Monday, March 22, 2010

An update and a weekend off

Things have settled down a bit around the farm now that harvest is through, and will continue to settle down as the time-intensive stages of winemaking finish up.

Our small-batch wines are now entirely in barrels. The mourvedre had a totally different smell for the first couple of days that it was in the tank. The smell became more wine-like as it sat on the skins and fermented for a while. Not knowing what mourvedre is really supposed to taste like on its own (instead of blended with shiraz or something else), we decided to try out a couple from the area. It is a really light red wine, easy to drink and without much structure. Ours started to show characteristics like that as it continued to ferment. We did fewer pumpovers on it to avoid overextraction from the skins to keep it having that light character. Now it sits in a barrel, where it will stay for a while.

The shiraz ("Death March Shiraz") is really nice -- Kris and I are convinced that it will be the nicest of these small batches. The cab seems like it will be nice, but at this point I have to use my imagination to try and predict what it will taste like after being on oak for 12-18 months (and then probably aged for at least a couple of years after that). The shiraz, by contrast, tastes like real wine right now! You get all the spiciness and taste of the varietal, only really missing the structure that it will gain from some wood and some time. That one will be nice to drink a lot sooner.

Death March Shiraz barrel:

We made some last-minute decisions with the "Sweet Tooth" Shiraz, made from late-harvested grapes right at the end of harvest. For most of the time that it was in the tank, we hardly did anything to it. Feeling the effects of six weeks of winemaking and harvesting, we decided not to do a single pumpover on it, and only do punchdowns to mix the skins with the juice. Still, once we added yeast, the thing fermented like crazy. The sugar level was so high going in that the little yeasties must have been in heaven. While standing on top of the tank doing punchdowns, I could feel the heat (a byproduct of fermentation) coming off of the skins. A critical moment in the young life of that wine happened early last week: when tasting it, we discovered that because it had so much sugar in it, it tasted a little bit like port. "Let's make port!" we decided. So, we learned how to make port and scrambled to get it done. While I was making deliveries in Cape Town on Tuesday, Kris tracked down some "brandy spirit," which is added to the wine to "fortify" it. The idea is that by adding this high-alcohol liquor to the wine, the yeast in the wine is killed, ending fermentation. (It's bizarre to me that yeast can't survive at a certain alcohol level, given that it is usually the creator of that alcohol. Poor little guys (I wonder why I am always sympathizing with yeast).) Anyway, Kris ran to KWV, an enormous wine supplier in South Africa, and got 17 liters of brandy spirit to add to the wine. He had to fill out a ton of paperwork to get that done, and also get official permission to fortify from the governing body of South African wine. All for this little tank of port. We will see how it turns out. Even though it was thrown together at the last minute, we pretty much followed the correct procedure for making port. I guess traditionally you're supposed to fortify it at a slightly higher brix (sugar level), but we were still probably in an acceptable range. A slightly less sweet port sounds pretty good to me, though 300 liters of any kind of port sounds kind of nauseating.

Anyway, all the wines are now into their barrels and the next step is to taste them every month or two to see how they progress and when we might want to take them off of the oak.
Here's a picture of Kowie (the consultant winemaker shoveling mourvedre skins out of the tank after the wine was put into barrel.
Unfortunately I don't think I will be around for when any of them are ready to come out of the barrel, but I'll at least get to hear updates as it happens and ultimately try the final product. I'm excited to try them all as soon as I can, but also interested to see how the cab changes as it ages. Planning to get a bunch of it to cellar, then have a bottle every year or two to track it. Wine as a long-term game is a cool concept to me.

Anyway, we are close to business as usual here. I just about finished calculating the farm and cellar's carbon footprint for 2009, which is an interesting project. The goal is to put policies in place to keep better data for calculating our 2010 footprint, and ultimately see what steps we can take to reduce/eliminate it. Because of all the plants on the farm to offset a lot of the CO2 we produce, having carbon-neutral wine production in the near future is not out of the question.

