Wine is my passion and I have an extreme thirst to know and learn as much as I can on this topic. I have never experienced the South African Cape Winelands during the harvest period and therefore decided to get my hands dirty and head down to the Cape during February to learn a bit more about how wine is made, to pick grapes, and of course, to taste some wine.
On my arrival in the Cape, I headed up the West Coast to a quaint and unique wine growing region called Darling, here I was hosted by Sandi Collins from the Marmalade Cat, Shaun and Debbie McLaughlin of Darling Tourism, and Charles Withington from the Darling Wine Shop.The people in this small town are extremely passionate about Darling and promoting tourism in the area. The town was originally put on the map by Pieter Dirk Uys, better known as his drag queen alter ego Evita, but it is slowly becoming better known for the unique and delicious Sauvignon Blanc produced from this region. There are only six wineries in the direct vicinity but what was really interesting to learn is that the demand for Sauvignon Blanc grapes from this area is highly sought after and many wineries purchase grapes from the region each year for their wine.
After a day spent exploring the Darling Wine region, I began my first day assisting in the Steenberg Vineyards cellar in Constantia. Here I met with winemaker JD Pretorius (who won the Diners Club Young Winemaker of the Year award last year). I was assigned to help the cellar hands, Alex and Michael, check brix levels (sugar levels) on fermenting grape juice as well as fill wine barrels with their flagship Rattlesnake Sauvignon Blanc. The first thing I learnt here, and was reminded of throughout my trip, is that wine cellars are very wet areas during harvest time! The reason is that everything is kept as hygienic as possible so that no taint affects the wine in any way, thus there is always a constant stream of water cleaning utensils, barrels, tanks, floors, etc.
The Franschoek Wine Tram Experience
As I often get enquiries asking about the Franschhoek Wine Tram experience, I spent a day hopping on and off the tram to find out what it is all about. Based in Franschhoek, the tram was originally built in 1904 to serve as an alternative to ox drawn carts for farmers wanting to get their produce to market. There are two different routes one can choose, the Blue Line or the Red Line. Part of the tour is done with the tram and part on a converted tram-bus. Some of the wine farms along the route produce excellent wines while other farms sell your everyday easy drinking wine. It is a fantastic experience and a great one-day option for anyone who has a day to spend in the winelands. The scenery is superb, and I met a lot of lovely people who did the tour for the day.
My next cellar experience was at Graham Beck in Robertson. Here I met with winemakers Pierre de Klerk and Pieter Ferreira, South Africa’s King of Bubbles. First I got a tour through the cellar and saw how Methodé Cap Classique once riddled (via means of a gyro palate) entered a bottling line, was disgorged, had dosage added, and final cork inserted, from start to finish. I was then assigned to assist cellar hand Joan Munné Parera, a winemaker from Catalunya in Spain doing an internship in South Africa and learning how to make MCC.
Our first task was to aerate some Chardonnay which had become “stuck” during fermentation; we basically had to give the wine some CPR so that the yeast could thrive again and continue fermentation. After this we inoculated some Viognier tanks with yeast so that fermentation could start. The yeast first needs to be hydrated, slowly woken up, and fed before it can be added to the grape juice, a bit like looking after a baby. We then racked some Pinot Noir off the lees and pumped the juice into clean tanks. An important tip I learnt: be extremely careful when opening up a tank from which wine has just been pumped, when wine ferments one of the by-products released is carbon dioxide, this remains in the tank as it hasn’t been able to escape – and it gives quite a knock! I was granted the opportunity to taste various base wines after fermentation. These are wines which had just finished fermentation and have had nothing done to them yet in terms of maturation options or blending. It was extremely interesting to learn from Pieter Ferreira how various terroir and growing conditions have massive effects on various base wines.
Leaving Robertson, I returned to Franschhoek to meet up with winemaker and General Manager Karl Lambour at Grande Provence. It was fascinating to see how winemakers are constantly experimenting with new technology to make the best wine possible and at the same time improving on old techniques. Karl is experimenting with flexcubes which are plastic containers which have various levels of porousness, thus simulating a wine barrel by allowing controlled amounts of oxygen to mature the wine. Another interesting project Karl is working on is an orange wine made from 32-year-old Chenin Blanc wines. Orange wine is white wine that is fermented on the skin to pick up some extra tannin, flavour and colour. Now a few people in South Africa have started doing this but what makes this one rather special is that he has fermented and is now ageing them in terracotta amphorae from Tuscany. It is going to be very interesting to see how this wine turns out when it is a finished product.
After Franschhoek I headed to Waterford Estate in Stellenbosch, this was my first harvest experience. We had to harvest Shiraz grapes. This is one of the most intense experiences I have ever had. The harvest team split themselves into two groups. They then “raced” each other through the vineyard to see who could finish the harvest first but at the same time ensuring that the grapes they were picking were of good quality and that no leaves, insects or other items were ending up in the grape baskets. It was extremely fast paced, running up and down the vines, clipping grapes off and trying not to have my fingers clipped off at the same time, diving under vines to get to the next row. Once I was sufficiently out of breath, I went down to the cellar where I got to watch Sauvignon Blanc coming in to the cellar, de-stemmed and pumped into tanks with winemakers Mark le Roux and Kevin Arnold. Chris Faure did a wonderful wine drive through the beautiful property of Waterford Estate, this was a very educational drive in terms of learning about the flora and fauna of the area. The wine and snacks which were beautifully presented at various stops on the drive were also a great treat.
The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley was my next stop where I attended the Bosman Vine Garden Tasting. The Bosman family, in collaboration with Vititec, established The Vine Garden at De Bos in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley in 2006 and the 22-hectare vineyard boasts 47 different cultivars. Here I got the opportunity to walk through the nursery – a chance to taste various cultivars and clones and listen to where the industry is headed. Apparently the next big thing to be planted in South Africa will be Nero d’Avola, a varietal grown in the South of Italy. It was amazing to experience how various clones of one varietal varied and how typical notes expected of varietals could be identified in the grape before the juice had undergone fermentation.
My next stop was Rustenberg Wines in Stellenbosch where I was hosted by the Barlow family. Rustenberg has always been one of the most beautiful wine estates for me and it did not disappoint. I learnt a lot about various disease and pests which affect the vines from Murray Barlow. I harvested a bit of Sauvignon Blanc with the harvest team, the pace was slightly slower than earlier in the week at Waterford, but the harvest team had already harvested over 200 tons of grapes that week so they were slightly worn out. Nick van Zyl showed me the ropes in the cellar and we inoculated some grape juice with yeast and then “fed” nutrients to the fermenting flagship Rustenberg 5 Soldiers Chardonnay to keep the yeast healthy.
During my trip I visited many fabulous wine farms, tasted delicious wines, and met some great people. The above is definitely the highlights package and if I don’t stop here I may begin writing a novel… Thanks to all the wine farms that hosted me and let me play around in your cellars, I hope I didn’t cause too much havoc!
On a final note, although harvest arrived two to three weeks earlier than normal across the board, due to earlier fruit set and a slightly warmer year, every farm I visited was extremely excited about the 2015 harvest, the fruit quality is excellent and we can expect some fabulous wines from this vintage, something to look forward to!
Written and Photographed by: Kim Drake.