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New World Wine Maker Blog - New World Wine Making Students

Brave New World

My first pre-harvest did not start out quite as expected! I found myself stuck on a dam; trusty quad-bike not so trusty anymore and in fact quite dead in the battery department! This moment doesn’t really fill me with nostalgia or much inflection as I was busy kicking and screaming at the quad-bike, but it seems like the kind of moment that should, so I shall use it to open a reflection on the harvest, and my first harvest.

The quad-bike is good place to start, as I spend much of pre-harvest cutting through the vineyards, dust in my wake, like a knight galloping through his lands. That was, until I had to stop and count a thousand bunches to predict yields – not so knightly, really more like ‘peasant’ work. Peasant or knight, it doesn’t matter this work grinds the wheel, moves everything and delivers the harvest. As I would learn in the following weeks, the grind would get much harder in the vineyards under the blanket of the South African sun. On my second day of bunch dropping, to great embarrassment, I vomited in the vineyards – a combination of sun stroke and stomach virus – and couldn’t move for much of the next day. It was a rough entry, but one that highlighted the intensity of the work of the forgotten troops on the viticultural front lines. Though replaceable person for person, the importance of viticultural staff is unparalleled and must be given it’s due respect.

In the cellar obstacles presented themselves in similar volume, but in different shape. I learned to form a twisted friendship with the pump, a friend I both love and fear. The sound of a pump running dry will forever hold a special place in my heart, a chokehold specifically, as I can feel my years chipping away as soon as that awful chugging noise fills the room. I found better acquaintance among the other tools, the greatest of all being the waterproof ankle-boot.

For three years of tertiary education the hype surrounding harvest had built up lecture by lecture, and now the much anticipated time had finally come. It came quite pleasantly and is now sorely missed. Due to some impressive organisation and the blind unpredictability of grape genetics there was never an overload, no mechanical or mental breakdowns and not a workday past midnight. Having spent many years training myself in unintended sleep deprivation it is a pity I couldn’t use this near useless skill. I guess I should do some part time long distance truck driving if I want to justify having ‘Ability to work through the night’ on my CV.

Days fly by … just like the grapes on the conveyer, and like the scent of rotundone or thiols on the air … everything seems slightly like a fairy tale. Alas, the romance lasts but a few days as you find yourself slowly burning out. Few other things could make you push yourself as the excitement of harvest might.

In conclusion, to avoid excessive sentimentality and also to go out in a more dignified style than my opening tantrum on a quad-bike, I’ll say this – my first harvest took me in gently and I await the challenge of many more.

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Finding Happiness in the Most Unlikely Places

Whether I am going out for a quick drink after class with friends, heading out at night to paint the town red or grabbing lunch at an informal restaurant with the family- I am often let down by the selection of wines that are available- not to mention the corkage fees that some places ask. But before you label me as a “wine snob”, I have actually been quite pleasantly surprised by some of the wines I have found at the most unexpected venues recently.

So being the rock n’ roll chick that I am, I regularly find myself in uncomfortably small bars and live music venues when I go out to see my favourite bands playing. The drinks selection at these kind of gigs usually staggers somewhere between the most common locally made beers on the market to brandy and coke specials and tequila shots. If you are lucky and really desperate to drink something else, there might be the off chance that they sell 500 mL box wine. But that is usually as far as the drinks menu stretches. Until I stumbled upon a small rock n’ roll bar in Cape Town a few years ago. Nestled in one of the side streets between Long and Loop street, you would not expect much of a place that is hardly 80 m2 big. But to my surprise they had a whole list of lovely Stellenbosch wines (red, white, bubbly and sweet) for sale by the bottle or by the glass. And they even adjusted the price range to better suit the younger crowd that stumbles through their doors. It was the first time I could enjoy a glass of decent Shiraz while rocking out to some local bands. It gave way to a whole new experience as a music lover, but also as a wine enthusiast. (Hint-hint to the student bars in Stellenbosch)

