by Geena Whiting. 

There was a night this past month in which I battled to sleep. Exhausted from a hard day’s work in the cellar I lay in bed tossing and turning. Sleep eluded me, tentative excitement bubbled in my stomach. The next day I would be getting my very own grapes, to make my very own wine.

The Sauvignon Blanc grapes arrived in the early morning. The grapes themselves were crisp and green, with a medium thick skin that disintegrated easily when chewed and a watery pulp with flavours of tropical fruit and freshly cut grass.  Into the crusher de-stemmer they went; anticlimactic as they were led straight from the crusher de-stemmer into tank thirteen by a pipe.

A juice sample was drawn off the tank and needless to say I was underwhelmed and nervous. The juice was murky and had a dusty mustard hue to it. That tropical fruit was still evident on the nose, but a boring green apple was the main flavour on the palate. A sample also had to be drawn to be sent to the lab, and my first mistake happened in this step. Instead of adding 0.08ml of Sulphur to the sample (to prevent it from fermenting), I had added 8ml of Sulphur! So naturally the results that came back were a bit skew. But over the hurdle I went and sent in a new sample the next day (with the right amount of sulphur you will be glad to know).

Two days after settling the juice was a far more pleasant colour, a pale lemon-green with tropical fruit and some bell pepper coming through on the palate. I was feeling more confident, I racked off the juice into separate tubs to add the different treatments (acidifying and de-acidifying the juice prior to fermentation). This was simple enough and then after I simply decanted the different treatments into their respective kegs. The juice was allowed to homogenise over two days and a final sample was taken from each keg and sent in for analysis.

After the two day wait I was eager to get my “keg babies” fermenting.  The yeast was rehydrated and the juice inoculated correctly, no hick-ups thus far. On day 2 of fermentation the balling started to drop and like a proud mother hen I fluffed up my tail feathers and clucked around the cellar. Satisfied that this whole wine making thing isn’t as hard as it looks. Well it’s all well and easy to think that when everything is going your way.

Fermentation continued until about day 9, that’s when disaster struck (well in my eyes it was a disaster). The Balling hadn’t changed for the last 3 days, the fermentation was stuck, I was distraught, I had done everything correctly and why wasn’t it working??? Then after some tears and a discussion with my mentor, he suggested it was the cooling system that was making the fermentation sluggish. Yeast need “Warmer” temperatures to ferment effectively, and my kegs were sitting at a very chilled 12°B. Removing them from the cooling system and just letting them sit there the fermentation came right once again.

With them having had a sluggish start, reduction soon followed and daily stirring with a whisk was required for each keg over a period of three days. Needless to say I think I can now whip cream without an electric beater! The reduction soon passed and all seemed well. But this was not the end of the trials, it was not as they say smooth sailing ahead.

Kegs are pressurized containers, so when you have fermenting wines in them, one must never close it fully, otherwise it will be difficult, almost impossible to get it open. And low and behold a keg was closed to tightly, I tried to use the pressure valve to get some air out but it was no use, instead of air wine came bubbling out. In the heat of the moment I viciously kicked down on the lid and BOOM! Out sprays half of the keg… well done Geena, well done. Distraught that I had wasted half of the one keg I vowed to myself to always handle the kegs with respect and love.

Fermentation was coming to an end and everything had aligned itself nicely. Until one fateful morning I walked into the cellar and gawked, looking at the spot where my kegs should have been, and then two meters to the right where they were lined up neatly in the same order I had left them in but open, open to the heavens and the elements. Freshly off the ferment wines just left open. I ran toward them, hoping that somehow they were alright, but hope can be a fickle thing. My once glorious green-lemon wine was now brown with a hint of pink, a slight red apple sherry smell had replaced the tropical fruit. I collapsed on the ground in a heap of tears, the culmination of my entire education had been ruined by a bystander.

Gathering myself together I once again turned to my mentor not thinking it was fixable, and yet he seemed un-phased and simply said sulphur is a winemakers friend. Thus I added 80ppm of sulphur to each get and gave the empty space at the top of each keg a healthy dose of CO2 to prevent any chance of someone opening them or the wine getting oxidized. Two days later I tentatively opened each keg to see the damage, and they were back to their glorious lemon green colour and expressing beautiful aromas. They were saved by some sulphur and are now sitting happily in the cellar awaiting bottling.