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New World Wine Maker Blog - New World Wine Making Students

Absolutely Positively Patriotic About Pinotage

I have never believed in coincidence. And I have never believed as strongly in that statement as I do when I talk about the existence of Pinotage. A series of very lucky and very fortunate events or a well-orchestrated blessing in disguise? I will tell the story so you can decide for yourself.

It all began one glorious day in the Boland town of Stellenbosch. It was the year 1925 and Professor Abraham Izak Perold – the very first professor of viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch – had decided to develop a new wine grape cultivar by crossing the delicate French varietal Pinot noir with the robust and easy-to-grow Hermitage (more commonly known as Cinsaut). As the late professor didn’t leave any notes on this experiment and why he chose these two cultivars, we have to guess that he had hoped to marry the desirable flavours of Pinot noir (that is difficult to cultivate under South African conditions) with the resilient growth characteristics of Cinsaut. So, by rubbing the pollen of the one (Pinot noir) on the flower of the other (Cinsaut), a new varietal was born – although it didn’t have a name yet. This was a little home experiment that Izak did in his garden at Welgevallen Experimental Farm. This is also where he planted the four seeds that had emerged from his experiment. It seems that after that Professor Perold had forgotten about his precious seedlings, as he left the university two years after that to pursue a career at KWV in Paarl. Along with it, he also left his home and garden at Welgevallen. Leaving it unattended, the garden became overgrown and a clean-up team was sent by the university to get the place back into shape. It was on the very same day the team was going to tidy up that the young Dr Charlie Niehaus (who thankfully knew about the seedlings) cycled by Perold’s old residence just in time to save the four seedlings (and therefore Pinotage itself) from being lost forever. Thereafter, Perold’s successor, Prof CJ Theron re-planted the seedlings at the Elsenburg Agricultural College. After a couple of years, Prof Theron grafted the vines onto strong, disease-free rootstocks and it was seen as another blessing in disguise, as the other older rootstocks was soon after found to be so disease ridden that they had to be destroyed. Perold often visited the experimental farm and it was on one of these visits that Theron showed him the four grafted vines. Perold was so impressed with their growth that he demanded they be propagated. It is also believed that the name “Pinotage” was also used for the first time on this day.

And so, we thank you Prof Perold, as well as Dr Niehaus and Prof Theron, for giving us Pinotage and making sure it survived all the perils and pitfalls. But now, who actually made the first wine from this exciting new, proudly South African varietal? A lecturer at Elsenburg, Mr CT de Waal, had the honour of making the very first wine from these grapes and the first commercial planting was on the farm Myrtle Grove, near Sir Lowry’s Pass. Although the grapes showed great potential with the initial plantings, having naturally high sugar levels, ripening earlier and staying healthy and vigorous, it is the wine that eventually almost destroyed our beloved cultivar. As the vines produced such large amounts of grapes, many farmers planted Pinotage for the production of bulk wines. Also, because of its dark, ruby colour, many producers stretched their wine as to produce even more with the result of a very thin and imbalanced wine. Many wine drinkers also experienced acetone (nail polish remover)- like aromas. These kinds of comments cast a shadow over the cultivar and it seemed like the varietal was doomed even before it had a chance to prove itself.

Most producers gave up on the cultivar after that, but a small group kept the faith and experimented with ways to improve the wine with special attention paid to what they did in the cellars. And by 1987, things had started to look up for our cultivar. Beyers Truter (then at Kanonkop) had just won the Diner’s Club Winemaker of the Year award with an inspiring Pinotage and thereby caused quite a stir in the industry. Wine collectors from all over flocked to their cellars and wiped down the dust from their old bottles of Pinotage. To their pleasant surprise, delightful flavours of ripe berries, chocolate and banana had developed over the years. The future of Pinotage started to look all the more promising, especially after Beyers Truter won yet another award for his Pinotage soon after that – this time at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in 1991 as International Winemaker of the Year. And after that, the world was hooked. Positive forums and comments from all over the world put Pinotage on the pedestal it so long deserved.

