Corks to pop for first black SA viticulture PhD

2015-12-09 08:06
Erna Blancquaert and her husband Maarten with their little baby boy. (Photo supplied)

Erna Blancquaert and her husband Maarten with their little baby boy. (Photo supplied)

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Cape Town - After juggling part time studies, becoming a new mom and her lecturer job at Stellenbosch University, Erna Blancquaert will soon put her feet up and celebrate becoming the first black South African to receive a PhD in viticulture. And she plans to do so in appropriate fashion - with a glass of fine bubbly.

Viticulture is the science of grape production, a field Blancquaert, who grew up surrounded by the vineyards of Paarl, was attracted to from a young age.

She told News24 she had always been fascinated with the descriptors on wine bottles, so much so that she decided to study it after completing Grade 12 at Klein Nederburg Secondary in 2001.

"When I told one of my teachers about my plans, he laughed at me and told me I would never make it," she recalled.

She started studying viticulture and wine making at Stellenbosch University the following year. That was 14 years  ago. This coming Thursday, Blancquaert will receive a PhD (Agric) Viticulture degree.

Her father, Willie Witbooi, who worked in the logistics department of Nederburg Wines, encouraged his daughter to pursue her interest.


According to the university, Blancquaert obtained a Master's degree in 2008 on the ecophysiology of terroir in Stellenbosch by investigating how soil colour affects the grape composition.

This was after she decided 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 travelled to France in 2009 as part of the International Student Exchange Programme to learn more about grape sensory methods. She later qualified as a South African wine judge.

Her PhD research concerned grape flavonoids, the components which play a big role in the eventual aroma and 'mouthfeel' of wine. This was the first such study done on Cabernet Sauvignon in the country.

She changed her research topic twice and her supervisors lived in Australia and California, while a third study leader was in Portugal.


Earlier this year, while writing up the last part of her thesis, she gave birth to a baby boy. Josh is her and husband Maarten's first-born. 

"He is a stay-at-home dad, and he played a big role in where I am now," she said with obvious fondness.

Blancquaert, who lectures on the ecophysiology of grapevines, plans to celebrate with a well-deserved glass of Graham Beck Brut. She pointed out that this was the bubbly former President Nelson Mandela and US President Barack Obama drank after their inauguration.

She said she considered her graduation the highlight of her journey.

"I don’t know how, but I did it."

Read more on:    cape town  |  agriculture  |  good news

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