Making red wine at Gabrielskloof

By Jamie Goode | 5 March 2018

#SAharvest2018, #2018harvest, #2018SAharvest, winemaking, #winemaking, Gabrielskloof, #Gabrielskloof

Last year I caught the winemaking bug. I was invited out to spend time in the cellars of four of the leading producers in Elgin, South Africa's coolest-climate wine region, which is currently a bit of a hotspot. In particular, Elgin is turning out some very fine Chardonnay. The brief experience of being in these cellars meant that when Peter-Allan Finlayson (of Crystallum and Gabrielskloof) invited me to spend some time at his place during vintage, I immediately cleared some time in my diary, and booked flights.


Gabrielskloof is located in Bot River, which is a lesser known region that's sandwiched between Elgin and Hemel-en-Aarde, two of the best known of South Africa's cool climate wine regions. As you head out east from Cape Town on the N2 you enter Elgin by crossing the Sir Lowry Pass, and then leave it via another pass. In effect, Elgin is an elevated saucer, surrounded by mountains on all sides. As you leave, Bot River is the wine region at lower altitude before you get to Hermanus and the Hemel-en-Aarde. It's therefore warmer and drier than these two regions, but it does have some interesting soils.


The real appeal of working in the Gabrielskloof cellar was that this is a collaborative space. Peter-Allan is married to Nicolene Heyns, daughter of the owner Bernhard Heyns. Initially he didn't want to get involved, but in 2015 he agreed to help out, and has really helped turn this winery around. So he makes his Crystallum wines here, too, and the space is also shared by Marelise Niemann of Momento and John Seccombe of Thorne and Daughters. So there's always something going on.


In most cellars, during vintage time there are extra people helping out in addition to the permanent staff. These are the harvest interns, and for 10 days I joined their ranks. Some interns are experienced winemakers and are a real asset in the cellar. Others are less clued up but can be helpful if they are given jobs within their ability. I fell into the latter category. One of my specialities was washing the small crates (called 'kissies') that the hand-picked fruit is collected in.


I was lucky in that I'd picked the absolute peak of harvest. This is the busiest and most exciting time to be around in the winery, because grapes are arriving every day. The four producers here were all in full flow. Gabrielskloof have their own vineyards, next to the winery, so monitoring these grapes and picking them at the right time is quite straightforward. But for Crystallum, Momento and Thorne and Daughters, almost all the grapes are bought from growers scattered around the Western Cape, so monitoring these, deciding when to pick and then bringing the grapes in is a large portion of the work at vintage time. This is because picking decisions really shape the quality of the final wine, and for making really interesting wine you just want to be on the cusp of ripeness: the stage where ripeness is just about achieved but before there's any over-ripeness in the grapes.


I was really interested to spend a prolonged time in one winery. I was there to get stuck in, and for me this provided a great opportunity to observe and learn. It's quite easy to know a lot of theory about the science of winemaking but then not to have a lot of practical knowledge, and this is an imbalance I was keen to redress. It turns out, though, that most of winemaking is fairly simple, if you are dealing with good fruit. It's about moving things around and cleaning. The critical bit is paying attention, and getting the timing right. And leaving things alone requires a lot of skill and knowledge: inexperience tends to lead people to do more and add more and take a cautious, defensive position.  


Here I'm going to describe the red winemaking that I was involved with, mostly with Peter-Allan Finlayson's Pinot Noir, destined for the Crystallum label. One of the first things I did was help process the Pinot Noir from the Cinéma vineyard in Hemel-en-Aarde. The fruit had already arrived and was waiting in the cold room, having been picked into 18 kg crates called 'kissies'. This is a nice way to handle fruit: it means the grapes are undamaged and they don't have to be processed immediately. Another way is to pick into half-ton bins. Here, the weight of the grapes at the top will squish some of the grapes at the bottom, so this is only really an option if you are going to be processing soon after picking, and the advantage here is logistical: the grapes can be moved around by fork lift in the bin, and then tipped directly into the destemmer or a hopper and conveyor feeding a destemmer. The kissies take quite a bit of lugging around, but another advantage of these is that if the grapes come in quite warm (it's warm here during harvest), they can be cooled overnight before processing.


