PART 2: In Pursuit of Balance (Wine Making in South Africa)
BY WINE MANAGER ( & WINe Maker), ANGELO VAN DYK
It’s been four weeks since I left the winter chill of London and landed back in the fair Cape. The initial excitement of being back in the country was VERY quickly swamped by the reality of the water crisis out here. It was a very sobering moment coming to terms with the household rations (we have to flush the toilets with water we are collecting from our showers) and, as I slowly began networking and meeting up with farmers and winemakers, the effect the drought is having on the vines and this vintage is staggering. The industry has changed drastically in recent years, with many producers, like myself, now buying in fruit as opposed to owning land and farming it themselves. Fruit is in such high demand this year that producers are fighting tooth and nail to get their hands on whatever grapes they can possibly get. It’s like the Hunger Games.
Smaller blocks hidden out in the Swartland and Stellenbosch are being laid claim to like desperate colonialists grabbing land in the early days of Imperialism. Yields are down almost 50%, and the harvest has been unpredictable and rather condensed. Winemakers have also been struggling to make accurate calls on when to pick, as sugar levels have been all over the place. It’s a weird and challenging one on all fronts.
I have successfully brought in and started fermentation on my Bot River Grenache Noir. I basically have divided the ton of fruit into three separate fermentation bins, and I am experimenting with different percentages of whole bunch versus destemmed fruit. Bin 1 is 100% whole bunch. Bin 2 is 50% whole bunch. Bin 3 is 25% whole bunch. Initially I foot crushed the three bins, and for the first three days I foot trod most of it, but I am now able to punch it down every morning. Potential alcohol is looking around 13ish% which is GREAT (Grenache from this Bot River site being notoriously boozy, with some wines peaking in at 15%). The Grenache will be pressed tomorrow, and it is showing beautiful red fruit, racy acidity and grippy tannin.
The Syrah has proved to be a trickier exercise. I initially managed to earmark a stunning vineyard site in the cool climate region of Elgin. But, as every harvest has taught me, the tricky business does not lie in the winemaking efforts, but rather in the logistics of timings and space in the cellar. I’m looking at a few weeks still for the Elgin grapes to ripen, be picked, ferment dry, a few days for extraction, pressing and then barreling down – and its dangerously close to my imminent return to London. So, I had to make a disappointing but necessary decision to change my tune slightly and track down a block of Syrah from the Paardeberg, sitting on the border between the Swartland and Paarl. It is a small, gnarly block, producing a more juicy, heavy bunch of grapes as opposed to something ultra-tight and concentrated. But already, a few days into fermentation, there is a beautiful cracked black pepper and spice note to the wine that I am falling in love with. Because of being pressed on space in terms of vessels for the grapes, I used a little trick to accommodate my love for using stems during fermentation. The entire ton of Syrah was destemmed, and then between two bins, the 50% of the stems were layered across the bottom before the grapes added on top of this. This means that although I do not get the luxury of whole bunch fermentation, I can still gain some of that beautiful aroma and tannin from the stems.
By the time I leave (which at the time of writing feels scarily close now) the wine will all be pressed, blended and barreled down to start its maturation process for the next 12 months in old French oak barrels. The excitement of what this wine could be has been inspiring beyond words. Wine truly is an incredibly humbling thing, and it constantly has this ability to force me to stop, look inward, and consider. There is something rather grand about learning life lessons from something as simple as grape juice. And it’s for that reason that I continue to fall deeper and deeper into this love affair.