Dr Erna Blancquaert grew up surrounded by the vineyards of the Paarl, and was always curious about the wording on wine bottle labels. These influences inspired her to pursue a career in the wine industry, and in the process to play a pioneering role in it. This lecturer at Stellenbosch University (SU) is the first black South African to receive a doctorate in Viticulture.
She received a PhD (Agric) Viticulture degree from Stellenbosch University (SU) at the second doctoral graduation ceremony on Thursday 10 December 2015.
Dr Blancquaert (32) (neé Witbooi) grew up in Paarl. Her father, Willie Witbooi, worked in the logistics department of Nederburg Wines. After she matriculated at Klein Nederburg Secondary in 2001, she enrolled went to study viticulture and winemaking at Stellenbosch University – the only university in South Africa to offer such a programme. Winemakers such as Lauren Behrens of Le Bonheur, Nico Grobler of Eikendal and Natasha Boks of Nederburg were among her classmates during her first year.
Blancquaert soon realised that the dynamics behind viticulture interested her more and that as a researcher she wanted to be involved in the science, production and study of grapes. She therefore obtained a Master's degree in 2008 on the ecophysiology of terroir in Stellenbosch by investigating how soil colour affects the grape composition.
Thereafter she travelled to France in 2009 as part of the International Student Exchange (ISEP) to learn more about grape sensory methods. In that same year she also qualified as a South African wine judge.
Blancquaert has received numerous other bursaries and awards during the course of her academic career. Among them count the Prof CJ Theron Bursary, a SAWIT bursary and a Cape Classic Indaba Bursary. In 2011 she was awarded the HB and MJ Thom Award for academics on sabbatical, as well as a mentee award from the Andrew Mellon Foundation.
Studying Cabernet Sauvignon as part of her PhD degree
Cabernet Sauvignon is the red grape cultivar that is planted most in the Stellenbosch wine region, and was therefore a logical study subject for her doctorate. She investigated how specific viticultural practices affect light intensity and temperature in Cabernet Sauvignon vines.
Her PhD research concerns grape flavonoids, the components which play a big role in the eventual aroma and mouthfeel of wine. Grape flavonoids can be subdivided into three groups, namely tannins, flavonols and anthocyanins. The amount of tannin in grape seed and berries influence bitterness and astringency. The flavonols protect the grapes against UV-B radiation while anthocyanin levels affect wine colour. She measured how light and temperature played a role in the eventual build-up of these three phenolic compounds in grape seeds and skins respectively, and the amount that ends up in the berries.
This is the first time that such research has been done on Cabernet Sauvignon in South Africa.
"South Africa does not have a long history of winemaking, and with this degree I could make a contribution to the field of viticulture, a discipline which is not always valued enough," Blancquaert explains.
Fortunately she is a woman who likes a challenge, for as many PhD students can attest, the process of obtaining her degree was not a bed of roses. She had to change her research topic twice before she could immerse herself in the third and final one. During her studies her main supervisorand one of the other co-supervisors moved to Australia and California respectively, while a third study leader was located in Portugal.
"My PhD certainly taught me perseverance," she says rather emotionally.
Earlier this year, while writing up the last part of her thesis, she also gave birth to a baby boy. Josh is the first-born of Blancquaert and her husband, Maarten.
Pioneer and mentor
To be a pioneer is not always easy. Blancquaert finds herself in a world where she is a minority due to her race, as well as her gender. Even within an academic environment she first had to prove herself. "It's been a humbling experience," she notes.
She takes being a role model quite seriously, because she wishes to play a role in influencing young people positively about the field of applied science. That is why she is actively involved with recruitment initiatives of the Faculty of AgriSciences and makes an effort to be involved with students following the Viticulture and Oenology programme at SU. She considers it as one of duties to help students reach their full potential.
Blancquaert is currently a lecturer in viticulture at Stellenbosch University, where she lectures on the ecophysiology of grapevines. She plans to do further research on the ecophysiology of grapevines, as well as plant improvement aspects.
She serves on the Winetech training committee, and is a member of the National Research Foundation's advisory panel for the agricultural sector which approves applications for the NRF programme.