Vintage experience

The interesting thing about wine is that you only get one chance a year to make it. So for the average winemaker, retiring at a normal age, you might get to make 40 or so vintages in your lifetime, unless of course you switch hemispheres in your winter and go to work somewhere else.

Wine is an expression of place; it's also an expression of a particular year. For the winegrower who also tends their own vines, there's a special significance to vintage time. From the time the vine buds, to the point where the flowering occurs, to the point where grapes begin developing, to the point of veraison when the skins soften and red grapes chance colour, to the point of deciding when to pick, the winegrower tracks the progress of vintage. That year is then something they try to capture in the wine, as the grapes enter the cellar. It's only after several months that they will really know the personality of the vintage they have just lived through, when the baby wines begin to show what they are about. Along the way, there are many things that can go wrong: frost, disease, pests, microbial disasters in the wine. It's a complicated business, but when it does well, it’s worth all the anxiety and toil.

A few weeks ago I came out to South Africa to experience vintage first hand. We journalists pontificate on finished wines, but we run the risk of not knowing exactly what we are talking about if we aren't prepared to stand in the shoes of those who actually make the stuff. My chosen destination was Elgin, South Africa's coolest wine region. It's a region I have developed quite a bit of affection for over the years, and I managed to persuade four of the best producers – Iona, Paul Cluver, Almenkerk and Elgin Ridge – to let me into their cellars for a day each, to observe, get my hands dirty, and experience the thrill of this exciting time of year. 

It was a great experience. I got to see four very different cellars, and to shadow four very talented winemakers. 

I began at Iona, with Werner Muller. Known by some as the jockey, because of his slight but athletic stature, Werner has a wicked but very dry sense of humour. Iona have three properties: the Iona farm itself, Brocha, and Langrug – all are quite different. Langrug is the first to be harvested and by this stage the wines were fermenting happily in tank. Brocha, which is quite a warm site, was in the process of being harvested, whereas the harvest had yet to begin at Iona, which is in a cool spot on top of a ridge.

Some Syrah from Brocha arrived in the winery and Werner decided he was going to ferment this with whole bunches in small plastic bins. The grapes were tipped into each bin by forklift, and Werner stomped them around a bit to release some juice, to get the fermentation going quicker. He also added a bucket of fermenting Sauvignon to each, again with a view to getting things going quickly. The bins were then sealed up with plastic wrap around the lids, and they’ll later be inspected at regular intervals to check their progress.

Then some Riesling turned up. This was to be pressed whole bunch, which means pressing the entire bunches of harvested grapes to release the juice, rather than first desteming them. So we pulled the press out into the open, and got it ready. The draining tray on the press was connected to a pump, which was connected to the receiving tank, which had been flushed with inert gas. The press was filled by tipping in the grapes, and then it was started. The juice that came out is quite brown in colour, which is alarming if you aren't used to it. This is because of compounds called phenolics in the grape skins and flesh oxidising and turning brown (think of what happens to an apple if you cut a slice and leave it), and it’s quite normal. During fermentation this all cleans up. As the juice filled up the press tray it was pumped into the tank. The only addition was to be a bit of sulphur dioxide and some white tannin. No settling enzymes were used.

Finally, we took a trip out to see two another vineyard: Langrug. This is a really interesting 14 hectare vineyard planted on distinctive koffieklip soils. There’s Pinot here, plus some Sauvignon, and two hectares of newly planted Nebbiolo, which will be very interesting. Langrug is an interesting spot, and the 2017 Pinots, which have now finished fermentation, taste lovely.

The second day was spent at Paul Cluver, which is the pioneering wine farm of Elgin. Dr Paul Cluver, a leading neurological consultant, planted vines here in 1987. ‘Everyone thought we were crazy,’ he said, because at the time apples were the main crop in the valley, and they were commercially successful. In the late 1990s, though, it was a tough time for apples and lots of second and third generation family farms ended up being sold. So grapes became more widely planted. Now, things have changed, and apples are once again highly profitable – so much so that some significant vineyards have been ripped up.

