Positioned near the top of a hill in the north-western reaches of the Stellenbosch wine route, the Kunjani winery leaps from the Shiraz vineyards like a jack-in-the-box. Alive with vibrant colour and exuberant energy, this winery completely sidesteps the typical Cape winelands set-up, where the only thing older than the history-steeped manor houses on the estates is the regal mountainscapes that embrace their vineyards.
The philosophy behind the Kunjani brand was and still is about celebrating the cross-pollination of cultures (Africa meets Europe). But 18 months after it opened its doors (November 2017), owners Paul Barth and Pia Watermeyer decided to change the aesthetics of the brand, which is what attracted literal bus-loads of media to the winery on an autumn-perfect Wednesday afternoon.
The question was: does the rebranding honour the Kunjani ethos? Does it do Kunjani justice?
We’d find out!
A love story for the ages
One cannot tell the story of Kunjani Wines without a swoon-worthy account of the cross-continental and cross-cultural love affair that began it all.
Paul Barth is a German entrepreneur who grew up in the Riesling vineyards of his father’s wine farm in the Rheingau region of Germany. Pia Watermeyer is a successful South African businesswoman and aspiring winemaker. The two met at a mutual friend’s wedding in 2011 and while Paul spoke next to no English and Pia not a word of German, a shared love for wine, dancing, and adventure paved the way for a great romance.
“We travelled Europe with a pocket English-German dictionary in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other,” said Pia to a starry-eyed audience during Kunjani’s brand relaunch.
What do you get when you combine sharp business acumen with a love for wine?
A wine farm, of course!
And so, in 2014, the two purchased a plot of land in Stellenbosch with established vineyards and what began as a serendipitous chance meeting evolved into all that is Kunjani Wines with the lovely and extraordinarily talented Carmen Stevens as winemaker.
Over delicious, carefully paired canapés and tastings of Kunjani’s six wines (2018 Sauvignon Blanc, 2018 Chenin Blanc, 2018 “Stolen Chicken” rosé, 2017 Merlot, 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2015 Shiraz) the crowds appraised the new branding on the bottles and the winery itself. Kunjani’s interior is ultra-modern in design and an exuberant and bold work art – the collaborative effort of Pia and iconic interior decorator Haldane Martin – and its spellbinding views over bronze and crimson Shiraz vineyards satisfy that expectation for natural beauty we all feel when journeying into the Cape winelands.
Having attended the launch of Kunjani in 2017 (and held on to a precious bottle of the 2014 Shiraz until only recently), I was quite familiar with the old branding, which depicted two hands of different colour and gender “fist bumping” with a large, bold font. It was simultaneously fun and powerful in its messaging. The new label, packaging, and branding, however, has come of age.
From youthful and fun, the Kunjani brand has been remarkably elevated. Now, it is suave and sophisticated, but not at the sacrifice of its ethos or personality. The charcoal black label with its unique glossy and matt textures (borrowed from the winery’s wall paper) still depicts the two hands and the motto “two cultures, one passion”. To sum it all up: where before the Kunjani bottle looked like an easy-drinking, approachable, and affordable, weekday wine it now looks like a quality wine worthy of saving for a special occasion – a wine to treat yourself or impress a date (or your father/mother-in-law) with.
Judging a wine bottle by its label
Few people like to admit that their purchasing decisions are informed or swayed by the appearance of a wine bottle but, in reality, to say otherwise is to be a touch dishonest. We all sweep our eyes over the wine store shelves, looking for something that pops – something artistic, beautiful, and perhaps a little edgy; something that intrigues and pleases the eye. It’s only from that point that we start reading the label.
There are many wine brands whose stodgy and rather boring labels totally belie the calibre of the liquid they contain. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that South African wine estates have only in very recent years begun to get creative with their labelling and branding, abandoning the decade/century-long tradition of their forefathers. But while my mother taught me to never judge a book by its cover, in the case of Kunjani, you are very welcome to judge a wine bottle by its label.
Kunjani Wines has a full service, a la carte restaurant and is open Monday to Sunday, 09:00 to 17:00 and 11:00 to 17:00 for wine tastings. They also have luxury, self-catering accommodation on the farm. For bookings and enquiries, please email email@example.com or call +27 (0) 87 630 0409
Winter schminter! Franschhoek in winter is all about red wine, great deals, and multi-course “the diet starts on Monday” meals
Do you know why I love Franschhoek in winter?