The rest, as they say, is history. Pinotage was put on the map and it is now here to stay. The versatility this cultivar lends itself to, is just one more reason to get excited about it. Whether you like the chocolatey, coffee-like Pinotage or the ripe berry, smoky and leathery style, there is bound to be a Pinotage that will tickle your taste buds. So, if you haven’t given it a try yet, what are you waiting for? Remember: local is lekker!

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Debating terroir

I know that terroir has perhaps been misused on occasion, scapegoated, cannibalised, but we are all on the same page that it is real, right? I recently read an article in response to a book challenging the ’myth’ of terroir. The writer in this article was, in all fairness to him, also having gripe with the book’s claims against the Shamanism of Terroir.

Now, I know that wine culture wrote the guidebooks on running away with romanticism, so there’s plenty to fight about: natural fermentations, old vines, biodynamics, new or old wood, etcetera,etcetera. The list goes on and on, catalyses its own perpetuation, loops the loops and rewrites itself everyday, but I don’t think terroir deserves to be on that list. It just has a bad name, or it just lacks definition.

I’ve said it before, terroir is just the environment the vine grows in. For me, that’s enough to convince me. Only the psychotic would tell you a burrito isn’t composed of a tortilla wrap, meat, rice, black beans and whatever other delicious things you want to put in there. He might say it’s actually made of other things like apples, paper clips and the gaps in the pavement. Soil, water, sunlight and a vine. At a basic level, that’s all you need and you should get some grapes. Every vineyard in the world has these four parameters to different degrees: add a lot more sunshine and grapes have higher sugar levels relative to phenolics; add a lot of rain and clay and you have vigour. No two sites have the same ratio or quantity of each of these ingredients. Thus, they are unique.

Of course, when people really talk about terroir, they want the gory details. They want to know that alluvial deposits 20 million years ago have put stones and silt high in Calcium Carbonate in certain sublayer of the soil, this Calcium content gives the wine the slightest of chalky undertones on the palate. It is harder to prove the manifestations of these minor geological details, as the effects are far more subtle than higher sugar levels or juicy berries. However, reasoning should lead you to similar conclusions: just as the trace vitamins in our diet greatly affect our health, so do trace elements in the soil effect a vine.

Terroir doesn’t need to be a story. As usual the beauty comes from stepping back and appreciating the glory of random scientific make-up; the true uniqueness of a site comes from these empirical differences of analysis – 2mm less rainfall in this particular ravine, 5% more clay content in the soil and so on. Every site has the potential (more or less) to be the same, the starting components are equivalent: it is on Earth, made up of decomposed rock, gets sun and rain. Much like the pieces of chess begin in the same place, and yet no chess games ever take place in the same manner, no two sites, and thus no two wines can be the same.

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Wine Myths. Busted.

The wine industry, just like most other industries, is filled with countless myths that are made up by companies and countries to improve their wine sales. Sometimes the myths are just a different version of the truth or the truth has been tweaked slightly to make a story sound more captivating. Other times, the myths are so far away from the truth that it borders on fraudulent lies. Here is a look at some of the serious and not so serious myths that I have come across in the wonderful world of wine.

Corks are better than screwcaps

This one is a bit tricky as it of course depends on what you are talking about. Better for what? Aging a wine? In that case, yes, because the cork will let through slightly more oxygen than a screwcap over the long term. This in turn means that the wine in the corked bottle will age quicker that the one with a screwcap. But if you have wines that are destined for consumption right now, that extra exposure to oxygen is not such a good thing and it might lead to the development of undesirable smells or tastes i.e. spoilage of the wine. In that scenario screwcaps win. And in the practicality round, screwcaps are also victorious. How many times have you found yourself with a bottle of wine that is sealed with a cork, but there is no corkscrew to be found on this side of the Sahara? Too many times to count, right? And if you don’t feel like finishing that bottle of Chenin just yet, you can just close the cap and keep it in the fridge until later, whereas a bottle that had a cork will be much more exposed to oxygen if it is not sealed properly with something like a wine pump. Sure, corks are romantic and the sound it makes when it is pulled out of the bottle invokes nostalgia of candle-lit dinners with a loved one, but that image can be easily ruined without a corkscrew or if the wine smells like old feet.

