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New World Wine Maker Blog - New World Wine Making Students

Better together

Is there a power struggle in South African wine? Well, it is an industry, so that really goes without saying. Even in the most symbiotic business sectors there is competition, even in communism there is business competition. Power struggle is a slightly over-dramatic term, but ultimately everyone wants their sweet piece of the market share. And despite billions (yes) of drinkers worldwide, that piece is never enough.

That is a monetary battle. In South Africa, there seems to be a bit of an ideological battle. Not really sure which is worse, but at least neither is actually a real battle. In fact, most of what I’m going to be saying is quite abstract, so don’t quote me out of context!

In fitting with the general changing trend in South Africa, the wine industry has also seen formation of new “factions” and philosophies. People have been planting vines in odd areas, like the Karoo, which might as well be on the moon. Some of the wines from there are stellar. We also have women now! That other species, who also are allowed into cellars, and seem to make better wine than men. Perhaps, the rise of non-white members of the wine industry into more senior wine/viticultural positions is the next goal of positive change. It is still very much a white man’s industry.

Improving all of the above is an ongoing process, being handled by able and responsible people. These are fairly quantifiable problems. However, one of the major discords outside these areas is the lack of camaraderie between regions and producers. This topic has been broached a few times, and is hardly fresh food for thought.

The Swartland is still in its own little bubble, quarantined from serious consideration by the traditional powers that be. Labelled a radical, when in fact, it might be the most conservative wine region in its approach. The Swartland Independent Producers adhere to rules not too dissimilar to French appellations: Burgundian bottles only, spontaneous ferment only, specific varieties, no more than 25% new wood and the list goes on. This being said, it seems “more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules”, to quote Pirates of the Caribbean, a famous wine reference. These “guidelines” being enforced in a rather cooperative atmosphere. A cooperation that has led to the rise of the Swartland as a brand, mutually benefitting all those involved.

If the Swartland has been quarantined, then it has been done so quite clinically. While the infected lab rats build skyscrapers in their cage, the scientists watch and draw up blueprints; the general influence of the Swartland has been strong. The Cape Winemakers Guild auction this year saw numerous submitted wines fermented naturally, with lower alcohol levels and reduced wood contact. A signature style the Swartland flagships. 10 years ago, at the CWG auction, this would not have been the case. It provides a reflection of the rest of the country.

This isn’t to say the Swartland are the only ones to have changed direction like this. They were simply the most uniform and proud of it. Some might even call it “flaunting” – not me. Pioneers all of over the Western Cape have moved into a more minimalistic approach. For better and worse result. The unity, does seem to be the key though:

In Elgin this year, the first Chardonnay Colloquium was held; Hemel-en-Aarde have been holding a Pinot noir expose for a few years. Quite symbiotically, both of these regions receive mounting acclaim each year for consistently stepping up their wine game.

This unity, rather than rivalry, seems to only produce acceleration. Do the other wine regions need to band together? Does the entire country need to?

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Twice as nice

People that are close to me will know that there is one more thing that I am positively passionate about besides wine, and that is music. I myself cannot play an instrument (to any extent worth mentioning), just like I cannot make my own wine (to any extent at all). So I had to think that there must be a link between these two disciplines if they both spark my intrigue so much.

I started my search on the world wide web to try and see if anyone else has found the missing link. Turns out, there are quite a few musicians and artists that have the same obsession that I have. So much so that they have written songs about their love for wine! Legendary blues artist Stevie Ray Vaughn once sang “Well I love my baby like the finest wine / Stick with her until the end of time”. Ok, so maybe the song isn’t about his love for wine, but he loves his wine just as much as his lady- which I think is saying quite a lot. And then I think back to my childhood days singing ‘Tiny Bubbles’ by Don Ho while splashing around in the bathtub- how was I supposed to know that the whole song is about Champagne? Even Jay-Z is educating the “youth of today” about Bordeaux and Burgandies (in a slightly unorthodox way) with his song ‘Tom Ford’.

I have also only recently come to realise what an influence the music that is played in a tasting room has on the overall wine experience. We all know that music is a great way to improve the so-called atmosphere, but by playing the right kind, it can help to awaken all the senses- including your taste buds. And it is enhanced even more if the music is performed live. Sure, most tasting centres opt for the very predictable smooth jazz or ever-pleasing slow blues (both of which I personally enjoy and it certainly does work), but I believe that with a little creativity it would even be possible to “pair” music and wine. Just think how your senses might be tingled when you listen to some soft pop whilst sipping on your Pinot gris, or maybe open a bottle of your favourite Chardonnay next time you turn on the stereo to listen to some Chopin- you might just like the wine even more than before.

