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  • Writer's pictureCathy Henderson

Hands on harvest

Updated: Aug 29, 2019

Harvest is a time when the best of the Cape is revealed... with vibrant vineyards backdropped by blazing blue skies, and mountains with a lilac hue form a cardboard cut-out background, surrounding this ‘Mediterranean’ of the southern tip of Africa. And the vibrancy continues inside the cellars, where it's 'cooking'!...

Harvest is one of those moments of crucial activity at a winery, and one of the many lasting impressions from this particular time in the wine cycle is the aromas that pervade a cellar. If you love wine and find yourself enticed by that intriguing grapey, dusty combination, the cellar smell personifies all that, alluringly with something else that feels as old as time. The senses are riddled with anticipation and the activity in the air is palpable... life is discernible everywhere, even down to your fingers as a berry is plucked from a bunch – for a sample – to determine whether it is indeed time for the ‘big pick’. While the bunches appear as little bodies, vine leaves are like smiling faces that tell you when the sun is too hot. This is the wonder of nature: when the heat becomes a slow burn, vine leaves individually turn away from the sun and protect the grapes, like pretty young girls on a beach in a Jack Vettriano painting, tilting their parasols from too much sunshine.

Red wine production can involve many different techniques....

Into the cellar, there is a synergy behind each action, through each person’s responsibility, essential given the sheer volumes of grapes and then amounts of juice being processed. This scale continues with the magnitude of volumes that eventually arrive in 750ml bottles for appreciation that finally tips into a 250ml savour-fest in the glass. What you drink then is not just about the final wine. It's also a result of this journey; the hands behind the wine, the literal fruits of labour.

I had the pleasure of gaining some insights from Boela Gerber at Groot Constantia, who kindly allowed me a quick visit during this peak wine time. I asked him about the red wine process and we spoke about some of the different methods – the ‘gentleness’ of pump-overs: the pump that circulates juice over grapes like Merlot, to punch-downs: a slightly harder and harsher technique for something in a blend, to the rota-tanks that circulate with shark-fin-like turbines, used for Cabernet and Shiraz to obtain greater extraction. Then, there are other techniques practised elsewhere, like thermo-vinification (something akin to blanching in cooking?!) and carbonic maceration: the French like this, where the grapes slowly implode and explode through interaction with oxygen. And this, Boela comments, is what he particularly enjoys about red winemaking; the fact that,

‘there are more parameters to play with while the wine undergoes production. And more flexibility to mold and tweak the final product than there are with white wines, which once picked and pressed, have an immediate critical time.’

I draw some further allusions to cooking (which raises an eyebrow at first!), but he agrees that wine production cycles indeed have a few similarities, for example, the difference between baking and cooking as Boela then comments,

‘with white wine you almost follow a recipe – pretty much essential with baking – but with red wine, like cooking, you can be creative!’
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