The historic town – one of the Cape’s most famous wine and food destinations – tends to be quite seasonal and so, with the northward migration of the warm weather, visitors to this neck of the woods dry up, leaving its streets, restaurants, and wineries much quieter. No queuing for tables, no jostling for the server’s attention, and no accidental photo bombing while meandering from shop to shop (seriously, some tourists take pictures of everything.)
Franschhoek becomes sleepy in the winter and it’s a most darling atmosphere. It feels like it’s all yours – yours to explore at your leisure and your little secret slice of heaven. Besides, there isn’t a forecast that could keep a wine lover such as myself away from a quality wine tasting, and so on a blustery day with skies pendulous with heavy clouds, my ‘plus one’ and I drove to Franschhoek to spend the day and night sampling what this town has to offer in winter.
Our first stop: La Motte Wine Estate.
La Motte art experience
Twice per month in May, June, and July, (usually on a Tuesday at 10:00), the picturesque La Motte stages a dynamic art experience for guests. Hosted by museum curator Elzette de Beer at the estate’s Pierneef Art Gallery, the experience consists of a gallery tour, followed by a demonstration by a local artist or art student, which affords visitors a privileged window in on the creative process; something that is oftentimes not quite as glamorous or as romantic as we expect!
Currently, Pierneef is running the “Ink on Paper” exhibit, which showcases the artistic processes, various techniques, and conventions behind printmaking. Our demonstrator was the lovely Margarite Neethling, a Fine Arts student at the University of Stellenbosch, who showed us the lengthy and painstaking process behind this popular art form.
Our takeaways from the hour-long experience was, firstly, the incredible skill required to create a decent print (and there I was thinking printmaking was nothing more than sophisticated photocopying!) Secondly, I was struck by just how blurred the lines are between art and science, when quality craftsmanship demands an impeccable standard of precision, patience, and repetition.
Click here for more information on La Motte’s upcoming art experiences (R80 per person) scheduled for the 21st and 28th May, the 4th and 11th July, and 2nd and 9th July 2019.
Winter warmer special à La Motte
Our art experience concluded with a glass of La Motte Collection Syrah 2016 for me and the Pierneef Collection Sauvignon Blanc 2018 for my partner-in-crime, and a rich, creamy bowl of smoked potato soup, which we enjoyed in front of the fireplace in the estate’s gorgeous flagship restaurant, Pierneef à La Motte. This winter warmer special of soup and a glass of wine goes for only R150 and includes a pan of the estate’s devilishly moreish sweet baked bread.
Where: R45, Franschhoek, next door to Leopard’s Leap Family Vineyards Contact: +27 (0) 876 8000 Web:www.la-motte.com
Tuesday burger special at Bovine Restaurant
Following our delicious winter warmer special and cheeky wine tasting in La Motte’s prepossessing cellar and tasting centre, we made our way to Bovine Restaurant for a meal that was guaranteed to help us cope with the day’s wine indulgence: good old burger and fries!
Located on Franschhoek’s main road, Bovine is the place to go when you’ve got a hankering for honest food that won’t set you back R300 a meal (we know that’s the money you’d like to be spending on wine). Now, with their Tuesday burger special on the go – R100 for any burger on their menu, except the “Fat Cow”, and a side – you can refuel and continue on your merry way without having to consult your family’s finance minister.
We shared two: the 100% springbok “Bonnievale Bok” burger with cheddar, tomatoes, pickles, and red onion and a side of sweet potato chips; and the 100% Oudtshoorn ostrich burger with onion jam, and Stellies blue cheese and a side of wood-roasted carrots and chimichurri.
By the way: unlike most other Franschhoek restaurants, Bovine is open on Mondays. Where: 42 Huguenot Road, Franschhoek Contact: +27 (0) 21 205 3053 Website:www.bovinerestaurant.co.za
La Galiniere Guest Cottages
Even the most intrepid of wine drinkers need to put their feet up at the end of a long day’s indulgence, and our abode for the evening was La Galiniere Guest Cottages, which you’ll find sandwiched between Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines and Big Dog Café. Naturally, we couldn’t turn down the opportunity to pop in at Mullineux & Leeu for a quick tasting and to admire the views of the truly resplendent Franschhoek Valley from this more altitudinous vantage point. Make sure you call ahead (+27 (0) 21 492 2224) – the tasting room is by appointment only.
