Earlier this year, it was time to practically apply two years worth of difficult theory; we finally got the chance to make our own wine. The excitement brewed inside me as we had to make 50 liters of wine. My own “mini harvest”, a term I coined from the fact that it was not thousands of gallons. I did however find it annoying that some of the final years would mock me for sharing my “mini harvest” on social media.
After a much needed week long break we received a class list with our allocated grape varieties and the style of wine to be made. Handed down vaguely written instructions, ‘a recipe book’, and a farm plan were also included in the package. I scrolled down the list and found-Merlot (barrel aged)- next to my name. There are not enough words in the English dictionary to describe the feeling of confusion that gripped me at the time. ‘Where the hell am I going to start?’ was all that ran through my mind.
My grapes were located at the high altitude Welgevallen experimental farm, almost at the base of Stellenbosch Mountain. Looking back from the farm, Stellenbosch town and Kayamandi can be seen in the distance, an incredibly stunning view that can only be typical of the Western Cape. Back when I would go for early morning runs, days well in my past now that its exam season, I would route through the vineyard with its cool, crisp, fresh air. At some point you could even smell the grapes. I would randomly sample the grapes, as taste is an indicator of how ripe the grapes are, to determine if they were ready for harvest. It was then that I realized the very deep connection between the wine, the place and the time in which it was grown.
Whether it was by factual knowledge or unexplainable precognition within the wine community, rumors that the years’ harvest was going to be early by about 2-3 weeks, spread like wild fire: true to word it did. Some of my classmates (careless ones) had their sugar levels suddenly sky rocket from 21° Balling to 26-28 ° balling. This basically meant that there were high sugar levels and a bucket load of alcohol in the wine. As if the misfortunate events were not enough, the weather threatened rainfall of biblical proportions. This meant gruesome rot and fungal spores would begin to germinate; the grape berries would also swell up to cracking point. I could only imagine the state of panic running rampant among the wine makers caught unaware and unprepared.
Owing to the way things were going, I did not want to risk leaving my grapes on the vine for too long. Heat waves also plagued us at the time and the grapes would either be over ripe or over cooked. I planned an early 5 am morning harvest with some mates to help with the harvest of only six crates of beautiful, attractive bunches. In the process, I managed to slice my finger open with harvesting pruners, which is apparently common for a beginner. Thanks to my mates we were in and out quickly before the threatening downpour.
Once I destemmed and crushed the grapes, a juice sample was analyzed for various components. It came back positive: which meant I did not have to rectify the must. I then placed the must with the skins and left them to macerate for 3 days before fermentation. One of the things I found difficult as a rookie was deciding on what yeast to add. The list of options did not end, as each and every specification on the available yeast had to be read before deciding on a choice. Like a good food menu it was important to make the right decision.
Once fermentation started, the repetitive hard work of punch downs began. I treated my wine as though it were a child; I made sure it was happy at all times. One of my biggest fears was stuck fermentation, so I carried out punch downs every five hours. It was a good study break for me, and I would go the cellar at 12 or even 1 am in the morning and get physical. I loved the way the juice would stain my clothes and skin, that deep red color almost like blood.
There is something magical about the cellar during its peak time of activity, the hustling and bustling of people in and out with crates full of different grapes and machines grinding away. In the air there’s a dance between the sweet, fruity aromas of fresh grapes and yeast, followed by a rich and intense punch of fermenting must. It’s really hard to explain, but its one of those moments where, I guess, you have to experience it to understand.