Harvest time in the winelands thrusts emotions to the fore, memories of pain and feelings of joy and wonder. Admiration and respect, mucho. This time of year also has me convinced that the bringing in of the grapes, the crush and the seeing of new wines on their way, this is what forges the vocation and skill of a winemaker. Every harvest past and that of now and of each following year, combined into a knotted string or collection of notches, this determines a winemaker’s destiny, will define the legacy they leave behind.
The pain, too, I felt. Shovelling de-juiced grape-skins out of 20 ton cement fermenters through the nights while working at a Paarl co-op. Your own sweat washing the gleam from the crushed berries. Night-after-night. Week-after-week.
Days of bending under an Andalusia sun, snipping luke-warm Palomino bunches from low vines, a powdery limestone residue having been left on the grapes from the easterly breeze that blew in overnight from eastern Spain. Ending the ten-hour days of work in 45°C weather, feeling like a rag doll breathing through a sponge, damp and hot. But back at the bodega, the smell of the fermenting sherry grapes, invigorating with its musky sour-sweet rancid, perked the spirits and cooled the mind. Making the sweat and back-break appear like part of cause noble and ancient, and worthy.
Decades later in the Cape, the harvest-time brings fond memories as well as the chance to share the amazement of the winemakers, the cellar-teams, the vineyard workers, as we meet and talk on the land or in the bustling, noisy wineries. Grinding machinery. Oak barrels rolled with a reverberating woody clunk. The floors glistening under films of water; the stainless steel tanks – filled with young fresh wine – icy-cold to the touch.
Despite the 18 hour days, here midway through the harvest, winemakers still have a glint in the eye. This is their moment. It is they who have to make that one crucial decision, namely when to pick the grape. For the fields of nature gives, but they can take away. Miss the sudden hot-spell, and the Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot jumps half-a-Balling in sugar. The wine of beauty that was hoped for and foreseen at the beginning of season, it is gone. Forever. The difference between majestic and ordinary can be hours in the picking time, and of all the chances there are, there is only one here in the vineyard. One chance to get it right.
In the cellar, everything that happens to each wine, only they the winemakers can do. It is in their hands, their destiny. Cometh the hour, cometh he or she who makes the wine.
The grapes are drawn to the winery, each green and purple batch touched and felt and tasted and smelt, the analytical mind already predicting the kind of journey the fruit is going to have, and how its juice will end-up.
I am still haunted by the fascination of fermentation. At Diemersdal Estate I see the Pinotage berries, each one selected by hand, pumped sloshing into a 1 000 litre vat of old wood. Then hours later, the black-mauve juice between the berries starts to show beads of tiny bubbles as the yeasts embark on an orgy of sugar slaughter. A day later, the vat is fermenting fast, the cap of skins pushed through the living wine below to add tannin and colour, grip and feel. The top layer is warmed by the strain and energy of fermentation. Slipping my arm through the cap and crush, I feel cool, dank, dark and mysterious liquid below. The road to wine has begun.
At De Wetshof in Robertson five tons of Chardonnay grapes, picked at 03.00 a.m. drop into the cellar’s gleaming open harvest bin. The berries are glistening green, and if they can warrant the description “green caviar”, Danie de Wet is happy.
Mashed and separated, the Chardonnay juice is placed in steel tanks for fermenting, drawing style and substance and personality from the lees. Taste the young fermenting wines, and the sweet juice reminds of sun and honey; natural energy and succulent fruit. A few days later, the fermentation has carried-off the overt sweet syrupiness. While the growing wine is still luscious nectar, the fermentation has started giving it a citrus-zip, a sharp zest. Like a slab of marble half-way chipped by the sculptor, a combination of rawness of origin and magic in the making. The vision, clear and inspired by dreams and hope.
To me amazing, is when winemakers taste these works in progress. Tannins and acidity are analysed and identified. The potential mouthfeel, which will only show in a year of more, is already predicted. Notes are made as to lees contact and wooding regimes that shall be required to express the outcome of that specific vintage.
Which differs from the one before, and will differ from the one lying ahead and waiting. For in another year’s time, it will begin again: the wonder. The remaining wonder that makes it all worth while.
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