I spent the day taking part in vintage here at Paul Cluver, shadowing winemaker Andries Burger. The main task that day was sorting 17 tons of Pinot Noir that had come in. The 2017 vintage was promising, but there was some uneven ripeness in the Pinot. So Andries ran a two-stage sorting process. First, there were six people sorting the bunches. Then, six more people sorted the berries, once they have been destemmed. The sorted berries end up in a bin that is then tipped into the fermenting tank with a fork lift, to avoid pumping.

Every morning, all the ferments are tasted and checked for density (which tells you how much sugar is left, and is the way that the progress of the fermentation is checked). In most wineries, this is done using a hydrometer in a measuring cylinder full of wine. But Andries has a device that checks it automatically, which is quicker and more reproducible. It costs €3000, but he says it’s the best money he has ever spent.

Then it was time to do some punching down of ferments. This is slightly precarious, because you need to apply enough pressure to force the floating mass of grape skins down, but not too much because they then give, and you could end up falling into the tank. These are deep tanks, and this would be very dangerous. Many people have suffocated in wineries because of the carbon dioxide produced by ferments. Apparently, an Italian intern fell into a ferment here a few years ago, but luckily survived, and that was during a pump over. That takes some doing: maybe he fell asleep.

In one of the tanks, the fermentation had slowed so the cap of skins was protected by adding some dry ice. This stops the development of volatile acidity, which is a vinegary smell that occurs in the presence of oxygen when the cap dries a bit.

Day 3 of my Elgin harvest experiences was at Almenkerk, hosted by owners Joris van Almenkerk and Natalie Opstaele. They are great fun and have a really thoughtful, scientific approach to farming. The day began with a farm tour, riding pilion with Joris on his motorbike as he took me through some blocks that were almost ready to pick.

Back in the winery, it’s time to sort the bunches of Sauvignon Blanc before it is destemmed, crushed and then pumped to the press, through a must chiller, which cools it down. The fruit is pretty clean so it’s just a question of looking for rot or raisins. As the press fills, dry ice (colid carbon dioxide) is added to keep the fruit cool and to keep oxygen away. Before the press begins pressing, juice runs from the crushed fruit and is pumped to tank. When the press is full it is closed and the press cycle of 2.5 hours is started. Sauvignon juice looks very different to Chardonnay: it’s really green in colour. 

Then it was time to press some Pinot Noir projects. Because these are small ferments, they are done with a basket press. And it’s a tiny basket press, worked by hand. This squeezes the remaining wine out of the skins (red wines are fermented with the skins of the grapes), and leaves a fairly soild cake. This wine is called 'pressings'. 

The final day was spent at biodynamic producer Elgin Ridge, with talented young winemaker Kosie van der Merwe and owners Brian and Marion Smith. We went to the vineyards where Sauvignon Blanc was being harvested. The grapes were looking perfect. They are harvested into lug boxes and then taken a short distance to the winery. Also being harvested, after the Sauvignon was finished, was some Semillon. This was also looking very nice.

The first job was to take the riper bit of the Sauvignon and foot tread it in small bins, to make a skin-contact/carbonic component for their new 'Chaos' wine, which is a blend of Sauvignon and Semillon. Dry ice and some sulphur dioxide were added, and the whole bin was then sealed up with plastic wrap around the lid. Some of the grapes were destemmed and pumped into a couple of barrels, placed on their ends. One of the ends of the barrel is taken off and the Sauvignon will ferment in this barrel like a red wine, in contact with the skins, before being pressed off. The rest of the destemmed and crushed Sauvignon goes to the press. 

I really enjoyed this gentle immersion into harvest, and when I revisit Elgin in October, I'm looking forward to seeing how these wines are shaping up. 

See the links below to Jamie Goode's wine blog for more fantastic images, videos and information about his harvest experiences: 

Paul Cluver
Elgin Ridge

- Jamie Goode