The art and science of winemaking

* John Moore with SAAO Marilize Le Roes-Hill.

Constantia may have the oldest wine producing farm in South Africa but it’s a drop in a goblet compared to the history of winemaking in the world.

Dr John Moore, senior researcher in grapevine biochemistry and biotechnology at the Institute for Wine Biotechnology, Department of Viticulture and Oenology at Stellenbosch University, was guest speaker at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) on Wednesday November 22.

His talk, on “The art and science of winemaking” was the culmination of many years of his dual passions: wine and travel.

“Wine for joy. Wine for sorrow. Wine to remember. Wine to forget. Although extreme fermented beverages date back to the Neolithic (age), all knowledge of ancient winemaking is heavily influenced by Egyptian tomb art,” said Dr Moore.

In the illustrated talk, he showed pictures of early vessels from ancient China and thought to have contained wine – hawthorn berries, rice and grain.

The New Kingdom – from 1500 Before the Common Era (BCE) – portrays murals in the rock-cut tombs in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, some of the most interesting depictions of grape growing and winemaking. Much more fragmented information comes from the pyramids which date from the Old Kingdom period (from 3000 BCE), he noted.

Grapevine domestication is believed to have occurred much earlier in the first city states of the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia, modern day Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Turkey, and the northern mountain ranges bordering Georgia. These countries imported wine in ceramic containers and made in Luxor in Egypt.

The area was the bread basket of that part of the world, a place where slaves were paid with beer and bread. “Beer was for plebs while aristocracy drank wine, stored in amphora,” said Dr Moore.

He added that ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians faced the same challenges we face today in modern winemaking. These include effective irrigation, ripening, harvest maturity, cultivar selection, disease management, wine processing and temperature control, preservation, storage, ageing and consumption.

And this is where the Institute for Wine Biotechnology (IWBT) enters with its modern scientific-industrial process that global winemaking and distribution presently uses.

Established at Stellenbosch University in 1995, it is an internationally recognised postgraduate training and research institute that supports the South African wine and grapevine industries. The institute recently launched the first scientifically supported model for how enzymes unlock the nutritious, antioxidant-rich polyphenols and aroma compounds in grapes during the crushing and fermentation to red wine.

The institute has 10 hectare of Welgevallen vineyards and an experimental cellar filled with hi-tech equipment.

Dr Moore showed pictures of the earliest pressing methods including a sack press made of hemp, papyrus or cloth to release the juice from the grapes. The sack was attached to poles and then physically squeezed from one or both ends to obtain the free-run wine.

“The early murals of the sack press (illustrated that it) required five people to operate – two on each end to hold the poles and a fifth person to physically force the two poles apart, presumably squeezing the last drop out of sack. This procedure was sometimes accompanied by dance and rhythm,” said Dr Moore.

After fermentation (sometimes with honey) the juice was stored in clay, sometimes sealed with wax.

After blending, the registration of jars would take place before the pharaohs received the lion’s share, followed by officials. The left-over wine would be transported along the Nile. And back then they had a wine of origin system that refers to the labelling on the bottle which indicates where the grapes were sourced and where the wine was made.

Dr Moore said in France you do not label by cultivar but by domaine (chateau), town, village and region.

“If you have a red wine from the Rhone valley in France you would automatically know that the wine was probably syrah/shiraz confirmed by the producer’s name and the area’s reputation (this requires pre-existing knowledge about French wine),” said Dr Moore.

In Egypt the wine amphora (a jar with two vertical handles used for the storage and transportation of foodstuffs such as wine and olive oil) had clay seal inscriptions with hieroglyphs which indicated the region and city where the wine was made and/or destined for.

“…for example wine made in lower Egypt destined for the city of the Amarna and most likely the heretic pharaoh Akhenaton.

“So they had a similar but not identical wine of origin system that exists today in Europe – France, Italy, Spain – but not in the new world – South Africa or Australia – where we label bottles by cultivar composition mainly and then region,” said Dr Moore.

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