Crystallum: some of South Africa's most compelling Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

Crystallum is the wine label of Peter-Allan Finlayson (above), who set up in partnership with his brother (Andrew, a Hermanus-based architect) and his Dad (Peter, who was the first winemaker in Hemel-en-Arde with Hamilton Russel, and who for a long time now has been cellar master at Bouchard Finlayson).

Peter-Allan, though, is the main dude here, and he makes the wines. He started out in 2007 with just one wine, a Sauvignon Blanc, but since then the focus has been firmly on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, sourced from top vineyards sites in the Overberg, with an emphasis on Hemel-En-Aarde. Until very recently, the vineyard sources were all from growers, but more recently Crystallum has begun to get involved in vineyard ownership, which helps to protect grape supply for the future.

The wines are made at Gabrielskloof, where Peter-Allan is cellar master. Previously they were made at Hemelrand in Hemel-en-Aarde, a cellar shared with Chris Alheit and others (now Chris has grown to the point where he needs all the space). Winemaking is appropriate: low intervention, usually with no adds until fermentation is complete except for some organic nutrients during the middle of the Chardonnay fermentations or occasionally a bit of sulfur dioxide in the larger ferments, and with a high proportion of stem use in the Pinot Noir.

These are some of the (if not the) best expressions of the Burgundy grapes being produced in South Africa at the moment.

Crystallum The Agnes Chardonnay 2009 Western Cape, South Africa
The first vintage of The Agnes, drawing on three vineyard sources. Lovely toast and nut on the nose with some hazelnut and honeycomb. Lovely weight with fine spiciness and some pure pear and peach fruit. Nicely balanced, this has developed really well into this toasty maturity. 92/100 (02/18)

Crystallum Clay Shales Chardonnay 2016 Hemel en Aarde, South Africa
Made in a 2600 litre foudre, this is a lovely, textured Chardonnay. Pear and citrus fruit with a bit of depth, some silkiness in the mouth, and pretty tangerine detail. Subtle, elegant and lovely. 94/100 (03/17)

Crystallum Clay Shales Chardonnay 2017 Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, South Africa
Stony and mineral with a lovely spicy, lemony twist. Textural and fresh with a hint of pineapple richness. Really detailed and spicy with lovely weight. This is bright and precise with citrus and pear, and a hint of apple. A profound Chardonnay. 95/100 (02/18)

Crystallum Peter Max Pinot Noir 2017 Western Cape, South Africa
14% alcohol. Blend of the four different vineyards: three in Hemel en Aarde and Elandskloof. Nice density here: textured and sweetly fruited with a fine, sappy green hint to the fleshy, ripe raspberry and red cherry fruit. It’s really fine and elegant with nice sweetness and gentle extraction. Such a satisfying, elegant wine. 94/100 (02/18)

Crystallum Peter Max Pinot Noir 2015 South Africa
30% whole cluster. Pure floral aromatic nose with sweet cherries and plums. Elegant and supple with lovely purity and finesse on the palate. Red cherry, red currant and lovely silkiness and weight. 95/100 (03/17)

Crystallum Cuvée Cinéma Pinot Noir 2014 Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, South Africa
There’s a leafy, sappy edge to this wine, with some fine herb and undergrowth notes. It’s showing some maturity, but it’s really elegant and fine with a lovely graininess. It’s more advanced than it should be, but it may be a vintage thing. Drinking really nicely now but don’t keep it. 93/100 (02/18)

Crystallum Cuvée Cinéma Pinot Noir 2016 Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, South Africa
Supple and epressive with fine red cherries and nice raspberry bite. Has some sappiness. Very textural and freshwith nice graininess. Good definition and purity. 95/100 (02/18)

Crystallum Cuvée Cinéma 2016 Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, South Africa
Supple, fresh and elegant with fine spices and a bit of savoury grip with sleek cherry fruit. Serious but with lots of pleasure. 50% whole cluster, 4-5 weeks on skins. The whole bunch adds nice structure. 95/100 (02/18)

Crystallum Cuvée Cinema Pinot Noir 2016 Hemel en Aarde, South Africa
Fresh and vital with lovely red cherries and plums. Lovely finesse to this wine, which is juicy and lively but also has a silkiness to it. 94/100 (03/17)

