Or rather 11 South African wine students plundering through the European wine scene …
It all started in February. We received the enthusiastic whatsapp in the midst of harvest. All of us 5kgs lighter, exhausted and covered in bruises we all dreamt of a summer holiday. Pairing cheese fondues and chocolate with Chasselas in Switzerland and then progressing onto Sangrias in San Sebastian, Mojiňos in Madrid with a few wine tastings sprinkled in-between. What more could one want?
Four months later, and after 18 hours of flying, the class arrived in Geneva for our Summer School adventure. We arrived – tired, hungry and cold ready for a European summer only to be greeted with rain. But very quickly the situation was rectified by the consumption of Chasselas. Chasselas – the Justin Bieber of Swiss wine. You either hate it or you love it. Or you hated it until it started releasing bomb singles like “Love yourself” (or in wine terms – the 1992 vintage).
And so began the daily assault on our bodies. Each day we were exposed to a plethora of Chasselas and other early ripening cultivar wines – from cheeky Gamays to sophisticated Pinot noirs. Pickled with the high acidity wines of the northern hemisphere we were then satiated with bread, cheese and cold meats to soak up the alcohol so we were ready for more tastings, cellar tours, industry-related trips and technical knowledge lectures.
The Swiss wine industry was a total game-changer – with its 1% total export it’s like the quiet kid in the class who keeps to themselves but once they open up you realise the dynamic (or biodymanic) personality inside which totally shocks everyone with their Dungeons and Dragons skills (which again, like Chasselas, you either get it or you really, really don’t).
In frenzy of drinking our way through the Swiss countryside we took a day to drive to France – to Burgundy in particular. Where we enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy…) the oxidised white wine style of Jura, explored the underground Disney villain-esque cellars of Burgundy, and ended the day with a visit to Clos Vougeout, a massive 50,4 ha single vineyard of Pinot noir.
Our time in Switzerland came to end and we said au revoir to the green landscape, Mount Blanc and Chasselas and shouted Hola to Espaňa!
Starting at the north of Spain we experienced our first taste of true Spanish wines. From the old-world cellar which, to put it delicately did not know what cellar hygiene was, to the clean-shaven, oxidation-phobic bodega we could not have picked two more contrasting wineries to visit. The petri-dish cellar, overgrown with penicilium and other fungi even David Attenborough wouldn’t talk about, produced some distinct metallic wines (possibly as a result of the flour/blood combo still used to treat the fermentation barrels) while the Taylor Swift (young, trendy, expensive and high maintenance) cellar produced full-bodied, fruity Tempranillos which suited the South African palate like a brandy and coke on night out.
In the middle of Spain we experienced the Spanish culture, starting with tapas and sightseeing and ending (like any self-professed Stellenbosch student would) with the debauchery of the Spanish nightlife where even the chaperones Despacito-ed the night away.
Further south we started to hit the top shelf of the liquor cabinet. While some still can’t drink brandy without the bitter memories of first year’s bad decisions the rest enjoyed learning about the similarities between the South African and Spanish brandy-making methods (with a discrete scoff and “Nah, South African’s better hey” when out of earshot of the winemaker). The sherry tasting was more successful, with a flick of his wrist and a long silver taster (which personally I think was a wand because you’ve got to be magical to pour sherry like that without spilling) the winemaker poured barrel testers for us into glasses 1m below.
We ended the trip with an excursion to the eastern coast of Spain. And what better way to end off a trip of a life-time than to be supplied with bubbly in Barcelona? The tour through the 6 storey riddling and aging cellar for one of the Cava producers rivalled the 4 storey night club in Madrid.
Finally we returned, with impressive technical knowledge, damaged livers, a higher tolerance for alcohol, international connections, a close knit group of friends and an eagerness to blow up the wine industry with our dreams of installing cranes in cellars, oxidising white wines and planting Chasselas.