Thereafter, we finally settled into our accommodations, barely escaping with our faces unlicked by an enormous and friendly (albeit rambunctious) resident puppy. Kicking off our tired shoes, we lit a fire, cracked open a bottle of Mullineux’s Kloof Street Chenin Blanc, and enjoyed a bit of downtime before dinner.
The three-star La Galiniere Guest Cottages are a convenient and rather pretty base from which to explore the Franschhoek Wine Valley and they come in at an exceptional price point for their location, facilities, and standard of comfort. Our cottage had two bedrooms, both with beds the sizes of cruise ships, one bathroom with a shower, a well-equipped open-plan kitchen, and spacious lounge and dining room with fireplace. There was also free Wi-Fi, a pool, and TV. All of that for only R1,400 a night (R700 per person sharing). They even left us a complimentary bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, which they make from grapes grown on vineyards fronting the property.
Note: Book in advance – La Galiniere only has two guest cottages (sleeping four each for a maximum of R2,500 per night) and, given their convenient proximity to Franschhoek and excellent price, they can sell out quickly!
Where: Franschhoek Main Road (R45), next door to Terbedore Coffee Roasters. Contact: +27 (0) 72 612 3806 Web:www.lagaliniere.co.za
Le Petit Manoir
For dinner, we sat down to an unbeatable four-course winter special at Le Petit Manoir, a lavish, elegant, and trendy restaurant on Franschhoek’s main road. For the winter special, guests can choose three courses from a slightly reduced à la carte menu, with a cheese course and bottle of Protea Wine from Anthonij Rupert thrown in for only R350. Not bad! Having come from La Motte and Mullineux & Leeu wines (and being the wine snobs that we are) we decided to change things up with a Viognier, settling the price difference with the bill.
For dinner, we had mushroom and truffle risotto to start, pork belly with cabbage compote, pickled apples, apple gel, gem squash purée, and pork jus for mains, and rose and rhubarb panna cotta with smoked plum gel and sous vide rhubarb for dessert. The cheese course consisted of blue cheese mousse on a crispy cracker with fig mostarda (an Italian candied fruit and mustard-flavoured syrup) and pickled beets.
Whichever way you cut it, R350 for a four-course dining experience and bottle of wine from Franschhoek is a smashing good deal! And we absolutely loved Le Petite Manoir’s ultra-modern glassware, pork belly, brass cutlery, and excellent service.
Note: Le Petit Manoir will be closed for their annual winter break from 3rd June to 3rd July 2019. Where: 54 Huguenot Road, Franschhoek Contact: +27 (0) 21 876 2110 Website:www.lepetitmanoir.co.za
Big Dog Café
Proceeding an entire day of wine appreciation (there’s a euphemism if I ever saw one), a good, healthy breakfast and strong cup of quality coffee were exactly what we needed to refuel, rejuvenate, and carry on our explorations of Franschhoek in winter. The Big Dog Café, conveniently located right next door to La Galiniere Guest Cottages, was our port of call and we kicked off the day with their delicious, house-roasted coffee, a tahini and cardamom granola bowl with milkweed’s Greek yoghurt, fermented berry compote, and fresh fruit, and a trio of breakfast toast slices, all of which were delicious but my favourite being the avocado, sumac, savoury granola, and mustard cress toast.
Our final activity for our whirlwind 24-hour Franschhoek romance was a farm tour of the Boschendal Estate, whose history dates back a whopping 334 years. To most of us, Boschendal is first and foremost a wine farm. In fact, their vast agricultural operations constitute the majority of their acreage and efforts with pears being their biggest export. The farm also sustainably produces all the poultry, beef, pork, fruits, vegetables, and herbs used in its deli and flagship restaurant, The Werf. And they are actively involved in researching the most forward-thinking and holistic agricultural methods for a sustainable and inter-connected farm.
