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New World Wine Maker Blog - New World Wine Making Students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Hard-Working Hands of Harvest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When in Drought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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