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New World Wine Maker Blog - New World Wine Making Students

Dry eyes, full hearts

Drought has been the talk of the town for some time now. Unsurprising that when one of the most vital resources of all biological and mechanical activity goes missing, so too does any state of calm. It’s a true natural disaster, one that manifests itself as directly as a hurricane or as indirectly as an economic recession. This has impacted us all in the Southern tip of Africa and has been felt from the veld of the Karoo right to the gardens of Constantia.

As we all know, the grapevine is a well rooted plant. And it’s not one of those pseudo plants that can just up and move (like tumbleweed), nor is it a crop that can simply be replanted elsewhere. It’s a commitment plant. Trade in your wedding ring, the vine is your new life partner. It’s there to stay, and it’s going to need just the right amount of care (and neglect) to make the journey.

This journey largely takes place below ground, in the subterranean; the biological dungeon; the organic labyrinth; erebus … (soil often needs hyperbole to keep people interested). This underworld supports everything that sits on top of it – and is actually quite fascinating – but it can’t do that without water. Water feeds not only the vine, but the millions and billions of fauna and flora that inhabit the soil and are quintessential for the operation of the vine. They provide food and protection from other harmful parasites. Without these the vine now has to do it all by itself.

Take away water and take away the soil life and strain sets into the vine, often a beneficial state that helps concentrate the flavours in the grapes, like a light sweat on the brow of an athlete.

Around the start of summer, the vine is growing in all directions – literally and figuratively. It’s trying to grow physically larger and ripen its fruit, like a pregnant lady in third trimester training for Ms Olympia. You can imagine what that must be like if, on top of all of that, you have no water and it’s hot: the pregnant lady’s gym is now in the Sahara desert. In the vine, stress would set in at this point. This is when things cross into danger the zone: acids in the berries degrade, leaves wilt, growth stops, the vine’s ability to fend off pathogens diminishes. It burns out all of its supplies to keep going and produce fruit, and by winter time the reserves it needs to make it to next spring have taken a heavy hit. The poor vine may lapse into a state of weakness for some years to come.

This stage was set in the summer of 2016 in South Africa. We are now well into 2017 and the biblical rainfall the vine needs is still yet to come. It’s going go deeper and deeper into the red zone. We must simply pray this dry period comes to end. South Africa – its dry(er) regions in particular – sit on the boundary of viticultural possibility. I’ve heard it said, in Burgundy the vine goes through a summer about as difficult as a Sunday morning fun-run; in South Africa, it’s the Comrades Marathon and more. And it’s only getting more and more difficult. The world is getting warmer, if you live in Iceland or own a Sunscreen brand, you’re one of the very few who is benefitting.

In the meantime we watch and wait with baited breaths for relief this coming winter.

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Wine of Origin: Mars

With tickets on the shuttle almost being sold already, the world is making quite a fuss about colonising the red planet next door. The major motion picture, The Martian, has left us to believe that is plausible to survive on Mars and even grow some very “organic” potatoes, but would you really want to live there? Without wine? Certainly not. And seeing as it costs about $10 000 a pound to send something to space, “exporting” a bottle of wine to Mars isn’t exactly in my budget- especially after I have to pay $10 billion just to get there myself. After I’ve spent that amount of money, I am definitely going to need a glass of wine and if I’m on Mars, it seems I am going to have to make it myself.

Turns out, I’m not that far off thinking that it is possible to grow grapes and make wine on Mars. There has already been successful studies that indicate crops like tomatoes, radishes and peas can not only be grown in simulated Martian soil, but are also safe to eat. Martian “soil” or regolith contains all the macro- and micronutrients that are required to grow grapes. The amounts that are found in the substrate vary on different parts of the planet (as it does here on earth too), so general fertilisation will almost certainly be required. The substrate is unfortunately also very fine and of a dust like nature. This means that it probably has an inadequate water-holding capacity. Previous studies have added grass cuttings as an organic compound to help with the retention of water. Another possibility, of course, is the use of hydroponic systems where nutrients are fed to the roots of the plant through a soilless substrate, usually in the form of liquid fertilizer. As our neighbouring planet is further away from the sun than earth, it experiences much colder temperatures. Winter temperatures near the poles can drop as low as -125 ºC and a summer day near the equator won’t get much warmer than 20 ºC. So it’s a bit too cold for growing crops on the exposed exterior of the planet, but a simple greenhouse with a controlled atmosphere can easily regulate the temperatures and carbon dioxide levels that the plants are exposed to. Then there is the issue of water, that doesn’t really seem to be an issue anymore. In September of 2015 already NASA had announced that I had found evidence of flowing, liquid water on Mars. Although this water is believed to be salty, it may potentially be used for irrigating vines.

