Tales from the Tank: Purity at Birth

It is not difficult to give an impression of being a vinous wise-ass. A few snappy throw-away lines are all that is required. In writing, said lines are impressive enough. But expressed verbally with the correct degree of casual elocution and roguish nonchalance they will make an audience of wine novices drool from the waist down.

Let’s face it, who is going to doubt your expertise when you describe a wine as ?+¦?+º?+¦showing tart signs of acid adjustment?+¦?+º?+æ? Identifying a ?+¦?+º?+¦possible stuck fermentation?+¦?+º?+æ is a knock-out and alluding to ?+¦?+º?+¦autolytic savouriness?+¦?+º?+æ will get panties thrown at you and have them googling your name after Jancis Robinson’s.

Sounding like a wine boffin is really not hard. And honing the skill of sounding like you know what you are talking about is great fun if one spends a little time in the cellar. This I discovered last week during a bout of harvesting at De Wetshof in Robertson. A few days strolling through the vineyards to taste the pre-ripe grapes, mix yeasts and commit the odd pump-over is a wonderful way to pick up little winey nuances and store them in the cranial hard-drive for later use.

Mind you, a winery during harvest is a wonderful place and a place of inspiration and enchantment for anybody with more than a passing interest in wine. The smell of crushed grapes, the briskness of the fresh pre-dawn air and the sound of the early-morning radio station while you are sitting in the bakkie watching the workers pick the grapes makes one feel a true part of the industry.

My light-bulb experience this year was tasting the unfermented juice and experiencing the effect of terroir on this just-pressed sweet stuff. Four different blocks of Chardonnay had been harvested and after 24 hours settling in a cold tank, I did an early-morning swirl and swallow. Remember, this was pure, unfermented juice from its mother. And this is where the influence of soil, aspect and climate comes to the fore in all its purity. It truly is amazing.

The juice from a vineyard in the direction of Bonnievale, lying in a warm rocky spot sunken below De Wetshof’s Pinot Noir vineyard, showed a heady scent of hay, honey and despite no fermentation bready dough.

Same grape variety, same state of virginal purity, but this time the juice came from the even gravelly limestone vineyards near the De Wetshof winery. Subjected to the cooling breezes from south and with roots in looser mineral soils, this juice was tart and green apple, with a refreshing zip and already showing an elegant structure.

Another tank of juice was from the famous Limestone Hill vineyard, where clay is more prominent than gravel, but the rich limestone ensures balance and pH. Bigger juice, mouth-filling as a hungry kiss with a rich, viscous sweetness.

And so it continued throughout the session, a marvellous example of diversity in the wines’ embryonic stage. No, I was not scribbling notes or whacking an iPad. Memory is taste is memory. And having been subjected to each vineyard’s purity, I believe I will have a better understanding of the end-product once the wines have been through fermentation, settling and where applicable barrel-aging.

It’s not rocket science. But enriching in a world where small observations and experiences can leave life-long impressions.

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