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New World Wine Maker Blog - New World Wine Making Students

The jetsetter

During the June/July holidays, I had the privilege of traveling to Dublin, located in the heart Ireland country; it truly was a breath taking experience. Being a wine lover/maker, it was my first opportunity to really get a grip on whether or not international wine (Irish wine) was worth bragging about. During my short stay in Ireland, I ate too much and spent most of my time trying to get past their self-proclaimed beer and ever enriching Irish culture.

Oh yes, wine, well in my personal opinion, which is an opinion that means quite a lot to me from time to time, I could not understand how the Irish got their famous phrase, “The luck of the Irish”, if wine is so far down there To-Drink-List. However, I looked past this little blunder of theirs and decided to pack as much as I could into the short 8 days I was there for.

So let’s face the facts here, we would all much rather crack open a full bodied, high tannin wine and enjoy it over some good company, thick steak and a light salad, sprinkled with balsamic sauce. Guinness Pints were at the forefront, along with imported beer form Amsterdam, which I highly enjoyed. Traveling to any country abroad and being proudly South African, you will always have moments where you reminisce about your homelands, as our summers and farmland atmospheres that are decorated with green vineyard patterns mountain views are hard to forget.

Ireland and me got on just fine, as I fell in love with the finer details that lined the inner city of Dublin. On my 3rd day, I was quite sick of drinking their delicious beer, so I decided to do a quick personal research manoeuvre at a local grocery store. In desperate need of a bottle of red, I scanned the shelves from top to bottom and ended up buying an imported French bottle of wine for €8.99. Okay, so it was French, but being so close to France I might as well. Needless to say, the cheapest bottle of wine did not meet my expectations.

While drinking my overpriced French wine under the night haze of Dublin, I could not come to grips with the fact that 5th century monks at the Cistercian monastery in Co. Kilkenny planted vineyards, attempting to produce wine, but today, Ireland’s wine industry is not one to write home about. Strangely enough, Ireland is now listed as a wine producing country and has actually benefitted from global warming, slowly heating up their 2 weeks of sun they call their summer. With global warming heating things up, the country has slowing been emptying its pints to fill it up with ‘Lusca’ as it is commonly known as. Lusca is an Irish wine produced by David Llewellyn in Lusk County, Northern Ireland.  I was unfortunately unable to get my hands on a bottle of Lusca.

Besides the Lusca, another wine that caught my attention was Móinéir. Winemakers, Pam and Brett (originally from Napa Valley, California) are responsible for establishing fruit wines in the Wicklow Mountains. They produce two types of wine being, strawberry wine and blackberry wine blended wild elderberry juice. They use up to a 150 berries per bottle of wine which celebrates Ireland’s beauty and bountiful countryside. A bottle of Móinéir roughly costs between €20 to €25.

Before I knew it I was boarding the plane back to South Africa, I was very pleased to discover that a full 3 seat row waiting for me. During take-off I immediately fell asleep. Upon waking up half an hour later I was unpleasantly surprised to find a gentleman sitting at the end of my row.

A few hours later, the man leaned over and tapped me on the shoulder. We got chatting and I soon learnt that he was from India on a three-day business trip with his colleagues. They had previously been on an airplane for nine hours, six more to go.

Later that evening an air hostess passed us and ask if we wanted anything to drink. So I, of course being wine deprived, asked for a glass of wine. My friend from India did the same. He explained that he was not a wine drinker and it was not common in India. I explained to him that I am studying BSc Viticulture and Oenology in Stellenbosch. By the time we reached Cape Town we were three glasses in and had exchanged travel itineraries. I told him to try to make time for a wine tasting or two and recommended a few farms in Stellenbosch and emphasised the Constantia wine route, seeing as it is the oldest wine route in South Africa.

Surprisingly, a few days later I received an email form my Indian friend informing me that he and his colleagues were on their way back to India. He closed off his email stating his newly found love for wine. I felt very proud and even more impressed with South Africa and our high quality wines and wine makers.

During my short trip, I learned that wine is the true jetsetter. Breaking down international boarders and creating the perfect opportunity to start a conversation with a stranger. South African summers are happy warm and festive where in Ireland I learned that even the coldest of summers can produce something heart-warming.

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Is barrel aging even ethical?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Uncorking Hidden Treasures

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

Viognier (“vee-own-yay”)

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

Sémillon (“sem-ih-yon”)

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

Pinot gris (“pee-noh-gree”)

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

Malbec (“mahl-bek”)

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

Carignan (“care-in-yon”)

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

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

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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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