Getting To Grips

A few fun Q&A's to wine questions that are of interest to any avid wine lover.

Whether you are a vintage connoisseur or are still getting to know the basics of the wine world, there is always something new to learn. Expand your knowledge and impress your wine loving friends the next time you buy wine online with our Wine 101 Q&A:

Q: What do people mean when they say a wine has “grip”?

Grip or “bite” is an expression used to describe a wine that has a noticeable tannin or acid component. In young wines this is sometimes an indication that the wine will age well, with the tannins softening with maturity. As with all wine, however, it’s a matter of balance. Too much tannin in a red wine or (more commonly) too much acidity in a white wine can result in a harshly unpleasant drink. 

A good wine should taste good from the beginning of its life, merely changing and accumulating charm as it ages. Don’t expect a nasty, rough young wine to develop into something grand.

Q: With today’s emphasis on not drinking and driving, why do we not see more low-alcohol wines on the shelves?

It’s all a matter of whether you want to enjoy your wine or not. In a simplified explanation, wine is created by a natural process in which the sugar in the grapes is converted to alcohol by fermentation. Obviously the more sugar there is in the grapes the more alcohol will result. South African wines usually have an alcohol content of at least 13,5 per cent by volume. Because our warm climate produces sweet, juicy grapes, many table wines can end up with an alcohol content of 15 per cent or more. To be classified as “light”, a wine should not have more than 10 per cent alcohol. To end up with less alcohol, the winemaker must pick his grapes when they have a low sugar content—in other words, not fully ripe. So the result is a thin, rather acid wine.

You can’t really have it both ways.

The winemaker could, of course, stop the fermentation when the alcohol reaches 10 per cent by volume, but then there’d be a large amount of unfermented sugar and a sticky sweet—probably unbalanced—wine. There are several official light wines out there, but most drinkers don’t enjoy them.

Q: What do winemakers mean when they talk about the ‘Balling’ of grapes?

The Balling scale is used to measure the amount of dissolved solids in grape juice, and therefore gives an indication of the amount of sugar in the juice. Grapes for table wine are usually picked at about 24 degrees balling, while the grapes used for Méthode Cap Classique sparkling wines are picked earlier, at about 19 degrees balling. Americans use a similar scale, called the Brix scale.

Q: Are single-variety wines better than blended wines?

By no means. Many of the greatest wines in the world — those made in the famous cellars of France, for example, are blends. Skilled winemakers know they can often create great wines by blending two or more cultivars and arriving at a wine that’s greater than any of the individual components.

Some of our most respected wines, like Vergelegen’s V, Delheim’s Grand Reserve and Buitenverwachting’s Christine are blends. A good blended wine should logically have more layers of complexity than one that is simply made from one grape variety.

Q: What Exactly are ‘Dry-Land’ Vines?

‘Dry-land’ vineyards are those that are not irrigated and must rely only on natural rainfall. In drier regions like the Cape’s West Coast, this can result in grape berries that are smaller than those from irrigated vineyards, particularly in low rainfall years. Smaller berries usually mean more intense flavours than those found in big, juicy, irrigated grapes. This, in turn, means the wines will have more intense, concentrated flavour.

Modern viticulture is changing this thinking, and some winemakers are finding that they can achieve intense flavours with bigger yields, by irrigating at specific periods during the growing cycle, and allowing the vines to be water-stressed at other times. As in almost every branch of farming, theories come and go with each generation. Maybe dry-land vineyards will come back into fashion one day.