Monday and the official start of the wine part of the wine tour. Of course we had had some great wines during the previous days, but that was just warming up. Now, time for business! The plan for this Monday is firstly to go down to Constantia and visit David van Niekerk’s vineyard High Constantia, then move on to Steenberg for a second tasting, followed by some serious lunch at Catharina’s. After that, our bus will turn north to Swartland and the hotel with the oldest, and/or longest, stoop in South Africa (sorry, can’t remember which). But more on that subject later on – let’s start with the visit at High Constantia.
Constantia, the area, is situated south of Cape Town, on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain, about 15-20 kilometres down. The whole Table Mountain massive stretches in fact from Cape Town’s city centre all the way down to Cape Point, about 50-60 kilometres. Constantia is often mentioned as the first wine producing area in the southern hemisphere and definitely the first wine producing area in South Africa. Today, I imagine that Stellenbosch is the primary wine region in South Africa – at least when it comes to quality wine and total hectares. But Constantia was first. And, not to forget, both Porter style beer and Tokai wines originate from Constantia:
We are welcomed by David van Niekerk, the owner and winemaker of High Constantia. High Constantia is the smallest wine cellar in Cape Town, there are eleven wine cellars in the Constantia valley. Due to shortage of land, there is probably no more room for additional wine cellars in Constantia. David started his business in 1999, with just “a few barrels and a small container.” After a few jokes about us Swedes, “you are all very quiet!” and what we are up against the coming week, “the weather gonna be good, the wines’ gonna get better!” we get a most interesting lecture in the process of wine making and geology. First out, the unique position of Constantia:
The Cape Doctor
“We are very fortunate to be here. We are surrounded here by the sea, you are on a peninsula. From a wine making perspective, we have the south eastern wind. We call it the “Cape Doctor.” It blows away all the dirty air. You can think of all the Chinese main cities, they don’t have what we have, and that is good wind. We don’t have the industry, but we certainly have a lot of people who live on kerosene stoves, wood burning stoves, so we do generate enough smoke. But the south easter blows it all out to sea. That is our predominant wind. Then we get the bad wind. Comes from behind us here, the north westernly. That’s the wind that brings us weather. Rain, and pumping winds.
“This year the harvest is fairly tight. Normally we would start the harvest in the end of January, and we would finish… we would do February, March, an maaaaybe the first week in April. Two months and a little bit, that’s our harvest period. Now you will have tried a lot of French wine and understand the French style of making wine. Some people make wine based on time and the calendar. Some of the French people work on the moon – on lunar cycles. I don’t think the fruit is growing by the calendar – I know it isn’t. Easter this year is very, very early on our calendars. So as a result of that, we feel that, maybe, the year is going to be shorter. In essence, I think we are a little bit late. Because in South Africa, spring started in the first week of august last year. That’s a month early! Easter weekend is normally in April. That is a very great indicator for me, when we are waking up. Flowers. And as a result of that, we need to make sure we have pruned our vines. Budding starts in Orange River, and we’re the last to bud.”
First wine, 2012 High Constantia MCC
After these initial words on Constantia and the Cape Doctor, we are served the first wine: 2012 High Constantia MCC. What’s MCC? Method Cape Classic, the South African version of the bubbly stuff.
“We are not allowed to call it Champagne. The EU has ruled against that. You know what, when no one is looking, we call it Champagne! Method Cape Classic, that is to long… so you call it MCC, but then no one understands it and you have to tell them all the story of Champagne… o my goodness!”
I look at the label. 11 percent alcohol? That’s quite low. David explains: “11 percent, very low on alcohol. I did some things in my wine making, I don’t know how I got it right. I rounded it up, I could make it 10,5 according to legislation. Sauvignon blank, we got it down to 12 percent. If you delay your pick by one or two days, alcohol goes up. I’d like my sauvignon blank to be between 12 and 13 percent alcohol. Why? Because that is where the grape is phenolically ripe. It has all the right balance between sugar, pH, and acidity, the skin is great, perfection. The utopian berry! I have been making wine for seventeen years, and every year we are trying to get it right. Every winemaker in the world, it is a lifelong experiment.”