Crystallum Whole Bunch Pinot Noir 2016 Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, South Africa
Same vineyard as Cuvée Cinéma, but 100% whole cluster. First release and  just two barrels made. Sweetly aromatic with lovely fine spices and supple greenness. The palate has elegance but also grip. Firm and with lovely spiciness. Has a warmth to it, with nice savoury complexity. Some mint on the finish. 95/100 (02/18)

Crystallum Bona Fide Pinot Noir 2016 Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, South Africa
From a vineyard next door to Bouchard-Finlayson. Supple and bright with a sour cherry edge to the focused fruit. Sweetly fruited with a nice spiciness and some structure. This has freshness, depth and elegance. After a while it opens up with sappy floral aromatics. 94/100 (02/18)

Crystallum Malabel Pinot Noir 2015 Overberg, South Africa
Supple, juicy and fine with lovely cherry fruit. Fine grained with freshness and detail to the elegant cherry fruit. 95/100 (08/16)

Crystallum Mabalel Pinot Noir 2016 Kaimansgaat, South Africa
115 clone. Sappy with nice integrated greenness and fine red cherry fruit. Supple and detailed with real finesse and purity. There’s a balance between richness and freshness here. 94/100 (03/17)

Find these wines with

Video: Simplesmente Vinho, an artisanal wine fair in Porto


I’m in Porto for the sixth edition of Simplesmente Vinho, a fair showcasing the best authentic and natural wines from Portugal and Spain. There are 101 producers here, covering a range of styles and wine growing areas, and it’s a happy hunting ground for geeks like me.

The venue is a spectacular old building on the river, called Casa de Cais Novo. This used to be an extensive warehouse for Port wine, before the taxes were raised too far and all the Port shipping moved over to Gaia, over the river from Porto. Had this happened earlier, Port wine would no doubt be Gaia wine. Cais Novo is spacious and atmospheric, and perfect for this tasting.

The idea behind this event was prompted by visits to off-salons that accompany the major wine fairs in France and Italy. There, smaller producers who typically found big fairs a bad match for them, banded together to form off-site salons of their own where they would show their wines. So Simplesmente developed as an off-salon for Essencia, a bigger wine fair that is taking place now in Porto.

I’ve tasted extensively and found some real gems. These are just a few: plenty more to follow.

One of the revelations of the show was Laura Lorenzo’s wines from Ribeira Sacra under the Daterra label: so elegant and fine

Vitor Claro was one of Portugal’s top chefs; now he’s making exceptional, elegant, fresh wines from the Alentejo

Antonio Madeira is a new superstar of the Dão with his amazingly elegant wines

Luis Seabra is making very correct, but also quite serious wines from the Douro and Vinho Verde, and has just rented a vineyard in Dão

Vasco Croft of Aphros in Vinho Verde: he’s really getting the hang of working with old Portuguese amphorae

Pedro Marques of Vale de Capucha in Lisboa, making some stunning whites from interesting limestone-rich soils

A lovely meal at DOP Porto with some nice wines

Had a great meal last night at DOP restaurant in Porto, with some really creative riffing on a Portuguese theme from Rui Paula. We began with a fruity scallop carpaccio, and then progressed to a beautifully cooked corvina (relative of sea bass) fillet with mango and coconut. These exotic flavours worked well, and this was served with Asian noodles. Then the meat: succulent baked kid (baby goat) with flavoursome rice. This was followed by a serious Portuguese cheese plate, and then some dessert.

Some nice wines accompanied the food, with quite a range of flavours and styles.

Filipa Pato 3B Blanc de Blancs NV Bairrada, Portugal
Solid, tasty fizz fro Filipa. This is getting better. Taut and complex with bright citrus fruit as well as some subtle honey and toast. Lively and vivid with a bit of pithiness. Lovely. 90/100

Finca Teira 2016 Ribeiro, Spain
Lively and fresh with a mineral streak to the bright lemon and mandarin notes. So fine with a tangy edge. Bright and intense. 91/100

Antonio Macanita Verdelho Original 2015 Pico, Azores
So linear and stony with fresh citrus fruit. There’s a faint smokiness and a steely, mineral edge. Good acidity with a tingling, electric finish. 92/100

Jose Aristegui Traste 2015 Valedoras, Spain
Intense and rich with sweet bold black cherry fruit and some salty, tarry notes. Powerful and a bit bitter on the finish. Sweet and alcoholic but with some nice presence. 89/100

Quinta de Arcosso Reserva 2009 Tras os Montes, Portugal
Concentrated and intense with vivid, rich but fresh black cherry and blackberry fruit. Dense and quite tannic with a slightly drying finish. Really focused. 91/100