My personal favourite music & wine combination intertwines two things that are very dear to my heart- Shiraz and rock n’ roll. Some might say that wine is not really a “rock n’ roll drink” and might even prefer whisky or gin, but nothing says hard-core, in-your-face flavour like a strong, snaring Shiraz. The bold, ballsy taste that is left in your mouth after a good glass full is nothing short of a Mick Jagger dance move. And if you are lucky enough to enjoy that glass full whilst you are listening to some Led Zeppelin, you will be sure to find yourself ascending the ‘Stairway to Heaven’.

Whether you like rock, pop, classical or R&B; Shiraz, Pinotage, Chenin or Chardonnay- I am sure there is a music and wine combination out there that will get your foot tapping and your taste buds tingling.

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Expert Shmexpert

My fellow recent viticulture and oenology graduates will be able to confirm that there is a certain standard reaction that is evoked when you tell people what you have studied. It usually comes with the assumption that you can get them free or discounted wine in some way, shape or form (I said viticulture, not magic). But besides that, people generally think that you are some kind of wine expert. Now don’t get me wrong, some of the people that were in my class I personally considered to be wine connoisseurs by the time we finished our fourth year, but most of us still had a lot to learn about wine and the industry as a whole. But for some reason there exists this general idea that we, as university graduates, know everything there is to know about the who’s who in the zoo. Even when I explicitly tell people I did not study oenology, but viticulture and soil science, they still believe I possess this other-worldly knowledge about wine. Yes, I have two years of theoretical oenology under my belt, but I now publicly declare that I am no wine expert.

But I can declare until I am blue in the face, most of my friends will insist that I have more knowledge about wine than they do, therefore I am dubbed the connoisseur in our group. Even my dad has adopted this idea, as he now simply refuses to check the wine for faults when we are at a restaurant (this is when he likes to tell the waiter that I am the expert, because I studied wine.) So there is no escaping this role and I have learned to embrace it.

For one, when we are at a restaurant and my friends or family would like to order some wine, they will almost always ask me to choose a “good” bottle and therefore I get to enjoy whatever I think is a satisfactory bottle of wine. Also, I get to pick the farms we visit for wine tastings and in this way I get to tick all my favourites off the list or visit them again when I take another group of friends.

One of the places my (limited) knowledge does come in handy, is with the technical details of winemaking or the industry. For example, explaining what the tasting assistant meant by “new fill barrels” or what cultivars are used in a Bordeaux blend. But these are little bite-sized fun-facts that anyone can Google and find out for themselves. The problem usually only comes in when they ask me to take the lead at the tasting. As I am not really a shy person, I have no real problem communicating with the tasting centre’s staff, but when it comes to the tasting itself I do not want to be the white-haired judge with the gable to bash. And there is absolutely no need for that. I try to tell people that they should just decide whether they like a wine or not. Who cares if you can’t smell the dew-covered-early-spring-orange-blossoms and the succulently-sweet-litchis-imported-from-Hawaii on the nose of your Riesling- most of the time I can’t smell those ridiculous descriptors either.

To me, wine tasting is a personal experience. From the moment you set your first sight on a wine, you immediately start forming your own opinion about it- and that’s the only one that matters. The initial smell, the combined mouth-feel and lingering aftertaste should be your guide to deciding if you like the wine or not. And if you like it, drink some more and if you don’t, spit it out in the spittoon- life is too short to drink bad wine.

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Wine infatuation and inflation

Not to attempt to sound like some psuedo-consistent wine evangelist, but previously I posted on wine scoring, so I thought I’d speak on wine pricing. As usual, no questions will be answered, as I don’t have any answers. There will be no panacea.

Prices are rising in South Africa, and not just for wine. The sushi special at Spar has risen by R10, which really knocks it out of the ballpark, at R50 it was pushing it, but now they’re having a laugh. Wine prices are also soaring, though. Look at any garagiste/independent producer and you’ll often see an almost R100 jump from last year’s prices. It really does feel like a “deep plunge before the storm” kind of moment. To make an appropriate analogy, yeast cells goes through a “lag” phase at the start of fermentation, wherein little happens as they adapt to the environment. This seems to be the case in South Africa, only in reverse. The world is slowly coming around to the new South African wine quality jump. Following lag phase, is “exponential/logarithmic” stage. The yeast cells populate as they have attained biostasis in the wine medium, the total biomass in the wine must increases exponentially, on a graph it looks like the profile of a tidal wave. I think South African wine is approaching the exponential phase.