More alcohol = less quality

This is a common misconception that has mostly been spread by European wine drinkers. South African wines have been criticised for years and years for having alcohol contents that are too high and being hard to drink. Before I start my defence, it is important to note that there are a few factors that influence a wine’s alcohol content. The most important of these factors are the style in which the wine was made and the climate in which the grapes were grown. Fortified wines are usually higher in alcohol because they were made by adding neutral spirits (like brandy) to wine to increase the alcohol content. However, wines that are naturally higher in alcohol have only climate to blame. Grapes that are grown in warm climatic conditions tend to ripen more rapidly and produce higher sugar levels. These very sugars are then converted to alcohol during the wine fermentation process. Therefore, wines produced from grapes from warmer climates will usually have higher alcohol contents when compared to their cool climate counterparts. Now, back to our European friends. Most wine producing regions in Europe are classified as having cool climates and even those that have warm climates don’t necessarily reach the same high temperatures or experience the same harsh conditions that we have here in South Africa. So, they are used to their soft, delicate, low-alcohol wines. And BOOM! This bold, robust South African red winds up on their dinner table and they are scared senseless. No need to fret, my fellow wine drinkers. Wines that are higher in alcohol doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to knock you off your feet. The quality of the wine, like the alcohol, is influenced by many factors. Maturation vessel (new oak vs old oak barrels, concrete or stainless steel tanks), wine style (soft and delicate or big and robust), residual sugar (sweet or dry wine) and maturation time (young or aged wine) are just some of these factors. A Cabernet produced in two different climatic regions can both end up having the same alcohol content, but their taste, aroma and mouth-feel might be different due to any number of the above-mentioned factors. So, don’t be so quick to judge a wine based on the alcohol content that is stuck on the back label- you might be pleasantly surprised by some of these “high” rollers.

France was the first country where wine was made

Sure, they have been producing wine for many more centuries when compared to us, the new kids on the block, but they most certainly weren’t the first ones in history to do so. The earliest archaeological evidence of winemaking in France is a limestone platform that was used as a wine press and dates back to 425 BC. However, evidence exists that wine was consumed in countries like China (c. 7000 BC), Georgia (c. 6000 BC), Iran (c. 5000 BC), Greece (c. 4500 BC) and Armenia (c. 4100 BC). Armenia is also home to the world’s oldest discovered winery. In 2007, a cave was found that contained a wine press, fermentation vessels, jars and drinking cups. Archaeologists also found old grape remnants like grape skins and seeds. These evolved relics also suggest that wine making technology existed some time before already.

Red wine should be served at room temperature

If we are talking about room temperature in Britain, then yes, you can serve your Cab right off the shelf. But here in our warm, South African climate it is best to chill your red wines to slightly below room temperature (around 15 – 20 °C for heavy red wines and 12 – 15 °C for lighter wines). Just pop your bottle in the fridge an hour or so before you plan on opening it and flavours and aromas will be at their optimum. Also, by cooling down a wine you might disguise some of the “off” aromas of a lesser quality wine. As for white wine, it is best served between 7 and 14 °C, while fruitier wines like Sauvignon blanc prefer the colder side of the spectrum and heavier whites that have been barrel-aged can be served slightly warmer.

Unfortunately, my time is up and I have only uncorked the big bottle of wine myths that are making their way around the industry. Hopefully I have helped you to realise that screwcaps might not be as pretty as corks, but they sure are the duct tape of the wine world. That France isn’t necessarily the best or oldest wine country in the world. And that your excellent quality, high alcohol red wine should be chilled before serving.