I was again pleasantly surprised a few weeks ago when I had a dinner date with a couple of friends at a sushi restaurant in Brackenfell. It was my first time there and as I am not really a great fan of sushi, I did not expect much of the evening- I was crossing my fingers that they at least had good spring rolls. Upon arrival at the teeny-tiny sushi restaurant, situated in the same shopping center as a petrol station in the middle of Cape Town’s Northern Suburbs, needless to say, my expectations were not very high. And I was fearing that my immense thirst for an ice cold glass of Sauvignon blanc would not be quenched. Lucky for me, I was again, proven to be very wrong. Not only did this petite little restaurant have a vast and expansive wine list considering its own physical size, but the wines featured were some of the best that the cool Durbanville wine region has to offer. So I could enjoy my glass of refreshing Sauvignon after all.

While we are talking about restaurants and their wine selections, let’s raise a glass to the few that don’t expect you to pay a ridiculous corkage fee. Don’t get me wrong, I understand and comprehend the concept behind corkage fees- everyone has to make their money somehow, but when you are a student and you have to pay a corkage fee of R50, chances are the fee is going to be more than you paid for your bottle of wine. Luckily, there are still a handful of places you can go that will let you enjoy whichever wine you brought to accompany your meal without it costing you an arm or a leg.

As a wine enthusiast/ foodie/ rock chick/ student, I commend the few venues that comply to my- sometimes outrageous- needs and I salute you for reminding me that you should always judge a venue by its wine list.

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Napoleon’s Box Wine

Certain wine farms in South Africa take a great deal of pride in reminding us that Napoleon Bonaparte drank their wine! In some cases this is quite possible. These people love to romanticize the idea of sharing history with others by drinking this same wine; as if wine were a cosmic worm hole of experience, which it somehow is. Although, in this case, if people were really drinking the same wine that Napoleon did whilst in exile on St Helena, they would be running the risk of dying of both stomach cancer and arsenic poisoning. This is definitely not an experience anyone in their right mind would happily sign up for.

On top of that, wine spoilage was such a problem back then – almost an inevitability. The common ‘horse sweat’ taint (how anyone came up with that descriptor still perplexes me) of Brett or other spoilage organisms was cleverly masked with high residual sugar. And voilà – we have the sweet wines of Constantia. Ironic now that we know residual sugar is the buried treasure that any and all fungus will seek and find, and in hindsight probably not the best solution to hide wine spoilage. Sulphur was administered in a primitive soaked-rag form; sterilisation and sanitation was minimal; and vineyard practices hardly the art form they are today. Combine this with the low alcohol of an incomplete fermentation and it is an absolute miracle Napoleon didn’t receive shipments of vinegar from South Africa.

The overall point is that the Kings of Mesopotamia, to the Noble Dukes of Medieval Burgundy, were likely drinking a wine that could barely make the cut of box wine these days. So high has the standard become! This applies not only to wine, but to food as well. Hundreds of years of work has gone into creating your average fast food meal, which probably has just enough nutrients to sustain a human throughout their whole life if they were to have it every day (though I don’t recommend it).

Much like the oil crisis, the “wine quality crisis” (absolutely not an official term) is effecting everyone in a positive way, unless, of course you want to make money selling wine. Us, the stricken consumers, aim to pay low prices for wines made under the highest sanitary conditions of all time, and with the most advanced technology of Oenology. We want the best wine for the lowest possible price. The producers, though, must produce (as they do) at an incredible standard to simply even have the “audacity” to sell above the average price. As a foreigner myself, it’s quite shocking what even the most expensive South African wine would cost once converted back into Pounds Sterling (UK). For example R600 translates to just under £30 – at that cost you’d be lucky to buy a drinkable French wine, let alone something the equivalent to the top bracket wines of South Africa.