Quinta do Infantado Vintage Port 1997 Douro, Portugal (magnum)
Dense spicy and tarry with bold blackberry fruit with a dusty, dry, savoury edge and lots of tannin. Has some chocolate and raisin character but it’s the dense fruit that drives this wine. 93/100

Making wine at Gabrielskloof: the final instalment

This is the final instalment of my series of reports from 10 days of vintage experience at Gabrielskloof, in Bot River, South Africa. I really enjoyed my time here, came back thinner and stronger, and learned quite a bit from taking a different perspective on winemaking – from behind the scenes. The picture above was from the journey to work on the final morning, and shows the beach at Onrus. It was about 0630, and it was beautiful. Here I’m wrapping up with some more pictures and stories of vintage, and there will be a film to come!

Out in the vineyard, sampling the grapes. This is in the Hemel-En-Aarde Valley, next door to Bouchard Finlayson where Peter-Allan’s dad is the cellar master. This Pinot Noir is pretty much ready to go: it will produce the Crystallum Bona Fide wine.

A typical Pinot bunch: this is in perfect shape, and doesn’t have shoulders (which can be a bit behind the main bunch).

The clay/sand and shale soils of the Hemel-En-Aarde Valley.

The same grapes arriving in the winery two days later.

All the grapes are weighed on arrival, and the weight of the kissies (crates) and pallet are then taken off. This is so the grower gets paid the right amount. Good quality grapes can cost as much as 17 000 Rand a ton (just over £1000), but some are much cheaper than this. Even good Stellenbosch Cabernet can be had for around half this price. By international standards, the best South African grapes are quite cheap.

The receiving equipment

Then it’s time to process the grapes. If a sorting table isn’t being used, it’s quite simple. Grapes are tipped into a hopper, taken by a conveyor and then pass through the destemmer into a receiving bin or poly fermenter.

Here the grapes have been harvested into kissies (crates) and these have to be tipped into the hopper.

A conveyor then takes them up to the distemper. It’s possible to do some quick sorting on the way, but if there are problems then a proper sorting table is needed.

If the grapes have been harvested into bins, these can be tipped in directly using a forklift.

Here, some whole bunches are being tipped into a poly fermenter, and destemmed grapes will then be put on top.

Grapes coming out of the destemmer, but not crushed.

When this grape receiving bin is full, it’s lifted using the hydraulic system and placed over a fermenting tank.

Then the grapes are allowed to drop in.

For some ferments, nothing is added. But here I’m adding a dose of sulfur dioxide: enough to restrain any bad bugs from growing, but not enough to stop the yeasts doing their thing.

Dumping the stems (from the destemmer) into the compost bin. Not the glamorous side of winemaking.

Peter-Allan Finlayson checking the sugar on a ferment.

And, finally, Marelise Niemann getting into food treading some Syrah.

And that was that. 10 days I won’t forget. How has working in the cellar changed my journalist’s perspective? That’s something I need to think about – perhaps it would make an interesting stand-alone blog post.

Harvest at Gabrielskloof:


How are you?

How are you?

This is a question most of us are asked frequently, but it’s a difficult one to answer.

Of course, when we’re normally asked this question, there’s an expected answer, and unless we’re speaking to a good friend in the right context, then it would be unusual not to give this expected answer: I’m good thanks.

But if I am to answer this question truthfully, much of the time I’d have to say that I don’t know for sure. Look: I think I’m OK. I wake up in the morning looking forward to the new day. I have a very satisfying job [if you can call it that – the sort of job people envy me for. In fact, if it were possible, I’d be jealous of myself. I don’t take my work circumstances for granted.]

I have a network of good friends and family. Not too many: just enough. I have my health. I don’t have any aches or niggling pains. [I don’t take this for granted, either.] I am free to go about my business, and I can travel freely and, while I’m not rolling in cash, I don’t have financial worries. So I’m OK.

But how am I, really? I don’t know for sure. It’s hard to do a really honest, accurate self-inventory, and there are some places inside I’d rather not look. The most perilous journey that most of us make is the journey into the depths of our hearts. Like many, as long as everything seems OK, then I’m happy to carry on. I suppose this is like running a car without respecting the service intervals: the risk is that something bad will go wrong, and then it will be very difficult and expensive to fix. It might not even be fixable. Or I might just get so used to driving a car with mechanical limitations that I’ve got used to them, even though the car isn’t performing the way it should be.