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My sister is an accountant and apparently, I am too

My subject choices for high school included Physics, French and Accounting. An interesting combination. I studied Physics and French with winemaking in mind. While accounting was chosen because it appeared to be an easy A. Which it ended up being. Actually – it ended up being my highest subject.

Bear in mind that Accounting in high school does not resemble the accounting done in an actual accounting degree. If studying a four-year degree and entering into one of the most well-paid careers was limited to the book-keeping we learnt in high school then my roommate’s late study nights would never have happened. Coincidentally she’s on her way to becoming a chartered accountant.

But back to high school accounting – or as we should more aptly call it “Bookkeeping 101”. It was an easy subject. And I enjoyed it despite its notorious reputation and the formidable teachers. So why didn’t I study Accounting?

My sister did. She’s currently a very successful CA working in London making more money an intern could dream of – to put it into perspective she makes more in one month than I would working a full year off an intern’s salary. But let’s rewind. The year was 2012 and I was a grade eleven student while my sister was completing her first year of articles at a large accounting firm.

That was a disastrous year which was filled of late nights and crying. Lots and lots of crying. And that was when I decided that I would never put myself through that kind of stress and misery (to be fair at this point “harvest” was an abstract world and I did not realise the amount of crying, cellar foot rashes and manual labour that it would include…but I digress).

So, sworn off from ever looking at something remotely financial except for my own bank statements I set off into the world of wine-making. And it went well. There were a few hiccoughs along the way. Mainly Plant Pathology 314 and the escapade of my first harvest. But ultimately, I was happy with my choice.

Then I encountered SAWIS.

That sneaky little organisation (which yes – if very important for certifying wines and making sure every is above board and legal) reared its administrative head.

But it immediately took me back to matric. Sitting in three hour exams trying to balance assets and liabilities. Back to the days of crediting bank statements, debiting balance sheets and learning the theory of inflation.

Except now assets have been replaced by grapes and balance sheets have become tank records.

Now, I understand that record keeping is an integral part of the winemaking process. And in no way, am I advocating for the removal of this record keeping… but if we were to hold a bonfire and throw in all those documents I’d bring the marshmallows.

This recordkeeping during weighing only to be entered into the tank records which must correlate with the green book which then will be needed to fill in BG forms which then are used to fill in the pink book and then back to the BG forms and then to the other side of the pink book then back to the BG forms then back to the pink books (I could go on but I think you get the gist).

And this must all be done during the pandemonium of harvest. I think we’re asking too much.

Any winemaker (or assistant winemaker) will have their elbows deep in grape must and yeast, running after interns and fixing broken tanks. 14-hour work days are no big deal during a harvest and between all that there’s 15 different forms to be filled out? Ouch.

But apparently it’s not impossible. So that’s fine. We can carry on with the paperwork and BG forms. And we will work towards our IPW certification and apply for seals and we’ll survive (don’t even get me started on IPW. Lot numbers are the enemy in the cellar. But again, I digress).

But I want really want to know is how did my science-based degree entrenched with biology and chemistry become accounting?

I’ve spent four years studying the art of fermentation. And approximately 0.2% of that was spent learning the ins and outs of SAWIS. A task which will take up 20% of a person’s time (whether it be winemaker, assistant winemaker or intern). Possibly less if you’re the administrative wunderkind that I am.

So, here I am. About to enter the workforce, balling meter in one hand; pen, paper and calculator in the other. Ready to tackle the cellar and make quality wine. And then spend late nights filling out SAWIS forms so I that I can do recordkeeping during weighing only to be entered into the tank records which must correlate with the green book which then will be needed to fill in BG forms which then are used to fill in the pink book and then back to the BG forms and then to the other side of the pink book then back to the BG forms then back to the pink books (I could go on but I think you get the gist).