I always imagined even a middle class European coming to South Africa to realise the quality their money could fetch and never understood why wine tourism never caught on to the universal extent that it should have. While it always seemed an injustice to the rising quality of South African wine, perhaps it is best to bask in the undiscovered glory of the industry as it is today, with the wake of globalisation, overnight luxuries can move into price brackets designated only for millionaires, as we’ve seen in France. Don’t take my wine away!

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Tasting notes from a tasting room assistant

I have not been a part of the wine industry for a very long time (a full four years to be exact), therefore I am very cautious to make generalisations of what I find and experience in industry. But after having some discussions with friends that have also had the glorious job of being a wine tasting room assistant, I have learned that there are certain things and people that are bound to cross your path if you find yourself presenting wines to at least 20 different people in one day.

Let me start by putting things into perspective, as I used to be a tasting room assistant myself. Back in my second year at varsity, I worked part-time in a tasting room for about six months to gain practical experience in the wine industry. The farm was on the smaller side and situated on the outskirts of Stellenbosch, thus the tasting room did not have an extremely large capacity. On the weekends the operations were singlehandedly run by one of the tasting room assistants, which usually led to either one of the following two extremes: a) a chaotic day of running around like a headless chicken or b) dying of boredom and wishing that one of the security guards at the gate would decide to come up for a tasting. Lucky for me, the latter situation occurred less frequently.

Given this experience I am well aware that presenting tastings and selling wines is not always a fun job- especially if you work on your own. But having said that, I also believe that it is one of the most rewarding jobs you can have as a student. The abundance of different people you meet is an assurance that there will never be a dull day as long as you meet someone new. Don’t get me wrong, I know that every now and again you will come across a know-it-all customer that claims to have a degree in Pinotage, but he (or she) can’t tell a Pinot gris from a Pinot noir. And of course there are the dreaded days when a group of 20 students arrive to create havoc in the bite-sized tasting room. To the great relief of tasting room staff, more often than not, the general public is curious and eager to learn more about the farm and the wines- regardless of their own level of wine expertise.

My personal favourite customers were always the “wine tasting virgins”. They were easily identified as they were usually confused by the placement of a spittoon on the table or used phrases such as “What should I be smelling in this wine?”. Although they were cautious and unsure individuals at first, they quickly warmed up to a person and always had interesting questions to ask and showed a genuine interest in what you were telling them. It was self-satisfactory to know that you are passing on some of your wine knowledge and you experienced a sense of proudness as they left the tasting room to move on to the next farm, almost like a parent must feel when their child moves off to college- I have done my job the best I could, the rest is up to you (queue single tear drop from left eye).

Working in a tasting room also presents you with the incredible opportunity to meet and mingle with winemakers from other farms that are keeping an eye on the competition. Hearing their personal philosophies about winemaking and views about the industry instilled a new sense of excitement in me and reminded me that our industry is surely one of the most unique ones in the world and certainly one to be very proud of.

So even though being a tasting room assistant isn’t seen as being one of the most glamorous jobs in the wine industry, it does expose you to a great number of people that find themselves in it- from the amateur wine taster to the winemakers and producers that are making waves and revolutionising the way we produce, market and sell wines and everyone else in-between. It’s a hands-on job that allows you to make a contribution to the industry every time you present a glass of wine and therefore it’s a job to be proud of!

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Bloom and Doom

Harvest has barely begun in the Western Cape and already Mother Nature, possibly still wearing her Poison Ivy Halloween costume, has played the wine farms into a smooth seduction in promise of bountiful harvest, enticing with a beckoning finger on one hand, as the other hand moves purposefully, flat like a ship’s sail, to slap the rosy, lust-smitten cheeks of our hopeful harvesters.

People say emotional things, and dismiss them or forget them in hindsight. It has been said by at least one person – though usually more – that “this harvest [on any given year] will be the most challenging one ever”. Fortunately, memories aren’t very reliable, and these things are often said in the heat of the moment and are not actual fact. Thank goodness, or my future career would begin to look very daunting. This year, however, certainly has the credentials to apply for a post in the ‘Horror Show Department’ of recent vintages!