Had the weekend off this weekend, so we headed over to the west coast to a place I've been wanting to visit, Langebaan. There is a lagoon there, and during the summer they get a constant strong wind. Everyone seems to agree that it is the best place to learn to kitesurf. So Kris and I went that way. We decided that camping was the way to go, but the only camping spot in Langebaan proper was booked when I tried to make a reservation the week before. We ended up booking at some caravan spot in the nearby town of Saldanha. It is a cool little fishing village -- way fewer water sports and therefore much quieter and less-touristy than Langebaan.

The drive there was about 90 minutes from Paarl, through tons of wheat fields. Apparently wheat farmers have a disproportionately high suicide rate. I didn't believe that at first, but after an hour of seeing only wheat fields I started to buy it. There just isn't enough stuff to do or look at on a wheat farm, as far as I could tell.

We got to Saldanha and found ourselves in a somewhat-bizarre caravan park run by the Saldanha municipality. Lots of people were staying in the rustic little cottages that were available for rent. Other people, like us, rented 30x30 ft patches of grass to camp on. Unlike us, though, they set up massive tent mansions. One guy even had a satellite dish and a flat screen tv at his camp site. We decided on an oceanfront piece of property and set up camp -- easily the smallest and least impressive setup around. Here's a picture of our view of Saldanha bay from the campsite, and a shot of the tent/car:

We grabbed dinner in the small "downtown" area of Langebaan right by the beach -- brought in a nice bottle of the Glen Carlou Gravel Quarry Cab and amused myself with creative ways to position ice around the bottle to keep it cool. Without much to do in, we stopped by the little Mykonos casino on the way back. They had two blackjack tables and a roulette table -- not exactly a large-scale operation. Still, we entertained ourselves by jawing at Devon, the dealer. Also enjoyed this really drunk German guy at our table that was guzzling white wine when he wasn't spilling it all over the table. And we won money! We made a large scene while leaving about how much fun we had and how we won money, providing some free advertising to Mykonos.

Saturday was a long sluggish day after not a great night of sleep in the new tent. We grabbed a small breakfast at a BnB in Saldanha, which had a nice porch area overlooking the bay. I checked in with one contact for a kitesurfing lesson, who said that the day was a no-go due to lack of wind. Without a real plan, we headed into Langebaan to see what we might be able to do. We got to the beach there, and saw a bunch of kites up! Went around to a few places, all of which were totally booked for lessons. Finally I found one place that would give me a lesson in the afternoon. An hour later, the guy called me to cancel. Damnation! No lesson for me.

Finally, realizing that the wind was dying down even further, we resolved to do something to save the day from being a total waste. We rented a couple kayaks from Cape Sports Center and cruised around the lagoon a bit. We passed by tons of fishermen, both out in boats and casting long lines from the shore. Most notably, we passed two guys who were simultaneously struggling with these enormous creatures thrashing about in the shallow water around them (presumably already hooked and reeled). They each called over a couple of buddies to tame the beast, and eventually picked these enormous fish out of the water. Each of them about 3-4 feet long, and looking like they weighed about 100 pounds. Then I saw their big dorsal fins! I'm pretty sure those guys had just caught a couple of sizable sharks from shore. That was all well and good, until they unhooked the big fellas and let them go into the water. Now, I don't think that these sharks were big enough or scary enough to knock over some kayaks and eat the people inside of them, but I wasn't too thrilled about a couple of pissed off medium-sized sharks who had just been traumatized by a group of humans coming towards me. We high-tailed it back and returned the kayaks.

Read on the beach for a while, then watched the Stormers (the Western Cape Super 14 rugby team) beat the Cheetahs. SA loves its rugby. Ate dinner that night at Froggy's, the one restaurant recommended by the travel guide. The onion and brie tart was the highlight.

Though exhausted, we dropped by the casino again for a repeat of the previous night (including more winning!) then got back to the campground. Despite a lively atmosphere and loud beats coming from our neighbors, and fell right to sleep. Woke up in the morning to loud children and birds, ate a pantastic breakfast at Pancakes Galore in Langebaan, then closed up camp back in Saldanha to sounds of hymns coming from a choir that was apparently staying for the weekend in an RV at a campsite just across the path from us.