You really don’t want to ask me questions like this…

I’m not arguing here in favour of needless introspection. Sometimes you just need to let a plant grow, without pulling it out of its pot to inspect the roots every couple of days: this would be counterproductive.

Sometimes, though, some soul maintenance is helpful. And it’s good to know yourself. If you don’t know yourself, you are a danger in the context of a relationship with a significant other. And it’s having a deep relationship of this kind that prods all the buttons and goes into places where we’d rather it didn’t, opening the cupboards and draws where we’ve piled in the stuff that we couldn’t or didn’t want to sort through. It makes us face ourself in often very uncomfortable ways: I didn’t know I was like that, and so on. So, back to the idea of soul maintenance: to continue with the gardening metaphors, if you want a plant to grow well, create the sorts of conditions where it can flourish. Prepare the soil; remove those weeds that are safe to remove (weeding can damage the plant); provide water. Left to its own devices, without adequate light, water or nutrition, there’s a chance the plant will not flourish.

If I prod around a little, I can sense there are areas where I probably need to do a bit of processing. Just over two years ago I moved out of home. I got a divorce. Since then, I’ve not had a place that is home. The excellent temporary arrangement (living at my sister’s) has worked well, partly because I’m travelling more than I am in the country. Right now, it looks like I may end up living outside the UK, in time. I’ve left all that is familiar and stable, and I’ve left behind possessions, shared friends, even two dogs. Pyschologically, this all takes some processing, as does the pain and sadness that inevitably accompanies the end of a long-term relationship.

I’ve had more than the average portion of change, coupled with a large dollop of uncertainty. It has seemed easier than I thought it would be to adjust to, but I suspect I may not be respecting the service intervals or watering the plant properly.

One close friend said a while back that he was quite scared for me, in my situation. He thought that by leaving my marriage and family home, I was embarking on a perilous path. I’m not scared, though. Fear is a fickle friend, and I’m not going to give any time to fearful thoughts or anxieties. I’ve had to face a lot of change over a short timescale, but change is part of life. It’s impossible for us to stand still, and any attempt to do so is bound to fail. Time moves on, we grow older, seasons change. There’s no safety in stasis. The idea that we can settle where we are comfortable – preserving and prolonging the moment – is a fallacy. The nature of time, and the impossibility of time travel, sees to that.

Perhaps wine is a helpful illustration of this. Each year brings a new vintage, and every vintage is different. Winegrowers are faced with the dynamics of unique growing seasons and then must respond intelligently. Change is forced on them, just as it is in our inner lives. We must respond by growing and developing, processing the raw material that life sends our way, often in the form of struggles and challenges, as well as new opportunities and successes, to forge something lasting and valuable.

Video: the Marlborough wine region, the grower's story


Marlborough, New Zealand’s largest wine region, relies heavily on growers. Wine arrived here relatively lately (first vineyard plantings of the modern era were 1973, but things didn’t really get going in earnest until the mid-1980s), and much of the development has involved farming families here planting vineyards, in order to sell grapes to wineries.

I spent a day exploring with Mike Eaton, who has worked here since the 1980s and now acts as a vineyard consultant. He established the region’s first hillside, close-planted vineyard in 1991.

We take a look at some of the more interesting spots for growing wine grapes, beginning with the Ensors in the Waihopai Valley. We then visit the Hilles in the upper Brancott, and the Griggs in the Taylor River valley, before heading over to the Awatere Valley, where there are some really interesting vineyards.

The wines of Gabrielskloof, Bot River, South Africa

Gabrielskloof, where I’ve spent the last 10 days working vintage, is a winery on the up.

Bernhard Heyns, owner, Gabrielskloof

It’s owned by Bernhard Heyns. In his previous life, Bernhard’s family owned a brick-manufacturing company, based on a clay quarry that they owned. Then they discovered a coal deposit under the clay. So Bernhard got planning permission to start mining the coal. Initially they wanted to mine enough coal to supply the brick factory, but when they opened a coal finishing plan, in order to make this financially viable, they had to mine more coal than they needed, so the mining operation grew and became Graspan Colliery.

Chenin Blanc

In 2000, he decided he wanted to start a wine farm, and identified Bot River as a promising location. He purchased a portion of the Avontuur farm, and in 2002 began planting vineyards. In 2006, the first stage of building a winery was begun, and this – together with a hospitality complex including a restaurant – was completed in 2009, and the first wine released was from the 2008 vintage.