Now, at the moment it seems that all “growing operations” on Mars will have to take place in a controlled environment like a greenhouse. We can only hope that one day, future generations will have found ways to plant vineyards on the surface of the red planet and that they will be able to utilise the terroir of the Patera Mountains and other unique terrains found on the surface. Of course the soil will also contribute to the extra-terrestrial terroir and it is important to note that the current surface substrate contains a lot of heavy metals. These will be less desirable characteristics to pick up in your Martian blanc. Again, by the time we get there I’m sure we would have figured out a way to remove all the harmful metals from the soil or the filtered wine.

The production of wine on Mars will not only make the people living there a lot happier (seeing as there is wine to drink), but the social repercussions of such an activity can have an immense impact on a developing community or colony. By involving the community in every step of the process, from the soil preparation to the upkeep of vines to harvesting and ultimately the wine making, a sense of camaraderie is established among them. And at the end of the season they all get to sit down and enjoy the fruits (wines) of their labour together.

The likelihood of all of this happening in our lifetime, is rather slim. It probably won’t be another 100 years before we get to taste the first Martian vino. But I am excited for the generations to come and I hope that I can be a part of making this dream become a reality.

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Lasting Impressions

I have been wanting to write this blog article for a couple of months now, but truth be told, I have been putting it off because I was scared. Scared that I was going to sound pretentious and obnoxious and scared that I was going to upset some people by voicing my opinion. I have recently overcome my fear since I figured the world will probably still be so upset with Donald Trump’s obnoxious opinions, mine probably won’t even show up on the radar. Be that as it may, let me just reiterate that this article is written as the opinion of one wine consumer (and previous wine tasting room employee) that wants to offer some friendly advice to tasting room staff across the nation (well, mostly the Western Cape, to be fair). So here goes…

I have attended quite a number of wine tastings in the few short years that I have found myself in this industry. They have been in tasting rooms across most of the wine growing regions in the country. I have had unbelievable experiences that I will never forget in a lifetime. Stories that I will one day tell my grandchildren (when they are old enough, of course). I have attended tastings that were presented with so much energy and enthusiasm that I bought a bottle of wine even though I couldn’t actually taste the wine – seeing as I had a terrible cold – thank goodness it turned out to be a great bottle. I have also attended tastings that were just so simple and elegantly presented that I ended up buying a R400 bottle of wine- and for a student that is quite an expensive bottle of vino that is now lying in the cupboard waiting to age for another two years.

Yes, I have experienced many above average wine tastings, but what puzzles me is the shocking amount of poor wine tasting experiences I have had. I have attended tastings that left me with more questions than answers. I have attended a tasting where it seemed like the guy who served us would have preferred presenting us with a tasting of protein shakes, which, frankly I would not have minded, if it would have sparked at least some interest from him. I have been in tasting rooms where the staff completely forgot that we were there and on another occasion staff couldn’t have cared less that we were there. So it’s safe to say that along the way I have had my fair share of bad tastes left in the mouth by tasting room personnel. But I thought that I would put my experiences to good use and hopefully help SOME wine tasting attendees avoid the disappointments that I had to face.

Now, I know I am generally a tough critic but with wine tastings there are just a few simple things that I require from the person that is presenting wine to me. First and foremost, this person has to assume that I know absolutely nothing about the wine that they are presenting to me. Don’t assume that I have heard of it before or that I know what “Blanc de Blanc” means. You, as tasting room assistant, need to tell me everything I need to know about the wine so I can tell my friend about it if I like it so she or he can buy it too. Then, just some basic wine knowledge will count in your favour (and mine). Know which type of oak is more likely to develop which flavours in red wines and know which cultivars are found in a Bordeaux-blend. Most of these things are fairly easy to find on the internet so if it gets quiet in the tasting room after lunch time, read up a little bit, empower yourself. Lastly, show some enthusiasm and interest in the product that you are presenting and ultimately trying to sell. I can very easily notice when someone has just memorised the winemaker’s tasting notes and are reciting them to me like it’s supposed to be a lyrical poem, but that’s not what I want to hear. I can download the winemaker’s notes from the internet if I want his or her opinion on the wine. I want to hear what YOU think of the wine. YOU as a fellow wine consumer and now member of this incredible industry. We need more people showing initiative and less parrot learning.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to the people that are in managerial positions. As a manager, you have to make sure that you employ staff that are passionate about wine and that want to build a career in this industry. But also, as an industry we have a responsibility to educate tasting room staff from all walks of life so that if that passion isn’t there right from the start, it can be developed over time through wine education and practical exposure. As one of the top wine producing countries in the world, we definitely need to up our game in terms of tasting room contact and it needs to start at the cellar door.