With no wind again on Sunday and none scheduled for this morning, decided to head for the Blue Rock cable wakeboarding park on the southern bay. Excellent choice -- the weather was nicer, and it was a really cool concept. A big mine was filled with water, and a cable extends around its perimeter which drags ropes around it. You can wakeboard, waterski, kneeboard, etc. If you fall, some guy comes around in a boat to scoop you up and bring you back to the start. We rented a couple of wakeboards and got going. After about 6 times of getting thrown onto my face immediately, I finally managed to get going and get around to the first turn. Having never done any board sports, I'm still not totally comfortable on a board, though, and never made it past the second turn. The dude in the boat had his work cut out for him with me. Still, it was an excellent time and I think one more session will have me much more comfortable on a board. There were some kids there who were doing some really cool stuff -- lots of jumps, flips, spins, etc -- very cool to watch. Here are a couple of pictures of the place that I took while Kris and I had a beer after a couple hours of wakeboarding. Someone needs to recreate this place in the US somewhere.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Big day today!

Last day of harvest. Whoo! Less waking up in the 4-5 a.m. range. We started the morning by getting mourvedre into the final small tank for Kris and I to turn into wine.

The excitement then continued -- fermentation for the Dear Leader cabernet sauvignon has been done for a couple days, so today we got it into the barrel. Though usually the cellar uses 225 liter oak barrels, this one was 300 liters (around 400 bottles of wine?) -- the plan being to get the entire tank into that one barrel. Though usually one would pump the juice and then press the skins from the tank to get the rest of the juice, we thought/hoped that we'd be able to get enough liquid from the tank without having to press the skins. We were right, though just barely. We ended up having to spend about 15 minutes pressing some of the skins by hand to entirely fill the barrel. We thought about going shoeless and stomping the juice out like in the good ole days, but decided against it.

Anyway, the DL cab is in the barrel, where it will mature and increase its complexity for the next 12-18 months or something like that. The one concern that we've had in tests of it is that its acidity has been really high. Certainly not the end of the world though -- it does mean that it will probably age well. Note to self: have some kind of a wine cellar in which to age it by 2012.

Harvest finished up with the rest of the mourvedre, and then the remaining shiraz from block 3. That's been a lousy block in terms of grape quality, but we decided to fill the tank that the cab had occupied with it. If it turns out ok, Kris wants to make some sweet wine and give it as a gift to some of the workers here.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Update and Death March to Kanonkop

Busy busy busy. Harvesting has been going strong for the last week or so. Every grape varietal seemed to become ripe for the picking at the same time, so we've been trying to get them off the vine and sorted as quickly as possible. This has meant harvesting for pretty much every day except Sundays for the past couple of weeks. Today we are finishing up the shiraz, tomorrow we'll finish up the mourvedre and that will be all for harvest! At this point I'm pretty excited to be done with it -- I could use a while of not having to wake up at 4 or 5 a.m. every day.

Was able to spend the day with Cousin Cy and Alli on Friday, which was very nice. After a few days in Camps Bay, they came out and stayed at a bed and breakfast in Stellenbosch. They came and met me for a late breakfast on Friday after I'd been sorting grapes all morning. Then I gave them a tour of the cellar and the farm, before we came back and I put them to work! They sorted grapes for an hour or two, switching back and forth between the two tables and getting nice and sticky. They have real potential as grape sorters -- with minimal instruction they quickly became among the top grape sorters on the tables. Overachievers. Then we did a quick tasting of all the Noble Hill wines, they bought some wine and some olive oil, then we went for a run around the farm and up the big hill to Kris' new house (which now has rafters and looks almost house-like). Cy and I took a quick swim in the upper dam, and I had to take off to go with Kris to a wine tasting event and the University of Cape Town. Unsurprisingly, the UCT wine club drank a lot of wine. Cy and Alli fly back to London today -- it seemed like they had a nice time.

While harvest happened this past Saturday, we also hosted a wedding here. The groom's family is Dutch, the bride's family is South African, and the bride and groom live in London. Everything went off without too many mishaps. I tended the bar for pretty much the whole time, which wasn't too bad. Still, I was on my feet from about 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., which was tiring.

