Jenna Higgins is the new face at Wellington Wines’ cellar and what a pretty face at that! She graduated in 2018 and started working at Wellington Wines in 2020. She is the first female member of their winemaking team.
In celebration of Women’s Month Xania van der Merwe (Wellington Wine Route Manager) interviewed her.
Xania: Why did you choose wine?
Jenna: I have always had a love of science, art and the outdoors – winemaking is the perfect combination of those three things. In grade 11 I fell in love with winemaking, after considering a career in biochemistry. I have always loved the idea of how something as small as a molecule, invisible to the naked eye, could have such a big impact on a person. After job shadowing a few winemakers and viticulturalists, I soon realized working indoors, in a lab all day, was not going to be a good fit for me.
Xania: What do you love about wine?
Jenna: I never know what to expect and it feels a bit like organized chaos, no two days are the same. The combination of art and science that goes in the winemaking process leaves a winemaker with the room for creativity, whilst the science behind it provides structure. I love being presented with the opportunity to present someone with something new to taste and the opportunity to change their minds about a cultivar or wine style beyond their normal preference. Every time you hear the crack of a seal or the pop of a cork, it’s exciting, almost like opening a present.
Xania: Tell me about your experience and how you got here to Wellington.
Jenna: I graduated in 2018 and have since completed 3 harvests, one of which was in California – the first time I experienced a true 8-hour work day. Harvests in South Africa are far more challenging, the days here are much longer, which is a good thing for learning. For me, harvest is the most exciting time of the year. When the harvest in California came to an end, I had to decide if I wanted to settle in South Africa or if I was going to work in a tasting room between international harvests. I then saw that Wellington Wines was advertising for an assistant wine maker, something told me to apply while I was still in America, my initial interview was at 1am US time. On my return to South Africa, I had a follow up interview at Wellington Wines one hour after my flight landed in Cape Town. I was very excited, I now work at the Bovlei Cellar, and my main focus is the La Cave wines. My hands are stained red most of the time, I’ve learnt to stop apologizing for my rough, purple and red hands every time I shake someone’s hand, I’m proud of them!
Xania: Do you have advice for young women that wants to become part of the wine industry?
Jenna: Always choose the most difficult path, the longest hours and the most challenging harvests. That way, the industry can throw anything at you and you can confidently say, “I’ve got this”. Those tough harvests are where you learn and grow the most.
Xania: Speaking of challenges, how do you think the current ban on local alcohol sales will impact the wine industry?
Jenna: It is always in the hardest times that our wine industry becomes innovative. I think we are going to see amazing things coming out of this challenging time. The wine industry always bounces back. I think it is amazing how quickly de-alcholised wine in cans showed up as well as de-alcholised MCC – which actually taste pretty good! I am very excited to see what other innovations arise from this.
Xania: Do you have a favourite wine?
Jenna: I really like Viognier. There are a few estates who do a really good job in showcasing them. I also really love a well-balanced Chenin. Personally, I also absolutely love working with Cabernet Sauvignon and got a very hands on experience with Cab at Bovlei this year. In our own range, when I come home in the evenings, I am currently really enjoying the Duke Merlot.
Xania: Is there anything we should be looking out for in the Wellington Wines range?
Jenna: Definitely the 2020 La Cave Chenin Blanc. We also have Roobernet in the barrel store…it tastes like God poured all the wrath of red winemaking into those barrels, this will likely form a component of the Cape Blend.
Xania: Have you had a chance to explore the Wellington region? Who is next on your list to visit?
Jenna: I haven’t had a chance to explore fully since moving here due to the lockdown, but I’d definitely like to visit Bosman and Nelson next, I am familiar with Linton Park’s wines as Oom Rudolf (their viticulturalist) and his wife, Tannie Annali, are close family friends of my parents. I love having my horse with me in Wellington, I have had a chance to explore some neighbouring vineyards on horseback since moving here.
Xania: Where do you live and how do you keep yourself busy with when you are not making wine?
Jenna: I live in Wellington, in my spare time I love going for drives through the mountains and riding my horse through nearby vineyards. Bainskloof always reminds me of the road trips my father, brother and I used to take when I was younger, he loves the pass.
Xania: What is your favourite season?
Jenna: Autumn – nothing beats the deep orange hues and burnt coppery reds of autumn, especially when the vineyards and liquid amber oaks trees change colour in the Wellington Wine valley.
Xania: What is your favourite food?
Jenna: I eat everything except mushrooms. It’s not the taste; it’s the texture. I really like hearty meals and ‘potjiekos’, actually anything Jan Braai, I love how his recipes include comments like “add one tot of brandy (yes, you read that right)” and “make the sauce as smooth as the Proteas team”. I love cooking and “I love cooking with wine, sometimes I’ll add it to the food.”
Xania: During your time working in tasting rooms you must have gathered some good stories to share. Tell us about some frustrating times as well as some funny moments.
Jenna: Hmm, the most frustrating comment I have gotten in a tasting room, “How much sulphur is in this wine?” – after eating dried fruit off a platter (which has a lot more sulphur than wine). If you’re having an allergic reaction to the wine, more often this comment is made with red wine, which is generally lower in sulfur than white wine, it’s more than likely due to biogenic amines (malolactic bacteria associated proteins) which release histamines and cause a slight reaction.
Funny moments always happen at wine festivals, one year my brother and I were working at one where an older woman decided to use the marquise tent pole to dance on, flashing us with bright red undies. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone in their late 60s dance like that before! It was close to closing time and she was just having some fun.
Xania: On a more serious note. You were recently included in the Winelands 30 under 30 campaign. Please tell me about this.
Jenna: I really did not think anything would come of it as I am still so young. I was not aware of the campaign until Elvina (@ThroughMyWineGlass) mentioned it to me and I decided to give it a go, unknowing that Wellington Wines had also written in for me. It really is a great initiative as it gives us an opportunity to connect with some of the new faces in the wine industry. I’ve since connected with a lot of young women in the industry, in particular. We now follow and support each other on our social media platforms. I feel honoured to have made the list and honestly didn’t expect it.
Jenna can be followed on IG @specialorange_ .