Bernhard and Peter-Allan discussing picking dates

But it wasn’t plain sailing. Some of the advice that Bernhard had received about varieties suited to these distinctive terroirs was sub-optimal. And the early wines struggled to gain real traction in the market, perhaps not being made in a style that displayed the potential of this place. Step in Peter-Allan Finlayson, who is married to Bernhard’s daughter, Nicolene. He’s achieved a lot of success with his own brand Crystallum, but for a while decided that he didn’t want to get involved with the in-laws’ winery: the pressure would have been pretty intense. Meanwhile, Bernhard was in a difficult position: all his friends were congratulating him on living the dream, owning a beautiful winery, but he could see the balance sheet and how much money was being lost.

The Landscape Series – the top wines – was introduced in 2015

Eventually, Peter-Allan decided he’d get involved. His first vintage is 2015, and since then – this was a big step up – he’s been steering the wines with a deft hand closer to the style he prefers. And they’re getting better every year: 2017 reds tasted from barrel were stunning, and bottled 2017 whites are also very impressive. And now Gabrielskloof has begun to make some money.

Sandstone soils

We toured around the vineyards and had a look at the different blocks. There are two main soil types on the farm: free-draining, rocky sandstone with some quartz, and then clay and shale. The latter has really good water-holding capacity, and if the new normal is these drought conditions, it will be the prime terroir. Overall, these are really good vineyard soils.

Syrah, which does really well here

Cabernet Franc, another star turn. The 2015 got some big critic scores, but 2016 and 2017 are even better

Gabrielskloof The Landscape Series Magdalena Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2016 Western Cape, South Africa
13.5% alcohol. There’s a real presence to this wine: fresh but textured pear fruit, some smoky grapefruit, fine spiciness and even a hint of wax. It’s fresh with a saline, mineral edge to the fruit and a slight bready, toasty richness in the background. Lovely stuff: a really serious South African interpretation of the classic barrel fermented Bordeaux white. This will age beautifully. 93/100 (R295)

Gabrielskloof The Landscape Series Elodie Chenin Blanc 2016 Swartland, South Africa
13.5% alcohol. From dry-farmed bush vines. Fresh, supple and fine with bright tangerine and lemon fruit and a bit of white peach, but also lovely mineral density and texture. It has a fine structure to it. Pure and even a bit salty, with a nice fine spicy finish. This wine really grows on you: it has dimensions and layers, and it’s not just about fruit. 93/100 (R295)

Gabrielskloof Landscape Series Elodie Chenin Blanc 2017 Western Cape, South Africa
Paardeberg and Durbanville. Such a fine linear nose with pure pear and citrus fruit. Textured and a bit grainy with pear and citrus fruit. Fresh tangerine and lemons on the finish. Really fresh but with complexity. 94/100

Gabrielskloof Chenin Blanc 2017 Western Cape, South Africa
13.5% alcohol. Naturally fermented in old oak. This is an inexpensive wine (100 Rand), but it has plenty of personality, with bright lemony fruit, some baked apple and a nice spiciness. Lovely texture with a pleasant slightly sour twist on the finish. Lots of wine for the money. 90/100

Gabrielskloof Landscape Series Syrah on Shale 2016 Bot River, South Africa
40% whole cluster. Beautifully perfumed floral red cherry and pepper nose. Fresh, expressive and light in its feet with bright red fruits and a fine spiciness. Fine and spicy with bright cherry and plum notes. Supple and fine. 94/100

Gabrielskloof Landscape Series Cabernet Franc 2016 Bot River, South Africa
Lovely gravelly green nose is so varietally true. Grippy and fresh on the palate with bright cherries and plums. Taut and savoury with lovely freshness and grippy structure. 93/100

Gabrielskloof Landscape Series Cabernet Franc 2015 Bot River, South Africa
Aromatic and floral with fresh sweet cherry and plum fruit. Chalky and supple with nice density. Some sweetness and a nice texture. Nice grip here. A lovely wine with some appealing smoothness. 92/100

Find these wines with

Harvest at Gabrielskloof: managing red wine ferments

Foot treading a whole-bunch ferment to release some juice

I’ve been enjoying working with some of the red wine fermentations this week. Wines are fermented here in two different formats. First, there are the small poly bins which take about a ton and a half of grapes, and which are suitable for small lots, or working with 100% whole bunches. These are placed on wooden pallets so they can be moved around as needed. And then there are the closed 1o ton stainless steel tanks inside the winery. These are usually filled about half way for red wine ferments.

