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New World Wine Maker Blog - New World Wine Making Students

Shiraz a la mode

Love it or hate it … Shiraz is in! It even got its own festival in Franschoek. Well almost. It had to share the festival title with Charcuterie. Not a bad compromise though, as South Africa’s affinity for strife seems only matched by its affinity for cured meat. For example, ‘Shiraz and Spaghetti’ doesn’t hold the same South African seriousness. Nor does ‘Shiraz and Cured Meat’, so the organisers opted for the French. A bit unoriginal, but a choice I back, especially given how crucial it is to alliterate when naming an event.

I, myself, am a Syrah groupie. A bit of a fashion slave in that respect, so I was more than happy to attend an event dedicated solely to the grape.  Though in many respects it almost seemed like a Stellenbosch version of the recently held Swartland Independent – given the focus on this rising red cultivar in South Africa. This is by no means meant to demean the event, the opposite, if anything.

The event was an exposé of some very lovely South African Shiraz wines set in a beautiful venue in the middle of winter. However, the day turned out to be uncharacteristically warm, not to the point of seeing mirages, but enough for a heat induced claustrophobia to set in.  This unexpected turn of events caused me to forget all about the delicious charcuteries on offer, but luckily I was not distracted from the all-important wine tasting to be had!

The Stellenbosch Shiraz’s I sampled displayed a bit more wood, general extraction and alcohol than the Swartland selection that I sampled previously. Generally speaking none of this was a reason to complain as one of the Shiraz’s was a standout … accrediting style diversity. It’s easy to see why Shiraz has gained so much traction in South Africa: it can be picked early and not retain such a green/herbaceous element as the Cabernet varieties – something we, as winemaking students, never stop being reminded about.  In an odd respect the South African Wine Industry may be the only agricultural sector that doesn’t want to ‘Go Green’ (pun intended). On the other hand, picked late you can create the well-known, big bodied, International Shiraz, which appeals greatly to the local consumer. It’s a peculiar cultivar that ferments in a ‘sulphuric haze’, but seems to blow off of the stink at the end of the day. The condescending have called it an ‘easy’ cultivar, and the naive have drowned in the competition trying to make the best ‘easy’ cultivar. They say ‘if it was easy, everyone would do it’, but I think it’s more appropriate to say: ‘if everyone is doing it, it’s not going to be easy.’

I’m not the first person to say so, but Syrah may potentially become South Africa’s brand wine, much like the Marlborough ‘Savvy B’ that you’ll find a Chelsea WifeandGirlfriend chugging down on a Sunday evening in London. Unfortunately, the Australian’s have already snatched up Syrah, and the last thing South Africa should do is hop on another wine bandwagon. Like the famous Pendlay Shiraz/Cab blend, maybe we need to follow suit and inject some of that local spice in … perhaps some Pinotage, dare I say it? If there’s a grape that says ‘Rainbow Nation’, Pinotage certainly is the one … a hybrid of Cinsaut and Pinot, labelled an abomination by some, but having achieved some incredible things too, with a growing collective culture. Maybe someone needs to make a showstopper shiraz/pinotage blend and draw some glances. Not so much outwiththeold and inwiththenew, but rather ‘in with the old and in with the new’.

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Spoilt for Choice!

We, the glorious inhabitants of the Western Cape, have the unbelievable privilege of living in close proximity of some of the most unique and exciting wine producing regions in the world. Whether you are driving north, south, east or west of Cape Town, you are bound to come across a few very interesting wine farms on your journey. Here in the Western Cape, we are very lucky to have such a variety of different production regions- each with their own climate and soils and therefore their own unique wine styles. And with all of these regions to choose from, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and confused. So here is a little summary of only a few of the wine producing districts you can find in the Western Cape (I can write a whole book if I had to write about all of them, so these are just a few of my personal favourites).