Enrich, our warm and knowledgeable guide, lead us through the main homestead grounds, where the manor house, restaurant, and deli are located and then on through the vineyards, past the citrus orchards, and to Boschendal’s magnificent vegetable, fruit, and herb garden, paying their pigs, Angus calves, and Indian runner ducks a visits en route. Our hour-long tour culminated in a wine tasting under an enormous oak tree. Lookout out over the clipped lawns, Cape Dutch homesteads, and occasional squirrel-chasing-squirrel, it was hard not to feel grateful for the accessibility and affordability of the treats we have right on our doorsteps as Capetonians.
So many people avoid the Cape winelands during the wintertime, and it boggles the mind why. Here, the weather doesn’t rain on one’s parade. Sure, it’s a treat sitting beneath the canopy of a gnarled old oak tree, but is the atmospheric interior of a traditional Cape Dutch manor house really a poor trade? If anything, the lower prices, sumptuous deals, and less congested roads make this gorgeous French-inspired town an ideal winter destination. And with cloud cover adding drama to an already dramatic landscape, there’s simply no reason to wait for the fair weather to visit Franschhoek.
When one speaks of the internationally-renown Cape Winelands, the leafy, winemaking towns of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek tend to dominate the limelight. Yet, two-hours outside of the city lies a pristine valley, where winemaking tradition, history, culture, and talent is as strong as it is in its celebrity counterparts: the Robertson Wine Valley. Here, a constellation of wineries contributes tirelessly to the wine culture of our country and a shining star among them all is Esona Boutique Winery.
“The very one”: single vineyard, limited release wines
Esona, which means “the very one” in Xhosa, lies sandwiched between the towns of Robertson and Bonnievale in the heart of the Robertson Wine Valley, with the Langeberg to the north and the Riviersonderend Mountains to the south. From the second floor of its pretty winery, one gets a sense of orientation and views of vineyards that extend all the way down to the Breede River, the valley’s central artery that supplies all the farms with life-giving water.
Floating like a stalwart ship in an ocean of green vineyards, Esona’s winery and underground cellar is a compact building that caters to every expectation: stylish interior with charming historic elements, delicious food platters, a lovely selection of wines, friendly staff, absolutely gorgeous views, and a unique underground cellar tasting experience. In order to get there, one is required to walk through a short section of vineyards, which is testament to the boutique status of the estate because if they had hoards of visitors, the plants would likely suffer.
Girl power at Esona Boutique Winery
The assistant winemaker at Esona Boutique Winery is Charmaine, who, in addition to obliterating the male winemaker gender stereotype, worked her way up from farm labourer to her current position. If anyone has an intimate understanding of the grapes and the vineyards, it’ll be the person who once tended to them with their very own hands.
In this way, the family behind Esona are dedicated to empowering their staff and the people in their community, not only by hiring them, but by training, mentoring, and allowing them to realise their full potential irrespective of where they started out in life. Wine tasting assistants are able to become managers, and farm labourers are able to become wine makers. These individuals have the talent and the team at Esona gave them the necessary education, skills, and techniques.
A candlelit, Riedel glass wine-tasting in the “Kuip”
Upon arriving at Esona Boutique Winery and after a welcome glass of their fresh “Frankly My Dear” Pinot Noir Blanc de Noir, our party of four descended into the quiet, dimly-lit, and intimate space of the “kuip”, the underground cellar. Decades ago, in the era prior to the adoption of sophisticated climate control technology, winemakers would build great cement cisterns underground where temperatures were cool and protected from the daily fluctuations. Within these great subterranean cisterns, the juice from the grapes would be allowed to ferment in peace, producing quality, delicious wine. The old cellar at Esona has since been reconstructed to accommodate guests such as us and for one of the Cape’s most unique wine tasting experiences.
And so we sat down to an absolute must-do of an activity for any visitor to the Robertson Wine Valley: a “vertical” wine tasting (and food and music pairing) from Riedel glassware. On the table were two vintages of three different wines from Esona’s collection – a Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Shiraz. The idea is to taste the difference between the two vintages of the same wines and how an extra year or two plays out beautifully in the character and depth of the wine. The tastings were also done using famous glassware known as Riedel glasses, which have been specifically crafted to draw out the subtlest of flavours and most nuanced of aromas in specific cultivars.