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Where the Wild Grapes Grow

In Scotland lies a vineyard. Just a single one. It’s had a successful vintage. Again, just a single one. Grapes reached acceptable sugar levels, were harvested and then subsequently allowed to totally over oxidise and were, thus, lost. A pity, although it’d be likely the farmer wouldn’t be allowed to sell it as it’s an unlegislated agricultural product of the country. It would certainly be a system shock though – I’m sure the Scottish Board of Farmers and Agriculture didn’t expect vineyard legislation for a few hundred years!

Anyway, back to South Africa, a place where you can actually grow grapes that ripen properly and make wine with relative ease (relative term). The conceptions of “best” region have been shifted in the recent decades. Regions that were considered only worthy enough to produce wines in a container with vertices (also cardboard) now produce stellar dry wines. In fact, by the Winkler heat scale’s own denomination, Stellenbosch – one of South Africa’s “cool climate” regions is actually pretty scorching. I wonder where all these global award winning Chardonnays come from then? Heat scales tell us that quality Chardonnays need a much cooler climate to be produced…I guess South African producers must be buying black market Chardonnay from Burgundy and putting their labels on it…Seriously though, I think people who know heat scales also know they are to be taken as literally as a horoscope.

One of the best examples of breaking the rules or bending-the-terroir would be to look to the Karoo. It’s arguably the frontier of South African viticulture, now that the Lower Orange River Valley has been brought into relative submission. The Karoo is characterized by searing summers and merciless winters. Black Frost shows up and wreaks havoc as dramatic as its Fairy Tale name might suggest! Annually 40% or more of the yield is lost, before any rot or pests come into play! The results speak for themselves, however, some wines have emerged and with quite a statement. The big shots caught wind – Distel et al – and wanted a piece of the action, seeing as the land over there is so cheap and abundant, but one looks at the risks and interest vaporised.

If you work hard enough and smart enough a great deal of adversities can be overcome. Scotland, however, might be pushing its luck right now. Even England’s modest summers barely give enough heat to scrape the grapes over the ripening finish line. On top of that, the winters are brutal and the vineyards don’t need the frequent unscheduled national flood irrigation they receive gratis and unwillingly. In Death Valley, it’s so hot the grapes ripen, ferment and are pasteurized before they’re even picked. In the tropics rot is so abundant, the grapes have to sit in a figurative chemical hazmat suit all year. Even the most pessimistic of us doesn’t want to consume that. No farmer wants any of these adversities, given the choice.

But, if you are a farmer, you made a choice to face off against Mother Nature in some form or another, hot or cold, wet or dry. Where you choose to work is up to you. So bear in mind what Dante said: “abandon hope all ye who enter here” – which is pretty rich coming from a guy who lived in Italy where caprese platters basically grow out of your plate. Of course, though, he wasn’t prattling on about viticulture.

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Students of Wine – Training Young Vines

As a person that received a degree from Stellenbosch University and stayed in the magnificent Boland town for three of my four years of study, I am ashamed to say that I only visited about four farms to attend wine tastings. There- I said it. You may now judge me for eternity. Or so I thought. Until I learned that the majority of students that study in Stellenbosch hardly ever visit wine farms for tastings or take part in wine tours. So yes, it does make me feel a bit better about myself that I am not the only student that never got around to doing it, but also it makes me a bit sad to think that so many people are surrounded by the beauty of the Winelands and they never get to taste and experience the region’s excellent wines.

After conducting a bit of research (i.e. asking my friends and house mates) I came across quite a number of reasons as to why students don’t visit wine farms or attend tastings. Firstly, there is the inevitable problem of a designated driver. No person (especially a university student) wants to drive all the way to a picturesque wine farm to sit there, gulping down glasses of water, while their friends are enjoying some of the finest wines that the country has to offer. Nobody wants to lose that bet, so it is safer just to stay home and enjoy an evening with Oom Tas.

Secondly- I can relate quite well with this- is the issue of time. To me it felt like I hardly had a moment to spare to take a power nap, never mind taking an afternoon off from assignments and preparing for yet another test or tutorial to visit a wine farm. The academic schedule simply didn’t account for the fact that there are so many wineries to visit in so little time.