Stellenbosch

Ah, of course I have to begin with good ‘old Stellies’. It is the town that is most often associated with South African wines. This world famous Boland town has earned its reputation as one of the finest wine producing regions on the planet. With its rich heritage and farms that are hundreds of year’s old- passed down through generations of passionate farmers, it is no wonder people are attracted by this little piece of wine-paradise. It is not only the aesthetics of the magnificent mountains, the never-ending rolling hills of vineyards or the bustling student life that makes this town so popular- it is, for the most part, the wine. The cool sea breeze that reaches over the Helderberg mountain from Somerset West, is a soft kiss of delicateness that can be experienced in many of the wines originating from this region. Being a soil scientist myself, I believe the most unique thing that Stellenbosch as a wine producing area has to offer, are its soils. The deep red, clayey soils on the mountain slopes has helped this region to become famous for its full-bodied, award winning Cabernets. The heterogeneous nature of most of the soils in this region may give some inexperienced farmers and winemakers quite the headache, as it is a difficult task to ensure even ripening of grapes that are cultivated on vastly different soil types. Therefore, I give any producer that is willing to plant, cultivate and harvest in this district a tip of the hat, a pat on the back and an honourable salute.

Franschhoek

This district is probably best known for its French heritage and the story of the Huguenots coming to South Africa and of course bringing along their knowledge about wine. The delicate little town with its art galleries and corner bistros that serve freshly made crêpes and espresso, remind you of another life that you might have lived in France, but you are surrounded by the picturesque mountains that can only be found in the Provence (get it?) that we like to call home. And do not be fooled by the French-y names flashing by as you enter through the gates of the wineries, these are top-notch SA winemakers making wines with a distinct South African signature. The region is, like Stellenbosch, also better known for its red wines. Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon seems to suit well in this valley. Let us not forget the district’s homage to its French cousin (i.e. Lady Champagne), with elegant and sophisticated MCCs to write home about. With soils ranging from alluvial and fertile to mountainous and deep, this region delivers a wide variety of excellent white, red and dessert wines.

Walker Bay

As we drive over the famously beautiful Franschhoek Pass, we slowly head closer to a little known seaside town called Hermanus. You might think it is better known for its annual Whale Festival, but the Walker Bay district is also home to some of the world’s finest wines. The cool ocean breeze that creeps up the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley makes the climate ideal for the production of top quality Chardonnay and Pinot noir. The variety of winemaking styles within the region is also mesmerising- with the presence of more traditional producers and new-age wine innovators all within a few kilometres of each other. This also seems to be THE destination where winemakers in the Western Cape take their annual “holiday” over the festive season, so it can’t be bad if the wine pioneers are going there (wink, wink).

Elgin

What used to be known as Apple Country has slowly, but surely turned into one of the most interesting wine regions in South Africa. Initially it was thought that the climate around the area of Grabouw was too cold for growing grapes, but more and more producers are making beautiful wines in this region. The Elgin Cool Wine and Country Food Festival are bringing loads of people to this neck of the woods and giving the district some well-deserved exposure. Of course the cool climate leads itself to the production of outstanding white wines- with Sauvignon blanc topping the list. Other whites that are making waves in the region include (but are not limited to) Chardonnay, Viognier and Riesling. How’d you like ‘dem apples?

Worcester

On the other side of the Cape Fold Mountains, we are greeted by the friendly people of Worcester. Most of us might be familiar with the town because of its famous olive route or because you are a die-hard fan of Arno Carstens, but some smart people know that this is Chenin blanc country. The immense difference in diurnal temperatures (hot days and cold nights) make this region ideal for cultivating Steen- also known as Chenin blanc. The proximity this district has to other wine producing areas like the Breedekloof and Robertson districts, also makes it well worth the journey over (or through) the mountain.

Robertson

This region probably doesn’t need any introduction. The great success of the Wacky Wine Weekend, Wine on the River and many other wine related festivals in this district, has made Robertson a household name where wine is to be drank. Strangely enough, the Robertson region’s climate seems to be quite similar to what we experience in Stellenbosch, with the exception of greater differences in diurnal temperatures and most importantly its lower winter rainfall compared to Stellies. It is extraordinary to see what influence this has on the wine styles of the region.  As you enter the Robertson area, you also start to notice the luscious red soils of this region, which makes the district even more suitable for producing the bold and robust red wines it is known for- with Shiraz and Cab taking centre stage. Dessert wines from this region are also of outstanding quality and the white wines are not far off either. With the immense amount of fine wine farms in the region, it is best to head there for at least a full weekend to experience each and every one of them.

Swartland

On the West Coast of our province lies the wine district that has been making some serious waves in the SA wine industry over the past couple of years. Beyond the vast wheat and canola fields, beautiful vineyards are to be found under dryland, rain-fed irrigation. “The Swartland Revolution” brought forth innovative individuals that changed the way we look at everything from winemaking styles to packaging and marketing. And even though this annual festival no longer takes place, this region is still exciting to visit and one to keep a close eye on.