The Chardonnay glass, for example, was elegant, long-stemmed, and had a round, almost fish bowl-shaped (not sized, unfortunately) vestibule. This shape is said to complement the voluptuous character of Esona’s Chardonnay and to allow its rich buttery, caramel notes to sing. The effects of the shape of the glassware on the flavours and aromas of the wine were highlighted by sniffing and sipping the same wine out of low-end restaurant wine glasses. For someone with an education rooted in the sciences, I was at first sceptical, but the difference was not just perceptible but significantly so!
Riedel glassware is the creative collaboration of talented and experienced glassblowers and winemakers, the product of which is the perfect vestibule from which to enjoy your Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, etc.
Wine, food, and music pairing
In addition to the vertical tasting and the use of Riedel glasses, there was a third and a fourth element: a pairing with Lindt chocolate and fruit preserves and music to match the wine. Our round of Sauvignon Blanc was enjoyed with light, classical music, while the Shiraz had country music as its soundtrack.
Every element of our visit to Esona Boutique Winery – the tasting, glassware, sweet accompaniments, music, views, food, walk through the vineyards, and of course Esona’s limited release single vineyard wines – was lovely and came together to create a (highly recommendable) symphonic experience.
Who doesn’t get thirsty on Thursdays? You’ve managed to crawl through the majority of the work week, nailed the meetings you were dreading, and survived the voluminous injection of caffeine into your bloodstream. The weekend is so close you can practically smell your sleep-soaked pyjamas and boozy breath! Surely we’ve earned ourselves a glass of wine (or three)?
In the immortal words of Barack Obama: YES WE CAN!
Look no further for recommendations! Every week, I showcase a wine I’m absolutely loving, which may come with a little history/science lesson on the cultivar (grape varietal) used to make it, depending on my mood. I will be posting these on my Facebook page, Wander Woman Thea and on my Instagram account (@wander_woman_thea) so go ahead and like or follow. Let’s be friends!
I’ll also chat a little about the nose (aromas) and flavour profile of the wines, which may sound enormously pretentious to those of you who are yet to discover the wonderful world of wine, but isn’t, I assure you.
I know, I know… The first time I heard someone describe a wine as smelling of “green peppers, grapefruit, and pencil shavings” I mirthfully snorted in their face. You’re joking, right?
“Apparently not,” said their withering stare.
Here’s the simple logic behind the nose of the wine and I’m using the example of green peppers here. The chemical that causes a green pepper to smell the way it does – a sort of savoury, herbaceous, and vegetal smell – is called methoxypyrazine. That very same chemical compound is found in wine, particularly in the cultivars originating from the Bordeaux region of France: Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and so on.
So while there is obviously no green pepper in your wine, you can detect this aroma because the wine contains methoxypyrazine. The same applies for a spectrum of other fruits, vegetables, substances, and inanimate objects. The chemicals or, in the case of fruits, sweet-smelling esters that give them their trademark smell are present in wine to varying degrees. This is what you’re smelling.
It takes time and repeated wine swilling, sniffing, and quaffing to begin to identify these aromas. With practice, your brain will tie up its hair, slap on a pair of reading glasses, and start cataloging these smells, building a useful library, which you can draw upon to sound really smart the next time you go wine tasting with friends.
With that brief lesson out of the way, I have but one final side note for you before I proceed to tell you about the absolutely lip-smacking, eye-closing, panty-dropping wine I’ve discovered.
Opinions are like a**holes
The selection I make each week is entirely my own and is most often based upon (1) my personal tastes, (2) the wine region I’m currently exploring, and (3) the wine I think is best suited to the season. With that said, I will do my best to present a fair variety of both red and white wines of various cultivars and blends.
You should also know that I live in South Africa so most of my recommendations will come from here. South Africa is one of the oldest “New World” winemaking regions in the world and a progenitor of wines that can and do compete with the most internationally recognised and acclaimed vintners out there. In other words, if you love wine, you’ve got to add South Africa, and particularly Cape Town, to your bucket list. The wine here is phenomenal.
