By Malu Lambert
Photography courtesy of Vondeling Wine Estate
There’s a nervous energy in the purple morning air. Grape pickers swarm down the hill towards the vineyards. They have shears in hand, and bandanas tightly wound round their heads. Harvest is in full swing here at Vondeling Wine Estate.
Crates of gleaming globes of Chenin Blanc are loaded onto the back of a tractor. With relentless haste, every last grape is picked. Up and down the hill to the cellar the tractor coughs—and just as quickly as it’s loaded, it’s off loaded.
Crush Them All
Like some kind of strange juggling act, black crates whiz through the air bouncing between a chain of men. Green grapes tumble into the waiting press and stalks are spat out the other side.
This performance is repeated many times over. A whirring green process that the bees love—they’re buzzing around in the first rays of sunlight gorging on sugar.
Soon, there are enough grapes to crush. An airbag inflates within the press and it turns like a cement mixer. Lime green juice gushes out of its sides and into the waiting trough below.
The juice has to be pumped directly from the trough into a waiting tank. Great care is taken so no air gets sucked in along with it. Oxygen is the enemy of new wine as it causes it to oxidise.
While this is taking place, a sorting table is being set up against the back of the building. A table is positioned outside on scaffolding and the tongue of the conveyor belt goes through the cellar window allowing the grapes to plop into the waiting tank.
Time to Play Sticky Hands
“This is an awesome harvest,” winemaker Matthew Copeland says, watching the purple procession of Merlot grapes, occasionally plucking out a stray stalk.
“Some years all the grapes come in at the same time, this year the white and the red have come in separately, and this gives me the leisure to really focus. “Although,” he says, “you’re either ahead or behind, you’re never exactly on top of things.”
Thousands of sticky grapes chug by on the sorting table. Six women on each side discard stalks, raisins and any other undesirable objects. This debris goes into a waiting container (or the floor) three metres below.
The women’s clothing and fingers are stained a rich purple hue. And, the conveyor belt, once white, is slick with magenta ooze.
The tanks are small open fermenters. Apparently this has an influence on the quality of the wine, as they’re manageable by hand. The winemaker can literally jump in and sort any problems out.
Viognier Gets Racked
Later, back on solid ground, Matthew screws a pump into a steel tank, “let’s get racking,” he says. Racking refers to when young wine is transferred into another tank leaving the sediment behind.
This is said to be better than filtering the wine, as filtering can sometimes remove the elements you want in your wine.
In the background a Bob Marley CD is playing, “This is the type of music I like to listen to while I’m harvesting,” he says checking the pump. “My wines thrive on reggae, everything else is too in-your-face, it keeps me relaxed. You can’t rush good wine.”
The amber liquid slowly gurgles out through a pipe. After a while, Matthew opens the circular hatch of the tank to check on the progress. I stick my head into the cool chamber, there’s a veritable sand dune of detritus.
“That stuff,” he says pointing, “will go into that tank,” pointing again at a tank labelled ‘Goeier Moor’. “We sell it to people who make brandy out of it.”
When Are the Grapes Ready to be Harvested?
Matthew has his cellar hands tearing round the vineyard on quad bikes collecting test samples.
When they get back with clear plastic bags, bursting with grapes, the grapes are crushed by hand. Once this is done they pour the juice into a tall plastic beaker to check the sugar levels.
Matthew does this because he needs to test the ripeness of the grapes. In sugar terms the grapes are ripe at an indicator of 25 Balling or so. So if the juice reads at anything above 20, he needs to go out into the vineyard himself to asses the grapes.
He then needs to make a decision. One that is determinate on many factors, not the least of which, is the weather.
Wine Enjoys a Good Yeast Cocktail
Now that the Viognier is racked, it’s ready for some yeast. Luke-warm water is mixed with some of the wine and a ‘yeast cocktail’ is added.
Matthew is on his haunches with his hands deep in the container, he works the mixture into a creamy lather.
“Come smell this,” he says to me, “this is what gives the wine those tropical fruit aromas.” He’s right the yeast smells rich and fruity.
Soon he’s up a ladder and emptying it into the top opening of the tank.
As the heat in the Voor-Paardeberg softens, Matthew wants to show me the barrel maturation cellar. “Shh,” he says as he pushes open the wooden door “you’re in the Aquarium now.”
I snap my mouth closed, and then I hear it, hot bubbles of fermenting wine.
“This is where I come to chill out,” he says. We walk down a passage of oaky cool barrels.
At the back of the cellar, he stops and pulls an air lock off a barrel. Matthew sticks a barrel thief (a cylindrical glass pipe) into the opening and siphons out some cloudy wine into crystal glasses.
I look into its foamy depths. Spurred on by the previous good smelling yeast, I ask if I can smell it.
“Sure,” he says. I stick my nose into the opening, and take a deep sniff. I jump back in surprise it feels as if I just inhaled lots of tiny needles.
With Matthew having a laugh at my expense, we clink our glasses and toast the six-day-old Chardonnay.
Living on a Farm is the Reward
With sweaty jeans and hands that smell faintly of sulphur, the day draws to a close. An enormous pile of wingerdstompies (vine branches or stumps) are collected and set alight.
Together we watch the sun go down, hot pink in an unpolluted sky. Matthew plays with his two Shar Peis, Leopold and Juliet. He’s settled in a chair by the fire, bubbly in hand.
There is something to be said about a sky removed from light pollution. Sharp and clear, the stars feel like they are mere metres above our heads.
He heads to bed early, because tomorrow the whole process starts again. It’s lucky then, that he’s a morning person. The number one quality a winemaker must have.
Watch the Video
Malu learns the tricks of the trade from Matthew, at Vondeling Wine Estate.