Tibby sat looking at us, head cocked to one side and ears pricked up, from his usual position on the stairs, as we said goodbye, gave him a stroke and ventured out into the cold and snow flurries on Tuesday 12th February 2013 to start what would be a wonderful 3 week adventure in the Winelands of South Africa.
I didn’t fully appreciate that I was heading into summer and just how wonderful the heat would feel on my rather pastey pale skin, which felt like it hadn’t seen proper sun in several years. After 24 hours worth of travelling and two very straight forward and comfortable flights with Emirates Airlines, we touched down in toasty warm Cape Town. This trip was all the more poignant as we came to South Africa for our honeymoon almost 6 years ago, and having said we would love to come back we had no idea what the future held and that it would be wine that drew us back to this beautiful country.
Our decision to go to South Africa was inspired by Jeremy Borg, founder of Painted Wolf wines, who whilst visiting the UK in late 2012 came to Carruthers and Kent wine merchants in Gosforth, where we had the chance to taste a selection of his wonderful wines.
Jeremy’s story of how he got into winemaking and his overall passion for wine production as well as the conservation of endangered African mammals, in particular the wild painted dogs, inspired us so much that Kelvyn introduced us after the tasting and asked if it would be possible to see where he makes his wines and maybe get involved by offering to work voluntarily so we could learn in a more hands on way about the wine making process. We were both in the middle of studying for the WSET Advanced level qualifications and were fired up and enthusiastic about a potential future working in the world of wine – a 6 year long dream. And thus the spark was lit!
It all happened quite quickly after that, the final decision to give up our day jobs and spend the next year visiting and working our way around some of the major wine regions of the world was not an easy a decision to make, although you may snort at me in an disbelief for saying that, the risks of what is at stake add up and haven’t been taken lightly but the chance to take our lives in a new direction and embark on such an adventure were too much to put off any longer, it felt right now!
Before we knew it February had arrived and off we flew to Cape Town.
Within our first few days of arriving in Cape Town, we visited vineyards and wine estates in Stellenbosch, Paarl and Swartland. This enabled us to see where Painted Wolf grapes are grown and the wine is made. We also had the opportunity to meet the winemakers at Mulderbosch, Rhebokskloof, Leeuwenkuil and Koopmanskloof.
On our first afternoon, we met Adam Mason, winemaker at Mulderbosch Wine Estate, and had our first taste of the busyness of a SouthAfrican winery in the throws of harvest time. We were lucky enough to have a taste of the Painted Wolf sauvignon blanc fresh from the tank, it was beautifully refreshing, full of tropical fruit and green herbaceous notes, perfect on a hot day. Fresh from bottling the following week we were privileged to receive a bottle pre-label and boy did we enjoy that, Kelvyn said “this is the freshest Sauvignon Blanc I’ve ever had” and not previously being a huge fan of sauvignon blanc that was a big compliment. We look forward to more of that Jeremy!
Whilst at the sorting table, we noticed that some of the grapes were red and that these were being sorted and put into a separate basket. Upon enquiring as to what these grapes were, Adam explained that they were a mutation of the white Semillon grapes that were being sorted. He said that he hoped to experiment with these to see if a good wine could be made from them. We shall wait in anticipation!
We briefly met Francois Naude, new manager at Rhebokskloof wine estate, and tasted some wine from barrel. We will have to hunt out their reputable wines as we didn’t have the chance to return there for a full tasting.
We also had the pleasure of meeting the owner of Leeuwenkuil wines, Willie Dreyer, South Africa’s largest producer, which was fascinating to see compared to the smaller boutique styled wineries, huge stainless steel tanks in room after room, equipment all around you. Big business!
Our first taste of work was green harvesting a plot of viognier vines at Southern Cross Farm. So up bright and early we shot off up the road from Stellenbosch to Paarl, about a 30 minute drive North. We each worked our way through the rows of vines, clearing leaves and foliage that was preventing the grapes underneath from ripening or allowing them space to breath to avoid rot. We also cut away any rotten bunches of grapes to allow the rest a chance of ripening fully. It was a great morning and before we knew it, it was 2pm, and the job was done! The ripening grapes had a fantastic orange tinge to them and tasted of the “orangeyness” that you get in the wine. They were juicy and I was surprised by their flavour.
It was quite cloudy and rained a little when we ventured out this morning, but perfect for the work we did, as once the sun came out it was hot hot hot! By contrast, we drove up to Malmesbury and Swartland, which means ‘black’ land as it gets so hot the ground almost burns black. I could understand why, it felt dry and arid in comparison to the greenness of where we had just been. The earth was full of red quartz and glistened in the sun, hard to imagine anything living very well out there. But the divinely iridescent purple syrah and grenache were almost bursting at the seems with ripeness, almost ready to harvest.
We were lucky enough to be offered the chance to help out at Koopmanskloof and what an amazing experience that turned out to be. We measured the sugar levels and checked the temperatures of the fermenting grape juices in tanks, barrels and vats. We made up additions for the ferments to help things along, topped up where tanks of barrels had lost a lot of juice in evaporation, we checked on ferments, cleaned tanks, cleaned equipment, cleaned crates, basically, we cleaned a lot! We helped load the de-stemming machine when grapes arrived for processing, of which everyday there were more and more as the harvest kicked into full swing.
I was somewhat shaky legged when standing atop a vat of fermenting grapes balanced a little precariously on a plank of wood holding a quite heavy punching down prop to punch through the pretty solid cap of grapes, man that was a workout and a half. All I kept thinking was strong legs, focus, don’t fall in!!!
We stayed in the beautiful university town of Stellenbosch for the whole three weeks, which I will describe in a little more detail separately, and hired a car to get around. Living and working here was the most amazing learning experience and far surpassed our expectations of what it would be like over there. I am working on a list of the wine estates we visited and the wines we tasted to share and hopefully inspire you to try South African wines because I will be honest we were extremely impressed.