Cape Point

Last, but not least, is the district that is best known for having the oldest wine farms in the country. The traditional Cape-Dutch style architecture of the Constantia area is reminiscent of days (and wine) long gone. You can almost picture the slaves pressing the grapes with their bare feet in big barrels as you drive under the trees that are reaching up to the heavens. But is not only the tradition and heritage of this region that makes it so special- there is a very good reason why Napoleon himself chose to drink wine from this small corner of the earth. Distinct delicate white wines are at the order of the day and they are well worth facing the wind that you might encounter on your visit here- not to mention the scenic drive over Chapman’s Peak (like you need anymore convincing).

In a nutshell, every wine district has its very own wine styles, cultivars, festivals and other attractions that make them popular. There are loads more wine districts in the Western Cape that I myself haven’t even explored yet- think Plettenberg Bay, the Lutzville Valley and Klein Karoo- just to mention a few. And then there are the exciting regions beyond our province, like the Orange River region and KZN Midlands. We should thank our lucky stars that we have so many beautiful and unique wine regions to visit within a few hour’s drive of Cape Town. So next time you find yourself bored at home on a Saturday or Sunday morning, jump in the car and venture out to one of our amazing wine regions. No matter where you go, you will not be disappointed.

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Critical Drinking

“Can you recommend a wine to me?” says my friend.

“Of course.” I say.

Mufasa’s death scene then figuratively takes place in my head, the buffalo being the torrent of inflective questions; And Mufasa, of course, is my sense of reasoning.

It is a surprisingly difficult question to answer (correctly), much akin to recommending a movie: one point in the wrong direction and offense might be round the corner. I consider The Lion King a classic, but I wouldn’t recommend it to a zoologist or my boss. You respond to the person, and what you assume their interests are, and, with wine this can be trickier. Usually, the deduction takes place over a series of questions: Red or white? Price range? Refreshing or viscous? At the end of numerous questions, and heightened emotional exchanges, the interviewee has answered the question for themselves, and made my advisory role redundant. I think the police use similar techniques.

So we turn to our higher advisers – the Überweinmensch – which, we should never, ever call them! Yes, you guessed it … ‘the professional wine critics’. That elite bunch of men and women, who advise all of us on wine, and tread the perilous line between hatred and adoration of the subjects they judge. And certainly a line in their own mind’s as well, in case the old beast ‘narcissism’ takes over and convinces them that their opinion is now objective and not simply subjective.

Despite all the processes and mediums for quantification, we always revert back to that human default: numbers. That’s what we get off on. Give me a number rating for this wine and I’ll compare it to another (low) number (my bank balance) and see if the numbers work out.

After all, all our review systems are just numbers: The celebrated 5 star system is simply a score out of ten with pictures for the numerically inept; The 20 point system not so frequently seen since the rise of Parker is a 40 point score system once people start whipping out the decimal points; and the 100 point system, which thankfully has no decimal points, although now that the whole range of scores only really lies with the 8796 range they’re gonna have to sort something out.

Personally, I prefer the 5 star system. It seems to grasp the differing experience one wine taster may have with another with a wine of certain tier. Trying to ascertain whether to buy a 92 point wine versus a 93 point is much like sorting the deck chairs on the Titanic: the deal is done, the wine IS good, the precision of exactly how good it is surely pertains only to the wine taster, his/her mood on the day, the environment they were in etc. A 93 may have been a 92 the day before. Best not to take it too literally.

Perhaps one day we might commercialise. Get some sponsors in and pit the critics against each other in direct competition. Get them to form teams, with mascots, theme music and corporate sponsorship. Put them in a steel cage and have them judge the hell out of wine WWE style. Hold a wine tasting Olympics, preceded by the ceremonial drunk stumbling along the street, Olympic Torch (zippo lighter) in hand.

When the dust has settled, and the victor has emerged drenched in the blood toil of countless olfactory battles, hands calloused by the twist of a thousand corkscrews, we can finally listen to their opinion and take it seriously without doubt or pretence. Or not. Or we just get on with our lives and let them do the same and buy and drink wine as we always have done, hopefully turning our attention to real problems.