For the average full-time student, money is probably the biggest obstacle to overcome. A R50 tasting fee can become quite a lot if it is near the end of the month and you’ve just had a fight with your parents about not being savvy enough with your money. That R50 could probably have bought you some 2-minute noodles to survive for another three days. Of course many students probably won’t even notice they are going three days without food.

All of these so-called “problems” have pretty simple solutions. For one, taxi and transport services to and from wine farms are now readily available at the click of a button on your cell phone. The business opportunity even exists for someone to create a taxi service exclusively for driving people or students around the wine farms of Stellenbosch. On the point of time, the university will simply have to allocate a time slot in each faculty’s schedule for weekly wine tastings. Okay, that may be a teeny bit far-fetched, but let’s be honest here dear students- you will have LOADS of time for wine tasting if you would step away from bingeing on series every now and again. We are only left with the predicament of finances. My suggestion is that wine farms and wineries in the region should have a special student discount. Even if it only is on some days of the week and not others. Or next time you have that late night fast-food craving, just remember all the amazing wines you could actually be tasting if you rather save that money.

Now the question remains, why should wineries be bothered with getting more students to visit their farms and taste their wines? Because they will eventually become the people that DRINK their wine and BUY their wine. Student culture is a part of the market that the wine industry has seemingly ignored or forgot about. There is a huge gap that can easily be filled if the industry as a whole would stop focussing on winning wine awards over the waters and rather get their own people to drink their beautiful wines. Try to think of innovative and creative ways of presenting and bottling wines that will capture the interest of the younger market. And get out there, mingle with the young crowd- hear what they want and what they have to offer. You might be surprised by the tricks an old dog can learn.

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Going Ape for the Non-sulphur Grape

It’s in everything, from jam to fruit juice. Sulphur, as a simple molecule, is seriously abundant. Some people even refer to humans as sulphur-DNA based life, owing to the glue-like role it plays in keeping our DNA wound up. Its role is not arbitrary. Its highly powerful, life-giving chemical properties are also what give it it’s extreme antimicrobial abilities. It’s nuclear for yeast and bacteria; the gestapo of must, showing little mercy or discrimination.

As much as you might not want to accept it, we primates are pretty similar to fungus. We’ve both got proton pumps, ATP pumps and supercoiled DNA coding. We both love sugar, and yes, believe it or not, alcohol is toxic to us both. And so is sulphur. The same biological pathways that sulphur devastates in yeast are damaged in us too when we ingest this controversial substance. Unsurprisingly, many would agree it’s a repulsive compound, and for those of you blessed enough to have come close to the pure form – it’s certainly not a fresh ocean breeze that caresses your inner nostrils. It’s more like sandpaper spinning on the end of a drill-bit forced up your nose.

It’s no surprise people go ‘ape’ for anything lacking it. Biodynamic wines fly off the shelves locally and internationally; people hate the stuff so much they’ve convinced themselves it’s an “allergen”. Actually it’s just quite nasty.

The problem is, it’s not easy to make a non-sulphured wine. Sulphur dioxide is as ubiquitous in winemaking as the wooden barrel; more so, in fact. It serves a plethora of purposes in protecting the wine against microbes, oxygen and flavour degradation etc. Since these risks appear daily in a winery, it’s necessary to have the ultimate prevention. It’s a bit like seat belts in your car, if your car happens to be driving the Dakar Rally.

It’s not impossible though. An esteemed winemaker, or two, has said “good grapes, good winemaking”. To clarify: good grapes are healthy, non-rotten grapes – preferably with a nice low pH (a nifty natural wine protectant); and good winemaking includes cellar floors, surfaces, pumps and pipes that are clean enough to perform surgery on. After that, if it survives the first week in bottle it’ll go all the way … or so I’ve been told. And there’s plenty of examples to show.

It’s generally a bit of a dicey argument to suggest zero sulphur content in your wines. A great many wineries work hard to protect their wine and simply add the utter minimal, which acts as a failsafe more than anything to prevent flavour loss from oxygen contact. This seems to work, resulting in a severely reduced sulphur content compared to the norm. Of course, this becomes incredibly difficult when working with large quantities of wine, and not everyone has the luxury of working with healthy grapes.

It’s all, however, an unseen hypocrisy; a perversion of ‘the ignorance is bliss’ scenario. Sure, don’t spray chemicals on my lettuce, chia seeds and paleo diet. Fine, don’t ruin my weight loss, low blood pressure and increased self-esteem with sulphur. Wine has a fraction of a percentage of sulphur, please get rid of that, it’s harmful for me and my unborn baby. But…you can leave that toxic 13% alcohol in there – no problem there!

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