A series of unfortunate events have put pressure on the wine industry of South Africa…

Massive drought has gripped nations worldwide, South Africa included. While this has made me feel guilty for leaving the tap running whilst I brush my teeth, the broader consequences have been profound: livestock culling and plant drought are on the rise. In a winery, where the colossal water usage would make me and my toothbrush look saintly, it is a critical deficit.  South Africa seems to have a reputation for never having the smoothest running machine, so somehow it should be fate that the hydraulics also broke this year. Now we’re pedaling with no brakes.

One would think drought was bad enough…

On the opposite end of the ‘earthly’ elements is fire – though here we have the problem of abundance as opposed to scarcity. Quite a spectacular misfortune a year of drought is when paired with raging fires of biblical proportions. I remember driving down Helshoogte pass in Stellenbosch, to see the front face of Tokara Wine Estate against a backdrop of volcanic orange flames, almost expecting The Four Horsemen to blaze across the sky. Though the fires hit only certain areas and farms, the blow was felt by all, in sympathy of comrades within the industry knowing the misfortune of their friends or by the knowledge of the fleeting luck of those unaffected – realising how devastating such a thing could be.

Though politics don’t often factor into vintages – though maybe they should, since everyone seems to have an “educated opinion” – this doom and gloom spell has been cast on the South African economy too. This hasn’t been completely bad – I saw some funny satire pictures on Facebook, and the overseas allowance I receive is worth more everyday. On a confidence level, however, this is no good for South Africa, a country with a stormy wine market on good days. Export has never been a comfort zone for South African ‘midrange’ and ‘above’ wine producers. The last thing the market needs now is consumers tightening their purses as a possible recession is forecasted. This is especially a problem as the ‘midrange’ producers tend to have the hardest time turning a profit.

Though this isn’t a direct impression on the vintage, the feeling of unrest may cling to the harvest for years to come, when farm expenditures will have to be watched a little more closely as budgets are redrafted.

All of the above may be true, and may be as grueling as I’ve made it sound. Or maybe I’m just the classic old farmer, after a long day at work, looking for a bit of sympathy whilst complaining about the toughest harvest ever for the 27th year in a row.

God knows South Africa can take a good knock on the chin and carry on fighting.

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Six fun steps for a beginner to get the best out of a wine tasting

Many years ago, after my first wine tasting during a lecture, I arrived home (hostel) and my friend looked at me and asked me if I had been paintballing in class. I have moved on, of course, from those earlier years, but everybody has to start somewhere.

If you are new to this “wine thing” don’t worry, all you need is a little preparation and no one will know you are a rookie. Your enjoyment of each wine is personal and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise and most of all, don’t let them Judge you!

