Harvesting Notes from Elsenburg

That man Riaan Smit is back, this time reporting from the vineyards of Elsenburg Agricultural College where is now a final year student.

One day before harvesting Block B7 Sauvignon Blanc at Elsenburg, a bakkie lost a tyre on the Kromme Rhee road. It careened into a dry bed of reeds and grass below the block and started a fire. About two thirds of the 1,8 hectare block burnt down.

The dry-land vines with a sparse canopy had struggled in the unseasonal heat to get the grapes up to 22?+¦?????+¦???-¬ Balling. Dewald, Lucielle and myself ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ part of the final year class of winemaking students at Elsenburg – were going to make a Blanc Fume-style from the block.

We went into the vineyard after the fire, expecting shriveled grapes, but luckily the grass in the block was thin enough to only generate enough heat to scorch the leaves. Thankfully, the vines were not damaged.

We harvested and crushed 1,3 tons of the low yielding block last Thursday in 35?+¦?????+¦???-¬C heat. The 1000 liter of juice was racked Saturday morning, co-inoculated and is now bubbling away on oak staves. The wine will be called “Brand Fume” or “Dante” ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ as in the “Inferno”. The rest of the grapes in the block will be strangled to make straw wine.

Winds of change have been blowing sedately through the Elsenburg cellar ever since Bertus Fourie was appointed resident winemaker and lecturer in October last year.

Fourie would probably prefer hurricane-force winds. There is nothing sedate about him ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ he is obviously passionate about winemaking and lives for his craft. But the cellar is controlled by the Western Cape Department of Agriculture at Elsenburg Heights. Maybe officials do not comprehend the urgency of ripening grapes. Or maybe not enough quality wine went up the hill for copious consumption the last couple of years.

But things are happening. So far tanks have been modified to enable students to do techniques such as lees scrubbing, a network of stainless steel mash pipes with hydraulic valves have been installed in the red wine cellar, along with extended catwalks, six old fibre glass combi tanks are about to be ripped out and replaced with stainless steel tanks, a new mono mash pump is scheduled to arrive this week to replace the current clunker, three cold rooms are being renovated, and Class of 2011 are now tasting wine from snazzy new glasses.

We are keeping all the bottles we have tasted and will do a class photo with these at the end of the year. Expect a couple of hundred bottles.

We are only 10 B Agric winemaking students this year compared to the usual 20 of the last couple of years. We started on 12 January to prepare the cellar for harvest and to get up to speed with techniques and equipment to do analyses of sugar, pH, Total Acidity, free and total SO2, Yeast Available Nitrogen (YAN), and turbidity.

Two weeks ago we harvested and crushed Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for bubbly at Peter and Cathy Roelofse’s boutique winery, Hout Bay Vineyards. The terraced block above the house/cellar ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ stepped with dry stone walls – is easily the most romantic vineyard in the Cape. Earth works for the no more than one hectare block took the best part of a year.

It was the first experience of a working wine cellar for 7 out of the 10 students in the class. When we left, Cathy gave a baby chick to Madre, one of four women in our class. The chick was promptly baptised, Trossie, and is mucking about in a student house at Elsenburg.

The bulk of our harvest is yet to come. At least we now have a contract team to harvest our grapes and do not have to cut it ourselves. But we are in the vineyard at 06h00 every harvest day to set out the picking crates for the harvesters. Almost every week day for the next 3 ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ 4 weeks will be a harvest day. The idea is to simulate the conditions of a harvest on a commercial estate.

Each of us have been assigned a block of white and a block of red grapes to make wine individually. We are also working in two teams of three and one of four students to also make base wine for sparkling wine, brandy distilling, port, rose, and more red wine. My group are making a Mourvedre dry red.

Most of the blocks are healthy and we are recording low pHs and good acidities in spite of the excessive heat since December. The main problem is that the harvest will be squashed into a shorter period if the heat persists.

We do not have a class-free window during harvest and are expected to attend lectures in subjects such as Agricultural Engineering, Natural Resources, and Agricultural Management that are non-specialist subjects also attended by B Agric III students from other specialization areas. It is often annoying to drop everything in the cellar to attend a class that is not a priority at that moment. But that is live ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ nothing is perfect.

We are also in the cellar on Saturday mornings to do routine analyses and cleaning. So far, I have escaped the Saturday cleaning sessions because I am work in the tasting room at Kanonkop from 09h00.

I love the place ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ it is my wine church and I love the wine and love talking to people about it. Come and visit ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ it is open until 14h00 on a Saturday.

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