“So, I want to pick it a little bit early. You know why? Because by the time you finished picking it, another day’s gone, and it will have picked up in sugar again. In essence, the day we want to pick it, we need to pick it at least a day or two before, to get that fruit a little bit on the greener side, but I will be soooo careful, because when you pick it, it is not green. There is a difference. You go into the vineyard, look at the condition, then you go to the bunches, you pick a berry. And as you pull the berry off, it leaves behind what we call a paintbrush. Look at the colour of the paintbrush. Then I take the berry, pop it, and I look at the pups. If the pups are all green, it is not ripe. It is not phenolically ripe. And that bitterness will stay in the wine.”
After picking, the grapes goes into the cold room for about eight or nine days, at temperatures down to 1-3 degrees Celsius. “We then do whole bunch press, 400 litres of juice per ton, that’s 40 percent. Your average Champagne do 50-55 percent! We could put the pressure on and squeeze every drop out of the bunch. But we want the best. Our Cab fronc grapes are the last ones in. We destalk, wholes berries stay in their juice to get as much colour and flavor out, then fermentation starts at one degree Celsius. Just ice cold grapes and juice.”
Just natural yeast
“And then, there it goes. Fermentation starts at one degree Celsius. No yeast. If you bring in healthy grapes, with pHs low, and when your pH is low, peak condition. It doesn’t take much for your wild yeast fermentation to start. Now the question: do you want to go with natural yeast, or do you want to add yeast? You let it run. The colour you get is magnificent. The fruit you get is magnificent. The risk is that if you run out of natural yeast, you get stuck fermentation. That’s bad news. That’s nerve wrecking. How do you fix a stucked fermentation? You phone around the world, and the answer came up for a German, “David, you must use glucose, and champagne yeast.” So the glucose is identified by the yeast, the yeast starts to eat the glucose, starts to build up a yeast population, then you add it back. It’s not a nice thing to go through, stuck fermentation. You don’t sleep much at night. Then you see the meter’s coming down. Puh! A sweet cabernet fronc – don’t know how that would go on the world market, haha…
“It takes about 8-9 days to ferment. Let me ask you, if I have my grapes at ambivalent temperature, and then introduce the cultured yeast, I’m going to try to ferment at 26 degrees. But if I drop my temperature down to 12 degrees, that cultured yeast: dead! You kill it. So the wild yeast, which is the basis for most yeast we use, doesn’t worry about temperature. That’s how nature works. That’s why you see all these people ferment all sorts of fruit, pineapple for instance, at the university, just to have something to drink… So I would like to bring the temperature back up to a place where I know it is safe for cultivated yeast, which would be at around 26 degrees.
“If I let my wines ferment at, let say 14 degrees, pretty easy, I could do it. Just put your cooling off. Theny you are just going to sit with a big fat, flabby, dull… dead wine. And it does not take much to get there. That whole tank in three days. Poff, paff, thanks for coming. The horrible thing in winemaking – there’s no reverse here. We ferment at 12-14 degrees for the whites, up to 26 for the reds. MCC, 13… 13,5. I want 12 degrees for sparkling wines. Absolutely no rush. Long and slow.”
And what about the acidity?
“In all the grapes we pick, when they go through fermentation, they are going to lose a little bit of acid, maybe half a gram. When they go through cold stabilization and filtration, you will lose a little bit as well. So if I pick my acid at ten, and I lose 2 grammes, I end up at 8. Hm, 8 be too much for my acidity likening, so then I must pick my grapes at 9,5, I need to look at my pH, if its below 3 it is good, and I need to look at my sugar. pH is our enemy, and I can’t control it. That’s the ripeness of the fruit. So when we pick the sparkling wine grapes, they come in at a pH at about 2,85. Very very nice. The sparkling wine is also by the way sulphur free. The sugar is 1,1 per liter. That sets in the world as a cuvee brut nature. So per bottle, it is like 0,78 sugar per litre. In the world, that would set ut to ten of dry. But flavour isn’t sugar. I use temperature to get my flavor.
