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Adventures of a wine hooligan #3 - a cellar rat in South Africa

Updated: Jun 9, 2020

This was no red carpet winery visit followed by a gourmet lunch. This time I was there to work. Destination South Africa. More specifically the wild and rugged Cederberg Mountains which stand 250km north of Cape Town and are the highest vineyards in South Africa at a whopping 1,000m above sea level. David Nieuwoudt is the second generation owner/ winemaker of this incredibly estate. Tammy and Alex, the husband/wife assistant winemakers and all the cellar/vineyard workers live up this remote mountain range and their energy and talents embody these stunning wines.

It is not just that this place is remote. Or that it is high (250m higher than Mendoza, Argentina). It is not even that it has a wonderful climate (cold nights, warm sunny days) and incredible soils (shale, slate and clay); the myriad awards and trophies are testament to that. There is something more to this place, something primal and alive. It might be the towering red stone mountains, it might be the ancient history of the San and Khoi, the hunter gatherer people who lived there approximately 11,000 years ago and whose rock art is still visible today deep in the mountain caves, or maybe it is the charismatic and talented personalities that reside there today. Whatever it is, it is a place that will stay with you forever.

Working harvest is an extraordinary experience, this was my third harvest, but I think the other wineries had gone easy on me!! This was a game of 5am starts, 11.30pm finishes, and if you were on pump over duty (running the red wine juice out of the bottom of the tank and spraying it back over the ‘cap’ of skins at the top so the juice gently extracts colour and tannin from the skins as it trickles through) it was back to the winery every 4 hours throughout the night to do it. I am pretty sure that is the regime that new mothers are on… and I guess for a winemaker that is a fair analogy. However the winemaker popping in at a 2am pump over to check I was ok, and catching me a) in my PJ’s thinking I would see no one and b) singing Disney to try and stay awake thinking no one would hear was something both of us could have done with-out.

It is hard flipping graft, I’ll tell you that for free. I spend half a day out with the pickers. For most of the wine world these are itinerant labourers, at Cederberg they are part of the small community that live there and know the vines intimately. Partly I wanted to try my hand at all aspects of the winery (I was studying for the MW; why read a book when you can do it), and partly I come from England and was desperate for some sun on my skin. Suffice to say by the time I had done half a row I could barely stand up my back was in spasms. The pickers were on their 3rd row.

In the winery it is an amazing combination of biology and chemistry, of physical labour and maths. The buzz is huge, the work exhausting, the camaraderie irreplaceable, the fear (for me of messing up) massive, the satisfaction immeasurable and that glass of wine at the end of the night - heaven.

There were so many wonderful and embarrassing stories I could tell from this time but I will only bore you with a few.

Dry ice! The word still has me leaping for cover. Yes, this is not just for stage effects at concerts, but for protecting the delicate aromatics in white wines from oxidising. Having destemmed and crushed the grapes, drained the juice and I am now inside the tank, shovelling the skins out into the press … all the while dry ice pellets are being thrown in with reckless abandon like tiny smoking grenades (newbie initiation?!). It had me hopping from foot to foot trying to avoid pellets in my wellie boots (unsuccessfully.) And yes they burn!

It was my unenviable task to clean out the press. This is like a coffin on wheels and I have a slight issue with claustrophobia. I also have a slight problem with a competitive nature (5th child syndrome), so all it took was ‘if you’re not up to it’ and I swallowed my fear and climbed in through a small hatch in its belly to the helpful advise that ‘it is perfectly safe as long as no one turns it on’. Excellent. There is no flashing light to signify ‘occupied’ or little chalk board I could hang saying ‘vulnerable human inside’. Instead, and with great ingenuity I felt, I sang a compilation of 80’s power ballads at the top of my lungs throughout the cleaning process. I was assured the noise was so bad no one went near the press for the duration. Mission accomplished.

Having cleaned the press of red skins I emerged glistening like a newly cut ruby and I went up to the lab and plonked myself down on the gleaming white sideboard to have a chat with the winemakers. When I got off there was a large red bum print , much to the hilarity of the rest of the team. It was also where my new nickname came from ‘Tannie Groot Gat’ or Aunty fat lazy arse! The other Alex in the team was a few years younger than me so in Afrikaans I would automatically be ‘auntie’.

In my early youth I spend holidays working at a horse racing yard, and there were moments when the early morning feeding of the horses reminded me of mornings in the cellar. Each morning my first job was to go tank to tank to check the sugar levels. The rate at which the sugar was dropping showed how healthy the fermentation was. If the sugar depletion slowed half way through it was in danger of a stuck fermentation (it generates a smell akin to rotten eggs). If this was the case I would quickly need to ‘feed’ the yeast with a nutrient formula to get the fermentation restarted. So I would potter from tank to tank, chatting to the fermenting wine, taking its vital statistics, and generally looking like a crazy lady. Apparently talking to the wine was not normal. It seemed completely normal to me, I would chat to the wine while I was topping up barrels, while it was fermenting, and while I was pumping it over.

Between the harvesting, the yeast inoculations, the sugar analysis, the pump overs and the press cleaning there were the odd moments of utter serenity at the top of that beautiful mountain. Taking the quad bike out across the mountain on a ‘freedom drive’ to check the ripeness of the grapes still on the vine. Late nights at my little cabin, feet warming up against the fire, an inky sky heavy with stars and Nina Simone crooning gently into the night sky. Hiking up to a big natural swimming pool, a bottle of Chenin floating in the shallows to chill as we leapt off the high rocks into the icy waters. Falling asleep to the cry of baboons, muscles aching, belly full, and soul sated with Cederberg Shiraz, Nina, and an endless night sky.

The wines of Cederberg Private Cellars are stunning, pure, elegant, complex, vibrant and compelling. They are nurtured by a team who live and breathe that mountain, a small community perched up high. It is a winery filled with laughter, with passion and with knowledge. A little piece of my heart is firmly affixed in the Cederberg. Who knows, maybe they still hear the echo of out of tune 80’s ballads when the press is being cleaned.

If you haven’t been it is worth the pilgrimage, and they have beautiful little self-catering cottages along the river so you don’t need to worry about the drive back down! The wines can be bought from Bancroft Wines in the UK.

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