in red wines and gives wine a “rough” taste. It is mostly derived from the skins, stems and seeds of grapes, but also from oak barrels. It is important in adding structure and facilitates the aging of wine.

Terroir: A French term that is used to describe the multi-faceted interaction and relationship between the vine, soil, climate and topography of a specific site that influences the ultimate wine character.

Vintage: Refers to the year in which the grapes were harvested and the wine was made.

Viticulture: The science, study and cultivation of grapes and grapevines.

Umami: Considered to be the fifth taste sensation. Usually referred to as the “savoury” taste as it is found in most savoury foods including mushrooms, cured meats and soy sauce. It is also sometimes tasted in wines.

Hopefully now you will be able to decipher exactly what your wine presenter is talking about at your next wine tasting. And if you forget or still don’t know, ASK! There was little I enjoyed more when I worked in a tasting room than sharing the knowledge I had and I’m sure most other tasting room staff feel the same. Besides, at some stage, we didn’t know anything either.

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Red or white?

Which is superior? “Red, obviously” says John Doe, 56, father of 3, and executive wine selection director of the weekly grocery run. “It has just got more too it. Unless it’s good, white wine is just cool-drink”. Thanks, John. Well, there you have it: a first-hand account from a made-up person designed to represent common opinion.

He/I does have a point, I should like to think. There is a general perception of red wine being the more bespoke of the two options. Look at most wine auctions and the most expensive is the big red wine. Speak to consumers and you may hear a chime of “I’m not much of a wine drinker, I only like whites because they’re light” or something from our friend John Doe’s line of rhetoric – an unsubstantiated claim that red wine is the connoisseur’s choice.

Perhaps white wine is more accessible, it certainly is lighter by the very nature of its production. It’s also served cool, or with ice, as if to imply it’s only a refreshment, and therefore, perhaps less of an acquired taste as red wine might be, as if red wine requires a more experienced drinker to appreciate. This only seems to apply from the point of view of an entry level wine drinker – and not one whom might participate on a wine auction, so this argument doesn’t seem to provide insight.

From a winemaking point of view, red wine production is the more interventionist of the two processes during the fermentation process, due to the skin extraction (skin-contact white wines are not participating in the argument today, sorry!). This doesn’t mean red wine is more difficult to produce, it is simply a technically unique production process. In fact, often the high flavour extraction and “oak-ability” of reds provides room to hide faults – smoke taint, for example – and could thus imply a larger room for error in red wine production, and therefore an easier job. This is simply one argument, not my universal opinion. It just provides a retort on the side of white wine.

Ageability could be the crux: reds seem to have an easier time aging, tannins providing timely rewards and oxidative protection. White wines, particularly in South Africa, need a delicate cellaring. Ironically, the average bottle of wine doesn’t make it 24 hours past purchase, let-alone into a viable aging cellar!

Personally, I believe it is the romance. Red wine is visually sensuous; it reminds us of Vatican paintings. It’s texture is fuller, and more alien to us, when recalling any other drink we may have had before. Everything about it is hedonistic, and we all, deep down, love that feeling. White wine seems to have lost out on the indulgence connotation, downgraded to red wine’s warm-up act, exiled to the domain of Gin and Tonic: a housewife (or husband’s) drink. Put in it’s context though, if you go to Germany – Riesling is king! Give me a line-up of 50 South African wines choosing one by cultivar alone, I’ll say “Chenin” without hesitation.

But what do I know, these are just the ramblings of a new world winemaking student still finding my way in the ‘Universe of Wine’!

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Nutritional Wine Labels: The New Best Way to Lose Weight

A couple of months ago I started following a strict eating plan in order to shed some extra kilos. This plan, however, requires me to keep track of my daily calorie intake and output as to stay under a specific amount of net calories per day. This is all fine and dandy as the app that I am using can scan barcodes which makes the process of keeping track quite easy. But it wasn’t long before I found myself with quite the predicament- I can’t accurately count the calories in my glass of wine. And being the wine lover that I am, this is a serious problem. Yes, they do have generic examples of how many calories there would be in a glass of dry red wine (it can be anywhere between 110 and 200 calories), but being the scientist that I am, a guesstimate is not quite going to cut it. And why on earth in this day and age do wine and other alcoholic beverage labels not have nutritional information on them yet? It seems that everything else has them. An investigation is required!

So it turns out that in Europe and specifically in the UK, they are making some progress to include nutritional information such as calories on wine labels. Popular supermarkets in Britain are already including this information on their own bottled wines. Although the inclusion of nutrient information is not enforced by the European Union yet, it seems they want to encourage wineries and producers to come up with their own solution to the problem before penning down a new policy.

This is all very good news for a calorie counter such as myself, but I still can’t help to wonder why the wine industry is so hesitant to make this information available to the public. Do we not deserve to know what we are putting into our bodies? I don’t think this is the primary concern of the industry. I can only speculate, but the inclusion of nutritional information might seem like a counter intuitive action because it might lead to a decrease in wine sales. The thought is probably that consumers will drink less wine if they are aware of how many calories it contains. In the industry’s defence, I would say that is a fair assumption to make and there will be people that will think twice before finishing a bottle on their own after they have had a look at what is in it.  But isn’t that also an issue that is important to the industry? Promoting responsible drinking? Perhaps it is a good thing if that label stops someone that still has to drive home after the party from opening a second bottle.

Whatever the case may be, I personally look forward to the day when nutritional information is going to be included on wine labels, because let’s be honest it is inevitable. Until then, I will keep enjoying my glass(es) of wine- in moderation, of course- as it is still a better option calorie-wise than most other alcoholic beverages like beer, ciders and your favourite (I truly hope not) brandy & coke.

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