Here are my weekly selections thus far:
Idiom Zinfandel (Primitivo) 2014
From the foothills of Sir Lowry’s Pass in the Helderberg valley comes a Zinfandel of such sexy, sultry delight, my relationship with it feels personal. This red wine bursts with ripe fruits and berries, is velvety in delivery, and has an incredible nose of fynbos and eucalyptus. Actually, this characteristic is present in most of Idiom’s wines and is a testament to the intimate relationship between the vines and a terroir dominated by fynbos and stands of Eucalyptus trees.
What I absolutely love about this Zinfandel is its exceptionally perfumed nose. If a sun-beaten bush of fynbos bonked a cherry tree and they made a baby, this is what that offspring hybrid fruit/flower would smell like. On the palate, these fynbossy, almost minty aromas unfurl into a beautiful, silky red wine that’s perfect on a cool spring evening and, in my opinion, with or without food.
Zinfandel is a moderate tannin, high acid red cultivar that’s mistakenly believed by many to originate from the United States. In fact, DNA fingerprinting has confirmed that Zinfandel is an ancient Croatian cultivar that is genetically identical to Primitivo, an Italian cultivar.
Excelsior Evanthuis Cabernet Sauvignon 2013
Named after a race horse reared on the estate, the Excelsior “Evanthuis” Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 is a wine of exceptional weight and character. A deep inky red in colour, this wine, which hails from the Robertson Wine Valley (an approximate 2 hours’ drive from Cape Town) is big and seductive with syrupy black currants and violets on the nose, and dense fruit flavours supported by a strong tannic backbone. In other words, it’s bloody delicious and since we’re still waiting for the weather to get the memo that spring has arrived here in the Cape, it’s perfect to enjoy right now!
The cultivar itself requires little introduction. Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the world’s most widely recognized red wine grape varieties. And if you thought that Napa Valley was the only region that did a good job of producing “big Cabs” think again. Our warm climate combined with the tender, loving maritime sea breezes that flow off of the Atlantic Ocean create red wines of enormous flavour, elegance, and structure.
La Bri Barrel Select Chardonnay 2016
I began my career as a professional wine drinker with a heavy preference for dry red wines. It was only with my first sip of an obnoxiously wooded Chardonnay (rich, buttery, caramel flavours) that my eyes were opened to the possibility that, hey, I could actually like this stuff! And so I began trying every wooded Chardonnay I could get my paws on. My initial obsession with heavily wooded white wines has calmed down and now I seem to have achieved equilibrium, which explains why La Bri’s Barrel Select Chardonnay 2016 makes my heart quiver.
This rich and rounded Chardonnay from Franschhoek (South Africa) has been crafted from grapes growing on La Bri Wine Estate’s oldest vines, which were planted in 1991, making them older than Justin Bieber. Genteel, gracious, and multi-award-winning, this fabulous Chardonnay boasts flavours of oatmeal and shortbread with a vivacious undercurrent of tangerine. It’s absolutely delicious and well-suited to any weather.
Say hello to the other side
Here in South Africa, one of the most popular white wines is Sauvignon Blanc, which, unfortunately, the public seems to enjoy extremely young. Mere months after the year’s harvest has been pressed, fermented, and bottled, the young Sauvignon Blancs are whisked to market and sold for a trifling R30 to R80 ($2 to $5).
Marketers describe them as “zesty, fresh, tart”.
I describe them as pissy.
In fairness, not all young Sauvignon Blancs will turn your face inside out, but when you consider what a bit of age does to these wines, it’s a travesty to consume them so young. Why not wait for them to age a little? You know: open their eyes, develop a bit of character, and sprout a pair of boobs?
The saturation of bottle store shelves and restaurant menus with young wines is precisely why I felt an aversion to white wines for so long. It was thanks to an accidental tasting of a super rich, opulent, and golden Chardonnay that I actually stopped to take stock of “the other side”. In that moment, I realised that, hey, not all white wine has to taste like your flat mate forgot to tell you that he’s been storing clean pee in the refrigerator in case of a surprise drug test at work. In fact, the world of white wine is enormously diverse and bursting with fruit, fabulous flavours, and a damn good time!
So, if you align yourself with any side of the red wine / white wine divide, I urge you to try a beautiful Chardonnay like La Bri’s Barrel Select 2016 and let it open your eyes to the other side [*insert Adele soundtrack here*]. For red wine lover’s, it’ll open your eyes to the world of white wine and for white wine lovers, it’ll open your eyes to wines that aren’t super fresh, young, and pissy.