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Inspector (wine) Gadget

The strange and sometimes unorthodox tools that make our lives easier have tickled my imagination ever since I was a child. Gizmos and gadgets were always on the top of my wish list for birthdays and Christmas. I suspect this fascination was passed down to me from my dad. He always buys the latest tech on the market even though more than half of the stuff he buys ends up in his desk drawer gathering dust. But that is where my father and I differ a whole lot. I like to know that something is going to be useful to me before I buy it and besides, as a student, you don’t have money laying around to spend on white elephants. So now that I am a “grown-up” I am buying more “mature” gadgets or tools that I can use on a daily basis i.e. wine accessories. But with all the hundreds that you see in the shops and online, it’s difficult to figure what is useful and what’s not. Here are a few of my favourites and some of the Old faithfuls.

No one who calls themselves a wine enthusiast will be caught dead without a decent wine decanter. For those of you who are not quite in the know, a decanter is a container, usually made of glass (but plastic ones are now also available for picnics), that is used to aerate red wines (i.e. expose it to oxygen) and to separate the glorious liquid from it’s not so glorious solid sediments. Although it might not technically be a gadget, it is something that comes in quite handy if you have the in-laws coming over for dinner and you want to impress with a well-aged Cab, but all you have are robust, raunchy 2014s. A decanter will not only look impressive, but it will smoothen that Cab out in two ticks. And with the variety of shapes and sizes that are now readily available, your decanter can double as a unique piece of art, exhibited on your dining room table, 7 days a week.

For those of you that might be a bit clumsier and fear the day that your very expensive decanter falls to smithereens, a wine aerator is probably a better option. This nifty little gadget can be screwed into or attached on top of your opened wine bottle and as you pour it allows for better aeration of the wine. These accessories can also sometimes look overly extravagant or other-worldly, but even the simplest ones can help to simulate the effects of years of bottle aging in a flash.

Hot summer days calls for chilled Sauvignon blanc on the stoep or next to the pool, but you forgot to refrigerate the bottle in time or the Stellenbosch sun heats up your glass faster than you can finish your wine (I highly doubt it). No problem. You can just add some ice cubes. But the melting ice dilutes my wine, you say. Well, not anymore. Waterless, reusable ice cubes have arrived to save many wine and spirit drinkers lots of sorrows. These blocks and balls of pure genius can be rinsed, popped back in the freezer and used again and again. No dilution. These are of course also great for the next family picnic. No more carrying around a cooler box filled with ice water to keep mommy’s wine cold. They are fun for the whole family!

And if, for some reason, you don’t like ice or having things floating around in your glass, there is always the revolutionary corkcicle. Yes, you read correctly. Cork-icicle. It’s a long, insulated chill-stick that is attached to a bottle stopper or cork-like stopper. This magnificent piece of wine artillery will help to keep your whites cold and get your reds down to sub-room temperature. Make sure to reserve a spot for this in your picnic basket as well.

Speaking of picnics (as you might have guessed, I am a picnic enthusiast), isn’t it just the worst when you’ve just settled down on your blanket with your glass of chilled Chardonnay and somebody asks you to hand them the food basket. Where am I supposed to put down my wine, you might ask yourself. That is where my next item of interest comes in. Sturdy, stainless steel wine bottle and glass stakes that can be pinned into the ground will ensure that your glass stays upright and out of the grass.

The weekend and the picnics have passed. It’s Monday after work and you just feel like winding down with a glass of red, but the day wasn’t quite that bad that you want to finish the whole bottle yourself. What to do? “Reseal” your bottle after you’ve poured your glass with your wine pump, of course! The pump usually comes with a rubber stopper that is placed in the mouth of the bottle. The pump is then placed over the stopper to pump the air out either manually or by the press of a button and then seals the bottle. Although the bottle is not completely resealed, this tool helps to minimise the effects of oxidation and extends the shelf-life of an opened bottle.

Most of the more lavish (and expensive) wine gadgets that can be found on the market today, will never have a place in my home. In fact, even some of these mentioned above are unnecessary luxuries and probably only destined for avid wine drinkers and enthusiasts. If you just love to drink wine, a decent corkscrew and a clean glass is all you’ll need to make the most of your wine.

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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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