  1.  Flamboyant English and large words that you can’t even spell
    The English language uses the word “taste” both objectively and subjectively thus people often quickly decide that if they don’t like the wine it must be bad. Hence you sometimes get poor or one dimensional wine lists in restaurants based on one person’s opinions. Remember the wine can be good but you may not like it. Words like Flamboyant in wine language means a wine is trying to get your attention with an abundance of fruit. Almost everyone I know is equipped with a nose, a mouth and a brain, but every one perceives differently.” Generally white wines will taste of white, green or yellow fruit; red wines will taste of red, blue of dark fruit. It’s all just a question of practice” as our lecturer advised us to drink more often.
  2. Preparation
    Do not wear white, cream or indeed any plain, light pastel shades. I’m convinced there are disgruntled former sommeliers frequenting these events and maliciously spitting Merlot or even a beautiful deep Cabernet Sauvignon onto unsuspecting tasters. In the beginning you will invariably return home with speckles of red on parts of your clothing. I have witnessed some catastrophic misguided spitters in class, who accidently missed the spittoon and splashed the table and their clothes with red wine.Go for a Shower, smell fresh, but don’t drench yourself in aftershave or cologne, smelling like the inside of a beautician’s handbag is only going to distort your perception of wine aromas and annoy others around you. It’s all about the wine, not you. Most important of all, avoid mouthwash or gum, and leave the cigar until afterwards.
  3. Departure
    Bring your bus fare! Leave the car at home, if a close friend is coming along don’t let them bring their car either, bring a designated driver to do the driving; I am sure that you all have that one friend who doesn’t drink, target them and seduce them into driving you!Even if you spit every sample you will still absorb minute amounts of alcohol each time that will mount up throughout the day. Another thing to be left at home is all prejudices and attitudes, approach the event with no preconceptions of varietals, brands or names. Allow yourself  to be charmed and surprised, most important, make friends, talk to the wine makers, they don’t bite I promise you, I have challenged some myself.
  4. Arrival
    Don’t be overwhelmed or intimidated, I have been to a  couple of tastings, most people only have limited wine knowledge but know what they like, basically you are the same.Get your bearings right, look at the room and the catalogue or guide and decide what you want to try. I would suggest starting with a light wine for example, pinot noir and slowly make your way up to the heavy, full bodied Cabernet sauvignon. Wooziness and palate fatigue will inevitably kick in. It might be advised to limit you to 25-30 samples, because it’s impossible to try all the wines. Make sure to try some wines you wouldn’t normally buy.
  5. Tasting the Wines.
    Look professional-hold your tasting glass by the foot or the stem. Don’t rush to the first winery or table and sample everything. Just remember when you were a teenager; was the first boy or girl you danced with at the disco the one you walked home with at the end of the night?. Taste young, dry, unwooded white wines first; they generally look more translucent and lighter in colour. Then deeper coloured older whites afterwards – you will not encounter many of these. For the reds: Start on lighter ruby coloured with lower alcohol then to heavier more opaque and older wines showing a more brick red tone. Make sure to spit as often as possible, otherwise you will get drunk, Be selective, you probably won’t need to taste every single wine on show, talk to producers about the wines as if you were interviewing the wine for a job. Ask about what they don’t volunteer to tell you. Look at the colour and consistency, swirl and sniff, how intense is it, does it smell ok? What does it remind you of? Sip and aerate the wine, suck in air over the wine and coat the inside of your mouth with it. What do you get? Don’t worry about making slurping noises. This will help you remember the important components while tasting wine.So think of the types of people you met on your last holiday; DRY ones, INTENSE ones, BALANCED ones, FRUITY ones and LINGERING ones that just wouldn’t leave you alone! These are the qualities you might appreciate in a wine.When you taste, check through your little list. It may help you recognise some components of the wine. Have a conversation with the wine (in your head). If it doesn’t talk to you, move on!

    The beauty of wine is that it can be a multisensory experience. What does it remind you of? Every time I close my eyes and drink a big Australian Shiraz I think of Hugh Jackman from X men. When I drink good South African Cabernet I am reminded of slow dancing and holding my lover close to me! Don’t let anyone tell you how it tastes, you really have to decide that for yourself, your perception of tastes is as individual as your fingerprint and price can be an indication of scarcity rather than quality.

    If you are inexperienced at spitting, lower your head over the spittoon and let gravity take the wine. Keep a kerchief with you just in case. Never attempt long range disgorgement. You are not insulting a winemaker by spitting out his wine, but you are complimenting him by swallowing it. Riesling is pronounced; REEZ- ling, try some if you can! Make notes, even if it’s only for the wines you really like. After a long days’ tasting you are unlikely to remember individual wines.

  6. Finally!
    When palate fatigue kicks in, you can stop trying to be serious, drop the act. Your official business for the day is now concluded, but this doesn’t mean you can now go and have a downing competition with your friends.Don’t start buying at the end of the day. The Amygdala and cortex are affected by alcohol which loosens the ability to resist temptation; I have been a victim of such.
    Enjoy yourself! Wine tasting is great fun and can be a good opportunity to meet likeminded prospective companions and also learn new perspectives in life and also learn more about yourself.
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