Get with it!
Today’s Thursday, which means that I shall be publishing another “Wine of the Week” post. If you haven’t already done so, get your butts on Facebook and give my page a like (Wander Woman Thea) or follow me on Instagram (@wander_woman_thea) to see what indulgent tipple this week brings. I’m all about sharing the love so drop me a message if you want me to follow you back, especially if you’re as passionate about food, travel, and wine as I am.
I used to think I knew a fair bit about wine. Lord knows I consume enough of the stuff to have a PhD in wine drinking, but unfortunately that’s not a real qualification and if it was, the job market would be so saturated I wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of employment.
I did serve time in an Italian restaurant while studying, so I learned about the different kinds of wine, the cultivars of grapes used to make wine and how to pair them up with food. I also built a wine rack with the help of my father, which now serves as a particularly ugly bookshelf. Around the same time, I bought myself a John Platter guide, which provides a comprehensive list of all the South African wineries along with a description and rating of their annual repertoires. A one star wine is good to poach your pears in, but a five-star wine is a sure-fire way to impress your date.
And so, you see, the wine rack (perpetually empty), the restaurant education, the dedication to wine drinking and the John Platter guide really imbued me with the sense of wine wisdom. That is, until I started reading up about wine making. You would never guess just how intricate the process involved is and the degree of fine chemistry that goes into making a good glass of vino. It’s all about balancing acids, exploiting the biology of fungus and harnessing the power of organic chemistry.
Naturally, I decided to write a blog about the magical science that brings us wine!
Why? Because, shut up! No one ever needed a reason to talk about wine.
How to Make Alcohol (You’re Welcome)
There are two extremely good reasons why prison guards are constantly busting inmates for bootlegging liquor. (1) After a day dodging molestation and staring at whitewashed brick walls, alcohol must seem like the elixir of the Gods, and (2) alcohol is ridiculously easy to make. It’s a simple one-liner chemistry equation that requires ingredients you could find in even the most basic of kitchens: Sugar, water and yeast.
Yeast is a tiny, tiny fungus that uses sugar, also known as glucose, to grow. It’s what we use to make breads rise and it’s what is needed to make alcohol. Mother nature is awesome. By throwing the right measure of yeast into a vat of sugar water, you provide this fungus with the ingredients it needs to survive. It eats the glucose, farts out carbon dioxide and produces alcohol as a by-product according the following chemical equation:
C6H12O6 –> 2 CO2 + 2C2H5OH
Glucose –> Carbon Dioxide + Alcohol
French microbiologist and chemist Louis Pasteur was the one who discovered that adding yeast to sugar and water yielded alcohol and this lead to the conception of the field of fermentation, which actually has a name: zymology. The same man who brought us pasteurized milk also discovered that the acidity of a sugar solution could affect the speed with which the yeast metabolises sugar. This is an important concern of wine-makers because grapes naturally contain acid and if the solution thrown into the vats at the end of the day is too acidic or too alkaline, the yeast won’t ferment optimally. The result is that it can end up affecting the taste of the wine considerably.
It could mean the difference between pinot and piss.
What’s in a Grape?
Grapes may seem small, oval and innocent, but they’re packed with all sorts of stuff that winemakers take a very great interest in. And rightly so, because even though a good wine may have a bouquet of (smell like) citrus, guava, green peppers, passion fruit, a crisp spring morning and the possibility of a good rodgering, there’s only one fruit that goes into it’s making and that’s grapes, which, as it turns out, contain more than just sugar and water:
Sugar (glucose and fructose)
Two main acids: tartaric and malic acid
20 Different amino acids
Esters (sweet-smelling hydrocarbons)
The exact time of year the grapes are harvested is extremely important, because the older they get, the sweeter they become, very much unlike your cantankerous grandfather. Grapes that are overripe contain a lot of sugar, which is why “late harvest” wines are sweet and taste like raisons. Grapes that aren’t ripe enough don’t contain enough sugar, which you will know if you’ve ever innocently plucked an unripe grape off the vine. They cause your face to implode.