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What your wine preference says about your personality

The other day, upon scrolling through my news feed on Facebook, I came across some sort of quiz that makes an assumption about your personality after answering a few simple questions and then miraculously associates it with a type of alcoholic beverage. Needless to say, my quiz concluded that I am a wine drinker (no surprise there). After that, I came to wonder why the quiz did not work the other way around instead. To me it makes a lot more sense to make assumptions about a person’s personality based on their preference of drink- and in this case: wine. After all, I have made most of my friends based on this theory. So I decided to give it a go and write a kind of “crash course” on the subject. (Disclaimer: These are all assumptions based on personal experiences and I cannot be held liable for any incidents that may or may not occur if put into practice.)

Dry Red

People that enjoy drinking a glass of full-bodied red, are usually kind and warm hearted themselves. They have a strong personality to counterbalance the “tannins of life” and usually have a robust way of living. Their outlook on life can sometimes be complex, but they make every moment count. Shiraz drinkers enjoy the spice of life, while Merlot lovers are a bit mellower and prefer spending time in nature. Pinotage enthusiasts may be patriotic or they might prefer to relax in a reclining leather chair after a long day’s work. Whatever the cultivar or blend of preference, these people are old souls and dependable individuals that will always be there for you in your time of need.

Sweet Rosé

These are usually not your avid wine drinkers and are most likely new to the wine drinking scene. A lot of the time this group includes university students that are not originally from the Western Cape. Rosé drinkers are fun loving people that enjoy the sweeter things in life and don’t take things too seriously. They drink pink drinks and are proud of it. They do, however, seem to retaliate when life becomes a little bitter. On the more positive side, chances are, that they will become pioneers that start to think outside of the box and achieve great things in life.

Champagne & MCC

Adored by socialites and stay-at-home moms, alike- these party goers and throwers have sparkling personalities that can keep you entertained for days on end. They are always the life of the party and the bubbling guests (or hosts) of honour. They walk with a spring in their step and a smile on their face. They laugh as much as possible and have the most positive outlook on life, compared to all the other wine drinkers. They have a taste for the finer things in life and they mingle with meaning. They make the most out of every opportunity and should not be mistaken for being ditzy or air-headed. They are strong and independent and will not back down from a challenge.

Extra Light White

This intriguing wine is sometimes labelled as “banting friendly” and therefore consumed by individuals that consider themselves to be “carb conscious”. But do not let this fool you- these wine drinkers do not shy away from the adventures of life. They are fit, happy and active and go through life with a sparkle in their eye. They are always on the go and busy doing something, never standing still and never letting an opportunity slip through their skinny fingers. Their humour is no drier than mine and they enjoy having a cold one over a few laughs.

So there you have it- our preference in wines are as unique and abundant as our vastly different personalities. Some people don’t have a favourite wine and will enjoy a glass from all walks of life, others stick to what they know best. Whatever your wine preference, as long as you like wine, I’m sure we’ll get along just fine.

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The War on Terroirism

Can you taste the soil: literally feel the cations in their particular ratios dancing on your tongue? Or perhaps that soft sea breeze that lulls an ever so gentle slumber of eucalyptus over the grape cuticles at night? If you enjoy wine to the point of scrutiny then it’s likely that these questions have been put to you in a more than ironic tone, whilst you were swirling and sniffing your glass when you thought no-one was looking. Of course you laugh, you look sideways, make a joke about smelling the colour of the winemaker’s socks on the day of harvest in the wine (also ironically), and then apologise internally to the wine and the winemaker for your profanity. However, if bitter, unrecognised victory is your thing – and it’s gonna have to be – you’re in luck: all these things you absolutely 100% can taste, however subtle or unwittingly … they are terroir!

Terroir is a great subject to talk about because it’s so opinionated, vague and broad – there can be no universal agreement. In the broadest sense, it pertains to all the factors involved in the ‘natural’ creation of grapes –  from soil, sun and sky to the roots absorbing chemical chelates from the remains of that peculiar species of Coleoptera that died in the soil. In wine, it is the expression of these diverse factors that is so coveted.

The wine community is a special group of people who have an ability to bring morality and opinion into every movement of the grape, as if each viticultural and oenological decision were being added to balancing scales in purgatory. With regards to terroir, I think, the fulcrum that people squabble over is honesty … “How honest is this wine?”. In this context (and thankfully, not elsewhere) everyone has a different definition of honesty. The honesty varies in regard to expression. Sorry for the buzzwords, expression is just a fancy way of saying what the wine tastes, feels, smells, looks (and sounds??) like – essentially, the drinking experience.