Three whole-bunch ferments in poly bins: these each hold about a ton and a half of grapes

First of all the small polls. There are three ferments that I’ve been attending to, all 100% whole-bunch Pinot Noirs. After filling, each of these was foot-trodden (it’s a bit uncomfortable when the grapes are straight out of the cold room) to release some juice and get things going. As the grapes are cold, fermentation takes a few days to get going: these are wild ferments (they aren’t inoculated by cultured yeasts; in fact, they have nothing added except for grapes).

The cap before it has been worked and wetted

Fermentation is ticking over nicely here

One of my jobs has been to make sure the cap stays wet. If they are left, the grapes at the top will dry out and begin to form vinegar (through bacterial action), raising the volatile acidity to problem levels. On a normal ferment with destemmed berries there’s a lot more juice around and the skins float to the top, forming a thick cap. Normally, this would be punched down in order to fully wet the cap and mix things around a bit. In a whole bunch ferment, it’s pretty much all cap, in that there’s a lot of material present, including stems and intact clusters, and you can’t punch it down until much later in the ferment. So I take the top layer of grapes and stems and turn it all over with my hands. I also make a well in the ferment so I can get a jug and pour juice all over the top layer to wet it properly. Then I flatten it all out, and clean round the edge of the poly bin, and put the lid back on. It’s all very hands on, and there’s something great about getting so close to the fermenting wine.

You can see from this mound of grapes from inside the ferment that there are quite a few intact berries still: these will gradually release sugar, and some internal fermentation will have taken place, too

I’m actually a big fan of light extraction. You can punch down too much if you aren’t careful. There’s something to be said for just keeping the cap wet by bucketing over the ferment – as light and extraction as is possible. Ferments do like oxygen, though: especially bigger ones in larger tanks.

Dumping the contents of the hopper – about a ton of destemmed grapes – into a 10 ton tank

For the larger tanks, most have a bit of whole bunch on the bottom, and the rest is destemmed and then dropped into the tank from the hopper. For these tanks, when there’s a fair bit of whole bunch they are tricky to punch down manually, so we use a hydraulic punch down device that can be moved around the cellar on rails in the roof.

Hydraulic punch down device ready for action

Punching down: the cap takes a lot of force to break and submerge in the wine, especially in this ferment with 40% whole bunch

An alternative to punching down is pumping over. Once ferments are underway, they can get a bit stinky, and sometimes an aerative pump-over is needed. Wine is taken from the bottom of the tank (it goes through a sieve to pick out berries and skins) and then it’s pumped over the top of the cap.

Wine taken from the bottom of the tank, passed through a sieve, and then into a hopper, from where it is pumped back up to the top of the tank

All this is quite satisfying. While fermentation is underway the wine needs oxygen: it helps the yeasts perform better and they produce more sterols in their cell walls, which then makes them better able to deal with the stresses later in ferment as the alcohol rises. As ferment slows, the wine will be protected more from oxygen, and after ferment, it should see very little. The tanks or bins will be closed up for a bit of post-ferment maceration (this actually makes them less tannic, as the pulp of the grapes fines the tannins), and then they will be drained, pressed, and sent to barrel for several months to a year, or sometimes even more.

Harvest at Gabrielskloof:


Harvest at Gabrielskloof: collecting grapes

Driving through the Swartland

The producers working in the Gabrielskloof cellar in Botriver – Peter-Allan Finlayson, Marelise Niemann and John Seccombe – all buy grapes from growers spread across the various Cape wine regions. This means that there’s quite a bit of driving around during vintage time. You need to go to the vineyards to decide when to pick, and then to drop off the kissies (the small plastic crates that the grapes are picked into) and collect them when they’ve been filled with grapes.

John Seccombe in the Semillon block he buys grapes from, Franschhoek

I’ve been on a couple of journeys to collect grapes. I spent the best part of a day with John Seccombe in a trip out to the Swartland in the hired Isuzu lorry that he shares with Marelise. We went via Franschhoek where we had a look at a Semillon vineyard that he sources from. It’s typical Franschhoek terroir with very sandy soils, and true to the region it was baking hot.

Interestingly, the grower has planted bush vines in every other row to increase the density.

There’s some pink Semillon in the vineyard, too. The grapes are looking pretty good considering the drought, but yields are a bit down. John will pick these grapes in a few days.