THEN of course there are the different kinds of grapes to consider. Sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, riesling, sémillon, gewürztraminer, chardonnay, moscato and pinot grigio are all cultivars (kinds) of grapes that are used to make white wines. syrah, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, merlot, malbec, barbera, pinot noir and sangiovese are all cultivars of grapes that are used to make red wines.
What determines the taste and colour characteristics of the kinds of wines produced from these cultivars is the size of the grape, the thickness of the skin and the flesh-to-skin ratio of the grape. The skin is the source of all the chemicals that make a wine heavy, full-bodied and dry, so the thicker the skin and the smaller the flesh-to-skin ratio of the grape, the more complex, more full-bodied and drier the wine will be, such as the cabernet wines. Large grapes with thin skins therefore yield wines that are fruitier and light to medium bodied, such as merlot.
SO how do these delectable varieties of grapes get from the vine and into your face after a really crap day in the office?
Wine in the Making
Grapes are plucked off their gnarled vines and delivered to the cellars where all the leaves, stems, rotten grapes and unlucky caterpillars are removed. It is here that the sorting procedures begin that will determine what kind of wine these valiant grapes are destined to become.
White wines are made from the grape juice alone, so these grapes will have their skins removed after crushing. Red wines are made from the juice AND the skin, so they get to keep their clothes on. The grapes are crushed and the resultant sludgy, lumpy grape goo is pumped into shallow fermentation vats. Here, in the case of red wine, this purple porridge is stirred up and constantly agitated to prevent bacteria from establishing a foothold on the floating grape skins like tiny little Rose DeWitt Bukaters on tiny little grape skin doors in the middle of a vast purple Atlantic Ocean.
Just saying… they COULD have made it work
Yeast can be added to aid the fermentation process, during which time the mixture will become increasingly alcoholic and less and less sweet as all that glucose is metabolised by the yeast. The mixture is also stirred up to encourage oxygenation of the mixture, since yeast needs oxygen to live.
By the way, never EVER search the word “yeast” in Google Images. Some things cannot be unseen.
Once fermentation is completed to the desired extent by the winemaker, in other words the right level of alcohol content, sweetness and balance of flavour has been achieved, the sludge will be run through a series of machines that will press out the skins and other flotsam and jetsam so that the remaining mixture is juicy juice. This is then transferred to either wood, usually oak, or steel barrels, depending on the precise taste characteristics the winemaker is trying to achieve.
Wooded or Unwooded?
Whoops! How did I get in that picture?
Wine that is matured in wooden barrels tends to have a – SURPRISE – woody flavour. It gives it an aged, earthy characteristic that is most pleasant in a headier chardonnay or shiraz. And, of course, the age of the wood itself can influence the outcome of the wine. Flavours can also be added to maturing wine by introducing planks of wood that have been toasted over a fire. This tends to result in the rich, coffee, chocolatey flavours that have become so immensely popular here in South Africa.
Throughout maturation, the winemaker will regularly sample the wine to ensure that it is on the right track to securing him a beautiful, expensive white or a quaffable supermarket red, or vice versa. Finally, after a maturation period of six months to three years, the wine will be carefully filtered, bottled, sent to market, purchased by people like me and poured down our gullets, ending the grand process in our brains where it is allowed to affect our judgements.
Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message
Winemaking may sound like one of those professions you’d be LUCKY to have, like professional surfing or being a judge on Masterchef, but there is a huge amount of pressure involved. It takes an intimate knowledge of organic chemistry and a fine palate to achieve wines that people (notably obnoxiously wealthy people) consider worthy of their Coq au vin or Bœuf bourguignon. What’s more, you only have one harvest every year to get it right, so unless you are a trust fund baby with unlimited cash at your disposal, you simply cannot afford to bugger around.
Think about this the next time you sip on a smooth merlot, an aged syrah or oaked chardonnay. And think about all the billions of fungi that had to die to deliver to you a succulent sauvignon blanc or a tenacious tempranillo. Appreciate the chemistry and toil that goes into the libation you so enjoy after a day of work, or a day of anything really. Now go forth and drink wine!
If it was good for Jesus, it’s good for you!
Image Source:The Independent “Vatican City drinks more wine per person than anywhere else in the world.”