I imagine at the end of the 1980’s the feeling was the same in New Zealand, just before Sauvignon blanc enveloped the wine world like some sort of monstrous green pepper. Much like Argentina re: Malbec. Even though New Zealand has some pantomime style idea of how currency should work, judging by the ludicrous amounts of money even a custodial engineer (janitor) makes, I’m sure they felt their wallets moaning after the world took interest in their local Savvy Bs and the wine farms – quite fairly – decided to ask a bit more for their hard worked product. The end result was the same, as it is with all popularised products: the best ones get too expensive for anyone to own, and so only a small, wealthy group of individuals get to enjoy them.

I think the same is going to happen to South Africa. Currently, you could list all the wines in South Africa costing over R1000 from the top of your head. There’s very few. Even wines costing over R500 would be a relatively small group. Not for long, though. That delicious Rhone blend you shell out for every year is soon going to be a bank account shattering Death Star. Once the wealthy overseas whiff the potential in South Africa, auctions will come, wines will be ordered years before vintage, and prices will jump. Buy those nice ones now; we’re all tourists in Vietnam, buy now while the sun shines and prices are low, time is running out.

The upside to this is the general quality jump. Sure, there’s going to be wines way out of the stratosphere of your expenditure. That’s life; not all of us will own a Ferrari. But, there will always be competition at the cheaper levels, and there’ll always be gems for a reasonable price, that are overlooked by the public. Keep an eye out.

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Ten Things to Do At a Wine Farm (Besides Drink Wine)

Ever woken up one weekend-morning and felt like going for a wine tasting, but the family is visiting and Grandma or Uncle Sam doesn’t drink wine and so you think all hope is lost? Think again! Lucky for you, these days wine farms and estates offer so much more to do than just the usual stuff like wine tastings and restaurants. Here are a few things you can keep the family (or dry friends) busy with whilst you’re tasting some wines… Chances are, you will probably enjoy them too.

  1. Cellar Tours
    More and more wine farms are opening up their cellar doors to the public to give them an insight as to how their wine is made and what exactly goes into making an outstanding bottle of wine. Each winemaker and winery has their own way of going about their daily task and no two wineries are the same, therefore you will always learn and experience something new on a cellar tour. Make sure to phone the winery beforehand to hear if they do offer cellar tours and make a booking or appointment if needed.
  2. Take a Hike
    Given the beautiful setting we find most of our wine farms in, a lot of them now have hiking trails that are open to the public. Trails differ in length, but are usually not extremely difficult and even the most inexperienced hikers will find trails that they are comfortable with. In the Western Cape, we are also spoiled for choice as to what kind of scenery we can enjoy on our routes. Choose from the scenic mountainous routes, darker forest trails or simply take a stroll through the vineyards- just check with the tasting room staff which vineyards you are allowed to move through.
  3. Ride a Bike
    If walking is not for you, mountain bike (MTB) trails on wine farms have also risen in popularity. Beautiful trails wind past lusciously green vineyards and through natural veld and fynbos fields. Several farms now host regular MTB events, which you can enjoy as a spectator or participant. And if you’re not ready to compete in a race yet, get the family pedalling together on a Sunday afternoon.
  4. Take a Boat Trip
    If you find yourself in a wine region that is close to a river, chances are that there will be a farm or two that offer boat rides on the river. What better way is there to enjoy the natural surroundings with a delicious cheese platter and maybe a bottle of wine (or grape juice for Grandma). Boat rides are usually scheduled on the hour so make sure to get there early to make your reservation and shop for lovely goodies to enjoy on your cruise. No seasickness guaranteed.
  5. Visit an Art Gallery
    A lot of wineries have recently started to support local artists by displaying their work in art galleries or sculpture gardens at various wine farms. Be it beautiful landscapes or abstract paintings, interesting sculptures or blown glass art- there is something for every cultured soul to enjoy and admire.
  6. Go Fishing
    Some wine estates that are located close to a river or maybe have a large dam on the farm even offer their patrons the opportunity to have a go at catching their own fish. These wineries are ideal for Dad and Uncle Sam to “wet their lines” while the ladies enjoy a glass of Chardonnay- even the kids will have something to do other than play on the same old boring jungle-gym. And for those more adventurous fisherman, certain farms even feature fly-fishing as one of their attractions. Be sure to phone the farm first to make sure their fishing season is open and make a reservation if needed, as it is quite a popular sport.
  7. Go on a Game Drive
    If you would rather sit down and relax while enjoying the beauty that is our winelands, try visiting one of the many wine farms that offer game drives. Experience an informative tour of some of South Africa’s greatest and most beautiful wild animals from lions and cheetahs to springbucks and wildebeests. There are also wine estates that have more exotic animals like reindeer (yes, in Africa). Reservations are usually essential, so make sure to make a phone call to avoid disappointment.
  8. Relax with a Spa Treatment
    Nature not so much your thing? Head on over to the spa for a tantalising facial or a well-deserved pedicure. There are few things more satisfying than receiving a relaxing foot massage whilst enjoying your favourite glass of wine (or a fruit smoothie)- even Uncle Sam could probably do with an invigorating body exfoliation treatment. Every second wine estate now has a day spa so your options are endless and there are spas to suit everyone’s needs and pockets.
  9. Play a Game of Boules
    Long gone are the days where boules were considered to be a sport for old people. It can now be enjoyed by the whole family on your next visit to a wine farm. It is a great way to get up and get active and it is also ideal for your next team-building exercise at work. You can even enjoy a wine tasting and light lunch at the restaurant after you’ve all worked up a sweat on the greens and had a few good laughs. Many farms also have other fun lawn games that can be enjoyed, free of charge.
  10. Test Your Aim with Clay Pigeon Shooting
    And for those looking for a bit more excitement in their life and power in their hands, you can always have a go at clay pigeon shooting. This age old tradition is now being offered at a few wineries around the Cape and is great fun for both participants and spectators. You won’t be bringing home a duck for Sunday’s lunch, but at least you will be able to get rid of some of your frustrations.