As the observant will have noticed, there’s a lot of leaf roll virus in this vineyard. In white vineyards you don’t see the give-away colours that leaves of virused red varieties develop late in the season. The fruit here is really good, despite the virus: it seems to affect red grapes (which often need longer maturation) more than it does whites.

A Swartland vineyard

We then headed over to the Swartland, to collect grapes from a Paardeberg vineyard. These were in really good condition: the grower had access to water and was able to irrigate a bit. Some dry-grown vineyards in this region have been hit really hard by the drought, but it is far from a disastrous vintage. There will be some very good wines made this year, just fewer of them.

Semillon from the Swartland

This is Semillon Gris, also known as pink Semillon. It will be used to make a white wine.

Making sure the kissies full of grapes are tied on well for the journey home. On the way back (it took 3 hours) we had to rush to beat the rain storms that were following us. When we got back we unloaded in record short time, and just got it all off before the rain started in earnest.

Elgin Chardonnay, from Charles Fox’s vineyard

The next trip was to Elgin, a much shorter journey. I went with intern Paolo and a trailer to collect four tons of Chardonnay from Charles Fox. This is the first time Peter-Allan has taken Elgin Chardonnay, which is in high demand these days. The grapes looked and tasted beautiful, with nice acid and flavour.

Once again, these were packed in kissies. The alternative is to use half-ton bins, but the grapes would need to be processed as soon as they got back to the winery because the bunches at the bottom would be crushed by the weight of the grapes above. The benefit of kissies is that they keep the fruit in optimum condition, and you can put them in a cold room for a day or two before processing. They are just a lot of work to move around and then clean after use.

Loading the trailer. These were filled high: many were over 20 kg. Normally you’d expect 18 kg each.

Paolo putting the kissies in place. The trailer was full, four high. Don’t want to spill this load!

Harvest at Gabrielskloof:


Harvest at Gabrielskloof, pressing Grenache Gris and barrel work

With four different producers working in the same cellar space, there’s always plenty going on at Gabrielskloof, especially because I’m here right in the peak period of harvest. Here are a couple of things I got up to on the same morning. Above we have Marelise Niemann’s Grenache Gris (this will be released under her Momento label). There’s about a ton and a half (my guess) that has been destemmed into a plastic bin and left for four days. Because the grapes are cold (they spent the night in a cold store before processing), fermentation hasn’t begun, and the idea here is to allow some skin contact, but not to ferment on the skins (making an orange wine).

So it’s time to press. But you can’t pick up a plastic bin like this and tip it into the press, so the grapes have to be loaded by bucket. This is a lengthy process and it’s quite hard work: one of these buckets weighs quite a bit, and it takes many bucket loads.

A lot of the juice just runs out of the press, into the drip tray, and is pumped into tank. Then the press begins, and the rest of the juice is squeezed out. The wine will be settled in the tank overnight and then racked to barrels for fermentation. This is about four barrels’ worth.

This is what it looks like: there’s a bit of colour from the skins, but not too much. There’s also a bit of colour from the oxidative nature of the pressing. This will disappear during fermentation, but the four days of skin contact helps bring out some of the flavour from the skins, and just a little tannic grip, but not too much.

Next job was some barrel maintenance. This is a 500 litre barrel where fermentation had begun. It was filled a bit too much and so it erupted overnight. My job was to siphon off some juice to stop this happening again (it had happened to several barrels). The juice went into a plastic bin and will be used to top the barrel up again when fermentation begins to slow. And then I had to clean the barrels. A lot of winemaking is cleaning stuff.

Then I had to top some Chardonnay barrels up where fermentation had slowed. I got a big bucket and filled it with juice that was being used elsewhere to fill barrels. Then, using a small torch and a jug I filled the barrels to the right level.

Here you can see the juice, and how brown it gets in contact with air. This is because of oxidation of phenolic compounds in the juice. For Chardonnay and some other wines it’s good to let the juice see air before fermentation, because the phenolics oxidise and fall out, resulting in a more stable wine later in its life (this is because phenolic compounds in white wines make them susceptible to oxidation). For some other varieties you protect the juice before fermentation. Juice is more susceptible to browning/oxidation than wine because it is enzymic oxidation via polyphenol oxidases. In wine, oxidation is what’s known as chemical, as opposed to enzymic, and it’s a slower process.

Harvest at Gabrielskloof: