From Grape to Glass—Bottling the Sauvignon

By Malu Lambert

The morning starts with a phone call. “Guys, I’m bottling,” says winemaker Matthew Copeland on one end. 
“What are you bottling?” asks SAWIS (South African Wine Industry Information & Systems).
“A bit of Sauvignon,” says Matthew.
“And the origin,” says SAWIS, 
“Voor-Paardeberg,” says Matthew.

The vintage is needed, as well as the tank number and other minutiae that SAWIS needs to know (in order to monitor and control the Wine of Origin Scheme from vine to bottle) before Matthew can flip the ‘on’ switch on his bottling unit.
Winter seems to have given Vondeling a reprieve this late June morning. After weeks of wet storms, the sun is shining and it’s just the day to bottle 14 000 bottles of Sauvignon Blanc. 
The vineyards are stripped of leaves, the bare branches are pruned back, occasionally a forgotten raisin hangs among them. The scene is so far removed from the green vineyards of a few months ago.

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Bottles to Be Filled 
A mobile bottling unit is standing outside of the cellar; the truck is reminiscent of mobile libraries that used to park near shopping malls. Labourers in bright blue overalls are all in position, already working quickly.
The Sauvignon Blanc is pumped straight from the cellar into the unit. The process is a neat, compact operation. Green bottles are unwrapped and passed from one hand to another, and off they go on their journey.
At the first stop they get disinfected, next they are filled with the wine and lastly a screw cap is placed on the head of the bottle and the machine exerts huge amounts of pressure to seal it.

The Anti-wine Gets its Day
The operation is in full swing. Matthew and I are chatting about the character of Sauvignon Blanc and how it’s seemingly set apart from the rest of the wine family.
“When I say that Sauvignon Blanc is the anti-wine—I don’t mean that I’m anti Sauvignon,” Matthew says. “I mean that Sauvignon is the odd one out; it goes against the flow, the trend,” he says.

“And the reason for this is that it goes against the natural evolution of wine, it’s the only wine that you are almost obsessive about removing the most useful evolutionary tool—oxygen. In winemaking oxygen is the most important chemical, it can be used for enormous good, but it can also be very destructive.”

This is interesting I’ve never heard anyone speak about Sauvignon Blanc in this way. Wine is wine right? Not so, according to Matthew, he says that Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t make use of oxygen as a tool; instead as a winemaker you need to focus exclusively on primary grape and fermentation aromas.

“It’s the one wine you don’t want to develop. It’s the others that you want to evolve and soften,” he says. He goes on to say that it’s the wine that incorporates the most science, and that it’s not a romantic product.
“All these things aside,” Matthew adds, “it’s the most profoundly terrior-sensitive product. It’s a wonderfully interesting wine, highly sensitive—in origin, cellar and bottle. It has the strongest signature of origin that a wine can have.”
In Matthew’s opinion the world is moving towards more tropical styles when it comes to Sauvignon Blanc. “Although,” he says, “it’s the greenness that we chase, that’s why we avoid oxygen.”

Apparently this greenness—which can be described as a grassy, green pepper, or asparagus-like aroma—are said to be caused by a specific group of chemical components, called methoxypyrazines.
These chemical compounds are apparently very sensitive to oxygen and sunlight. A reason, perhaps, why areas that are successful in growing the variety are usually cooler, shaded and misty.

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Kick-starting the Merlot
Matthew leaves the Sauvignon Blanc. He has other worries to attend to; namely ten barrels of Merlot that haven’t yet started their malolacticfermentation.

Inside the barrel cellar, Matthew is hosing down some barrels. He’s sterilised a couple of heating rods called Aquarium Heaters. The idea is to kick-start the malolactic process by heating up the wine, and giving the bacteria a more desirable environment to thrive in.

I’m carrying a wreath of heaters, extension cords and plugs wrapped around my arm and neck. The floor is covered in water, I’m slightly nervous as Matthew threads the wires around the barrels. Luckily I’m wearing rubber soles.

Once the heaters have been inserted into the barrel openings, they’re switched on. All Matthew can do now is wait. He monitors the barrels in three ways. He listens for fizz, which would indicate that the process has started. He uses his nose, to smell for malolactic fermentation. Apparently it can have a metallic scent or a smelly one, it all depends on if it’s going the right way or not.

Lastly he can take samples to the lab to be analysed. There he’ll find out if desirable bacteria are consuming the malolactic acid or if the wine is turning into volatile acid, vinegar to you and me.

Wine is a Living Thing
Matthew is so careful, thorough, and dedicated in what he does. And he has to be, because as he puts it, “wine is a living process, you have to treat it with care”. 
The winemaker’s job is no nine to five, as wine is constantly evolving and changing. Never dormant, it’s on the same path of birth to death. Perhaps that’s why some people are so passionate about winemaking. 
And just like us, wine changes every year. The factors influencing its maturation are endless, from its age to its environment, to the way it’s been handled and treated.
Wine has a long journey before it ends up in your glass. It’s a living thing shaped by origin, nurture, and by the passion of the winemaker.

Watch the video to see how the Sauvignon Blanc bottling is done, and for a brief update on the Chenin Blanc.