About our sauvignon blank, these are also go to the cold room, but I got to be careful. Chardonnay and pinot noir I can let get lots of oxygen. I don’t want that with my sauvignon blank. I try to keep it five degrees, eight degrees, thereabout. I chill the whole bunch down. If I chill the grapes down to half a degree Celsius, they will start pulling in oxygen. Become aerobe. This is made anaerobic – without oxygen. Then we use carbon oxide when we press, we use pellets of dry ice, which releases carbon dioxide. We try to keep the O2 out of this process. Because I can’t oxidize my finals at any time without upsetting my flavor profiles. The French – totally opposite! They can use a lot of oxygen. Not every country in the world is able to produce the same wines in the same way. My favourite sauvignon blank in the world, the Loire river, I can’t use that method here in South Africa. And what I am doing here, people in Wellington can’t do the same either. That is why I said at the beginning of this discussion, we are fortunate to live with water 270 degrees around us, because I have cool, maritime air around me all the time, I’ve got altitude… these soils, old soils, were prepared around six hundred million years ago, 19 percent clay, rich soils, I don’t own any pumps, no damns.
“We don’t irrigate at all – the vines find their water by themselves. That makes us very fortunate to have vines that can look after themselves, in a situation with el nino with draught, and yet I still get my production.”
But you are allowed to irrigate?
But have you done it?
“No, never! Takes me two years to plant a vineyard. Identify the land, dig your holes, take soil samples, send them off to the laborotry, get them analyzed, you see what your soil is needing. Calsium, magnesium, minerals, are there insects, are there nematodes, what’s the organic matter, gives you a snapshot of what’s going on downstairs. If I have the wrong type of insects, I nuke them. Use mustard seeds. We are not tree huggers, we are not Greenpeace, but we are trying to get the biosphere back again. So we release ladybirds, and wasps. The ladybugs are carnivorous, they don’t eat the leaves, they eat the bad things. I can’t remember the last time I used insecticides.
French acacia wood
“In 2012, I started making wine with French oak, and French acacia, acacia wood. So the oak barrel was then eight years old. How many times can you use a barrel? Your whole life. It is what you want to get out of the barrel. Now, the French acacia wood: It absolutely intense the flavor! It takes a while to calm down. The wine is fermented in stainless steel, transferred to wood, prebottling to get rid of my O2 saturation, I put inline CO2 sporge, and I tried to pump as much CO2 into the wine, hopefully displacing my O2’s, and the experiment is to see what’s it gonna do to my mine long term. I have a 500 litre French oak barrel, a 300 litre acacia wood barrel, and a 300 litre French oak barrel.
We get to taste the wine from the acacia barrel, as a barrel sample. Holy Smoke! Such intensity, a savvie in its most concentrated form. This was one of the wines of today. Unfortunately, it is not destined for the market.
“This is a big wine for me. It is still dirty, i.e. cloudy. But clean. We stir the lees, after a year we blend. Very light filtration. Half a dozen of us in South Africa that use acacia wood. In France, it is mostly used for sweet wines and for chenin blank wines. Tend to give the wines a yellowish colour.
“It is a very concentrated wine. Yes. Unfortunately, when the wine goes through cold stabilization and filtration, much goes away. I would love to bottle it as it is, but you know, the customers would go, “ah, the wine’s dirty… oh gosh” (wining). And every time you make something special, everybody complains about it, because production is so little and they can’t get hold of it. So what do you do? I’ve got to make a living! So you have to follow the trends and make things properly, haha! In the end I will just blend the three barrels (acacia and oak). They are called reserve (and the vineyard).
And what about exports?
Do you export? “Yes. To Canada, for instance. But, every province has it own rules: sometimes is’s French, sometimes it’s English, sometimes it’s French and English… the warning label, certain letter size… oh my goodness… it’s a nightmare!”
We move on to the reds, and among other we are served a wonderful wine: Sebastiaan. Cabernet sauvignon, French oak. The blend is 45 35 10 8 2: cab fronk, cab sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, malbec. “Petit verdot gives you that wonderful injection of fruit. Cab fronc, I love that earthy, spicy, brings a certain calmness to a wine. And the merlot gives me my gentleness and soft tannins. I enjoy a cab fronc based wine. I make about 11 bordeaux blends before I choose my final one.”
“I call it Sebastiaan because he was the first man to make wine, in the early 17 hundreds. His wine cellar is here. I was at the university with his great great grandson. I wasn’t making wine, I was studying and drinking beer in those days… I had no idea that I would make wine! But I had in my garage the gravestone of someone with the same surname as my classmate. So I said to him, “I have in my garage a gravestone with the same surname as you!”
With that, we end the tasting. It was great fun listening to David and his wines, and very interesting to get a better understanding of the process of making wine. I tried to bend his arm about the barrel sample of the acacia wood savvie, but no luck. Many thanks! Next stop, Catharina’s…