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.


  1. wow quite an excellent update. i see why you were not by the mom

  2. its wonderful jack to read all about you and see the pictures. love, Granny

  3. Jack, this stuff we did is awesome. Love, Tils

  4. Yeah, Sick Blog, Jack!!

    Keep it coming. Glad I finally got over fear of clicking on a blog.

    Your writing is good, and I am amazed by the photos.
    love dad