Clearly there is something to do for everyone at a wine farm and there should never be an excuse not to visit one- not even the complaints from Gran and Uncle Sam. There are loads more fun activities and attractions at our wineries, but who really needs to be convinced if there is wine to be drank?

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We don’t need no education?

“Natural winemaking” is taking South Africa by storm. Whatever that means. The only people who call it “Natural winemaking” are the ones who don’t practice it, which is odd, because generally it’s used condescendingly, as if the “Natural winemakers” are making wine with hemp barrels soothed by the vibrations (that’s an important hippy word) of a moonlit Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s also odd because it implies somehow someone else is making wine “unnaturally”, which brings to mind some Nazi-Indiana Jones scene: somewhere deep in a bunker in the Dyatlov Pass, neon blue light bulbs flash on and off in an otherwise darkened room, drums beat,  Robert Parker chants lines from the Necronomicon in baritone and summons a batch of first fill wooded Cabernet from the netherworld – 96 points, should’ve chanted louder or culled a goat for those extra 4 points! Obviously this pertains to the capacity of your imagination, and obviously it’s ludicrous. We both know both camps make excellent and crappy wine.

Now that I have built a wall of preference equity, I shall assert my opinion; today I will take a dig at Natural/Minimal intervention wine. The idea occurred to me in some sort of jolting epiphany. I was trying to memorise the structure of a wood tannin (a taste chemical derived from wood often found in wine), and was struck by a sense of futility. I’ve spent four years learning chemical and biological movements in wine; furthermore, millions of Rands, Euros and Dollars have gone to yeast profiling, wine chemistry and Oenological research. Yet, this minimal intervention movement, whilst not rendering this research and technology useless, certainly makes it seem more like connoisseur’s trivia than practical knowledge. In a perfect scenario, the grapes would arrive healthy, and minus a timely addition of sulphur, all the heavy lifting is done by the microorganisms in the wine (and the vineyard workers who carried the crates).

As an example: your wine is starting to smell cheesy. Stick it in a barrel and let it sit for 12 months. Bob’s your Uncle; the smell blew off. Sure, it’s interesting to know that yeast produces toxic medium-chain fatty acids that smell like feet, but if we don’t even know what yeast species it is, and we’re not going to do anything (interventionally) about it, then who cares?

I suppose this is not an argument against Natural winemaking, but it does slowly seem to be turning into one opposing wine education. Whilst I sit here, I can think of a few winemakers off the top of my head who possess little to no formal wine education. Furthermore, I can think of many well known winemakers who probably use a mild fraction of the oenological knowledge they paid so many “Madibas” for in tertiary education.

It should be noted that my argument is very contextual (which sort of makes it bullet-proof). I think it would only be possible to make wine in this (scientifically) hands off approach in a small scale boutique winery. When the grapes are healthy, space and time are flexible, it’s much easier to make sure things run smoothly and no wine is spoilt. Conversely, as a friend of mine always says, co-op winemakers are the real winemakers, in the literal sense. They handle vast quantities of, often, very poor quality wine, diseased grapes, massive volumes worth millions in damages should spoilage occur.

Basic (and often the best) winemaking is a recipe, with as few ingredients as possible. As much as no one wants to admit they follow a recipe. It is a consumable food product after all, though the calories are about as functional as eating a pile of paper. The more ingredients/faulty ingredients require more background knowledge to handle, but as long as the grapes are good and the facility is well managed, the wine largely makes itself.

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