On the winemaking front, we now have two of the three tanks filled. The cabernet has been in the tank for a while, and is now almost entirely dry (the sugars have fermented). Its balling is at -1.4 right now. A 300 liter oak barrel has arrived for the cab, so we'll get that wine out of the tank and into the barrel in the next couple of days. Then it will sit in the barrel for a while -- something like 12-18 months. The shiraz just went into the tank on Friday. The grapes looked nice while we were harvesting it, the juice tastes good, and the color looks bright and fresh right now. We did our first pumpover for the shiraz today, and that will go on for a while. Should get the mourvedre in the tank tomorrow and we'll be doing pumpovers and punchdowns on that as well.

Yesterday (Sunday) Kris and I had the day off (not the whole weekend due to the wedding). I had hopes of going up to Langebaan to kitesurf, but reported that there was no wind up there. Hopefully I can get there in the near future now that harvest is finishing up -- it's been too long since I've made any progress on that front. We went to Olivello for lunch (delicious buffet) to form a plan B, and decided that even though the temperature was in the 90s, we would hike up Kanonkop, the mountain right behind the farm. Here's a picture taken about 20 minutes into the hike:

"Death March!" was our rallying cry. We decided to bring Kuba and Coco the dogs along with us, along with a ton of water. We filled up every empty water bottle we could find until we had a backpack full of water for us and the dogs. Though normally roughly a three hour hike, it ended up taking significantly longer because of Kuba the dog. He realized pretty quickly that our intention was to continue to head uphill, and refused to keep up with us. Instead, he plodded along well behind us until we turned a corner and were out of sight ahead of him. Then, fearing being left behind by the pack, he would begrudgingly jog to catch up. Rinse and repeat.


We finally made it up to the top, and were treated to a great view. We saw a nice view of the winelands and where we had just come from, and also saw the other side of the mountain, which has a great view of the layout of Cape Town and the suburbs. It was clear enough to see all the way to Cape Point, all of Table Mountain, and the whole surrounding area. Sadly, because the hike up took so much longer than expected, we didn't get much time to enjoy the view and had to start our descent to make it back before it got too dark.

Here are a couple of pictures from the top. Coco (pictured) made it all the way up, but we had to leave Kuba for the final ascent.

The descent seemed to be going more quickly because Kuba appeared happy to head downhill. He is big enough that his momentum would just carry him down, and the most energy he had to put out was to stop himself. But, when we were about 4/5 of the way down, I looked back and Kuba had stopped completely. He laid himself on the ground in the middle of a path and wouldn't budge. We went back and forth between being annoyed with him for being so lazy, and worried about whether we'd asked too much of him to go on such a long hike in the hot weather (though only the beginning part was hot -- it cooled off quite a bit as the day got later and our altitude went up). Were we going to have terrible regrets about calling the hike a Death March? All four of us had been drinking tons of water, but we hand fed him three liters of water. Still, he refused to get up -- even when we physically picked him up, he would actively dive his head back towards the ground (ironically spending more energy than it would have taken him to just stand up).

Kuba being super lazy:

Finally, after an hour, when it was nearly pitch black, we wondered if maybe our ascent strategy of just walking ahead of him to make him fear losing the pack would get him moving. Success! He got up on his own and trotted to keep up with us as we walked back down in the dark. He got the full pampering treatment when he got back -- Kathleen draped wet towels on him -- and the adventure was over. Reports are that both dogs are extremely lethargic and appear to be really sore. Lazy pups.

Monday, March 1, 2010


Exclusive pumpover video! Filmed yesterday during the last pumpover for the cab. The balling has been shooting down, so we have stopped pumpovers to avoid over-extraction. I haven't tried it today, but supposedly it now kinda tastes like wine, though it still has some sugar in it.

Sadly the video cut out during most of the actual pumping part of it. But you can see the tanks, and the really exciting setup and cleanup processes! Plus the soundtrack is money.

The shiraz harvest started today, so we will have the second tank full of shiraz sometime this week.

Didn't participate in harvest today. Instead ran an errand, then tried to go to this cable pull wakeboarding lake (like wakeboarding without a boat) in Strand, but it was closed. Tomorrow is a large day of deliveries. Cousin Cy and Cousin-in-law Alli are in town staying at Camps Bay, so hopefully I can meet up with them for lunch while I'm in Cape Town. If not, they'll be out in the winelands staying in Stellenbosch later this week.