So far, so good, but now we find ourselves on bumpy ground. The current trend is to say that lower sugar levels retain a purity of fruit, and don’t mask the ‘terroir’ flavours with hefty ‘over-ripe’ fruit flavours that the berry develops as ripening continues. The belief is that more elegant characteristics show through the wine when big fruit is not present – things like minerality, one of the more obscure characteristics to observe in wine. All this is good and well, but it’s quite snobby to say it’s the only way to express terroir. Though over-ripe flavours are quite pungent and can overwhelm the softer flavours, you’re throwing science out of the window if you claim they aren’t a manifestation of the terroir; as much as the soft sea breeze is terroir and those snails and bird nests that fell into the harvester as well as all those times a vineyard worker couldn’t make it to the bathroom to relieve themselves are terroir too!

When ‘terroir’ was coined as a term, it’s unlikely that the poor French, medieval, illiterate farmer knew the weight it might carry one day. But if anything can be taken away, it is to refrain from the idea that terroir can only be expressed by one recipe: if it’s on the farm and in the wine, it’s terroir, as far as I’m concerned. Let no one tell you that there’s a quantified ranking system to assign what the ‘best’ elements of terroir are. The choice is up to you to decide which method you think makes the best wine. Comparing those methods is a story for another day.

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Syrah and Soirees

The art of being a winemaker requires us to be versatile enough to get down and dirty in the cellar, and then completely transform into suave socialites flaunting ourselves at the Veritas awards. Many spectators only know the sleek, well groomed winemakers, wearing bow ties, as opposed to the hidden cellar ninjas that we prove to be.

My first encounter of this phenomenon, where I was truly exposed to the industry as a ‘professional’, was at Elsenburg’s annual wine launch, where our 2015 wines were showcased. We, as students, were expected to introduce our wines, with some vinification specifications, to a mighty audience. This audience consisted of various well established winemakers from the industry, including Minister Alan Winde. A vast group of members from the audience listened to us cautiously explaining our wines, while the respective food pairings where underway. An interactive and very successful event had come and passed, and left us with great exposure to the industry as future contributing role players.

As ‘winemakers’ we are exposed to a vast assortment of people at winemaking events like the Young Wine Show, and Caroline’s Red Wine Review, to name a few. We get to taste the most prestigious wines our country has to offer, leaving us with an endless desire to reach new heights of our own – both nationally and internationally. However, one does notice certain people at these events, both overdressed and underdressed, who consider these events to be ‘selfie-filled’ wine festivals - a warm-up to the after party. Interestingly, I once had an experience where it was the latter that yielded the most “fruitful” conversation concerning the tannin structure of the Sauvignon Blanc we were sipping on. Yes, this actually happened. You seem to develop an ability to network and socialize relatively quickly the more you frequent these gatherings.

My personal highlight attending these events is to see the very unique and interactive relationships that winemakers have with each other, and the level of mutual respect they have amongst themselves. It reminds me more of a group of friends coming together for a ‘braai’, than a competitive, business orientated gathering.  As you walk through the crowds you are guaranteed to walk into a familiar face, whether it is a fellow wine student from a different university, or a winemaker you met prior to this occasion. Having a ten minute conversation with a winemaker you had only just met leads to him/her knowing your name, your history, your number and, more often than not, a killer contact to use in your future ventures.

To me, these are the environments that stimulate the need for one’s own identity and creativity. The choice of area of specialisation, the style of philosophy you will follow, and what you would do to be refreshing and unique in order to stand out in the sea of competition are essential. Tasting through the same cultivars produced in different regions, made by different artist with their own signature, opens your mind up to the endless possibilities of what you could become and what your own creation would look like one day, as well as how you would get there.  These big decisions all fall under “adulting” which is a colloquial term used for the passage of time that takes place between the transition from student to young professional, a dreaded period of the unknown. We, as students, all know it’s coming, but we continue to deny it ‘til the last minute. Nevertheless, your final year is inevitable – ask me, I know. Finding harvest work for the next year is the first part of the quest, followed by having to manage ones own finances and plagued by lingering thoughts of not being under the blanket of your parents’ care for much longer. The struggle is real.

I cannot wait to be at the receiving end of the Veritas Awards as a winemaker, and looking back at these memories building up to it and saying, “Damn, what an unforgettable adventure”. This is only the beginning…

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