Our job was to sort the grapes on a slow moving sorting table. The fruit looked in good condition, but because of the drought, the birds had taken quite a fancy to the grapes and so any bird damage had to be picked out. There was no rot, which is very nice, but there was a bit of raisining on some of the bunches. Grapes that have raisined a bit taste just like raisins: all they will be contributing to the must is sugar, and also these baked, raisiny flavours, so it's best to sort these out or alcohol levels in the final wine will rise.


The first lot of fruit was to be fermented whole-bunch, which meant that after sorting, it was taken by conveyor to a plastic fermenting bin as intact bunches. These take about a ton and a half of grapes, and are a really nice way of fermenting wine: they can be moved around as desired by forklifts, and you can get very hands on with the ferment. There's a lot of discussion about the merits of using whole bunches in fermentations. It's a traditional method (the norm now is to remove the grapes from the stems by a destemmer) that can add green notes and freshness to a wine, and also lovely aromatics and structure, when it's done well. A lot of Pinot producers use a portion of whole bunches at the bottom of the fermenter, and then put destemmed berries on top. But here Peter-Allan wanted a portion that was 100% whole cluster.


Once the bin was full, I had to get in and foot tread it. The idea here is to release enough juice to get the ferment going, while maintaining the integrity of most of the bunches. So I took my boots, socks and jeans off and climbed on top of the grapes and began treading. It's actually quite hard work, and also a little uncomfortable (the grapes were very cold). But its also a wonderful way to connect with what will soon be wine. Some of the intact clusters will begin an intracellular fermentation, while the juice that has been released will begin a normal alcoholic fermentation. The gradual release of sugar from the whole berries as they break down will keep fermentation ticking along for a while.


After half an hour of stomping, I washed my feet (grape juice is very sticky, and after a day in the winery you feel sticky all over) and we added some dry ice (solid carbon dioxide to keep the oxygen away) and put the lid on the poly bin. This will then be checked every day to see how it's getting on.


The next batch of fruit had a little more raisining. So Peter-Allan decided that rather than sort any raisined berries out, we'd just pop the bunches with some rasining into fresh crates, and then process these separately. He'd then see how the ferment with the slight raisining turned out before deciding what to do with it, while removing these bunches would help keep freshness and lower alcohol in the main batch of wine.


So we filled up a fermemter with slightly raisined Pinot Noir, and added 18 cases of Chardonnay grapes to it in a quest to adjust the freshness and potential alcohol by natural and not chemical means. This also had to be foot trodden, but today I was wearing shorts, so fewer clothing items had to be removed. There's a culture of adding very little among the producers in the Gabrielskloof cellar. We didn't add yeast to any of the ferments, and most were started without any sulfur dioxide additions, either. The only thing I added was: (1) some tartaric acid to 20 tons of rosé skins that still had some juice in them, and which would be used to make a red wine for blending purposes; (2) some complex organic nutrient to a mid-phase ferment Chardonnay to keep the yeasts happy; and (3) some sulfur dioxide to a large tank of Pinot just before fermentation as a security measure.


For other batches of Pinot and Grenache, a destemmer was used. In this case, we weren't sorting as much, so the grapes were tipped into a hopper, then carried up a conveyor (at this stage you can do a bit of quick sorting) into the destemmer, which spits out the stems to the side and drops the berries into a receiving bin. When the receiving bin is full, it is picked up by a hydraulic winch and moved so that it's over the opening of a tank, when it is opened, dumping the grapes in.


Once the grapes are in the fermenter, it's a waiting game. Fermentation usually takes a few days to kick in. It's important to keep the cap of grapes at the surface wet, so that bacteria don't start growing (they need air; yeasts don't, although they appreciate a bit). This is usually done by punching down the cap with a large metal tool, or in the case of the larger tanks, with a hydraulic punch-down tool. The alternative is to pump wine from the bottom over the top of the skins, which helps keep the yeasts happy. If you punch down too much, you can end up extracting too much from the skins. For the small whole-bunch ferments that I foot trod, punching down is impossible because of all the stems. Here I turned over the cap with my hands and poured juice/wine all over the top of them with a jug. It's a really nice physical connection with the wine.


After fermentation is complete, it's common to seal the tanks up and leave them for a short post-ferment maceration, before pressing them to remove all the wine and leave the skins. Then the wine would settle briefly and go to barrel for a year. I didn't get to do this bit; it would have begun a week or two later. But that's it for red winemaking. Pretty simple, but hard to get right. Next time, I'll talk about making white wines: again, simple, but it's the details that count.  


Click here to see Jamie's pictures from the 2018 South African harvest

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