This year’s holiday destination is slightly out of the ordinary. The itinerary comprises surviving on 5 hours sleep a night, working from sunrise to well after sunset and being on your feet all day; regulated working hours and weekends off? Forget it. I had chosen to work a harvest, but I had chosen the winery with care. The remote and breathtakingly beautiful Cederberg Mountain conservation area is a vast and largely deserted place of stark red rock formations, 5000 year old San Bushman paintings and at 1100m high, South Africa’s highest altitude winery; Cederberg Private Wine Cellar. This is my home, my job and my heart for three weeks.
My little cottage is nestled into the mountains which pulse red at sunrise and sunset, next to it runs a perfectly clear river, my neighbours are a troop of baboons and my house mate is a large spider that I have named Bert. Up here, far from civilisation I feel free and able to breathe, it is an exhilarating and liberating feeling, especially with no mobile reception or internet access. I have a short drive to the cellar each morning through the vineyards just as the sun begins to rise bathing the vines in liquid gold. By 6am I am hard at work.
Despite my lumbering ineptitude and continuous stream of questions the team at Cederberg have taken me under their wing and shown me the ropes, always pausing to explain a technical detail for the umpteenth time. The camaraderie, the intelligence, the dedication and the unadulterated passion with which they work makes this close knit team a rarity to behold and a pleasure to be a part of, all be it briefly. I would love to go into detail about the research and experimentation they do with clones, rootstocks, aspect, soils, extraction techniques, yeasts, blending and barrels but it would never do justice to the combination of science and art that makes these wines so special. Rather you will see a snapshot of harvest through the eyes of a rather clumsy, completely unqualified English girl who, for three magical weeks is part of that dream team.
The alarm is unpardonably early each morning; I leave barely time to dress and have a swift coffee before I am high-tailing it to the cellar to make it there by 6am. The usual gloom of an early morning is swept away by the awesome vista and the excitement for the day ahead. As each variety, sub plot and clone is vinified and fermented separately each day is a case of juggling 60 balls at a time, keeping track of which tank or barrel needs what attention. There is crushing, destemming, chemical analysis, settling, pressing, racking, yeast rehydration, inoculation, fermentation, pump overs and punch downs, more racking, barrel aging, malolactic fermentation and blendings to contend with. This is happening continuously and simultaneously over a 3 month period as the different grapes are harvested at different times. Wine I have swiftly discovered, is like having small, temperamental children; they need constant monitoring, they need their temperatures and sugars taken regularly, they need to be fed and for the reds, they need exercising to get a good breath of fresh air in the form pump overs every 4-6 hours day and night. 2am and you know where you can find the winemaker, in the cellar talking softly to the wines as he takes their vitals. I know many less attentive parents.
My nails have never been long nor manicured (to the disappointment of my mother), however I have swiftly seen the futility of having anything but clipped nails. Lacking a clipper of any sort I have had to resort to biting my nails off one by one. Each day I have a new fear to face. Cleaning out the pneumatic press is the first I was challenged with. This involves climbing into a large, cylindrical metal coffin, your access point is a small hole hovering over a rotating blade (hopefully inactivated at this point) within which you must scoop out the grape skins before hosing it out. Claustrophobia was the least of my worries – being pressed alive was a far more pressing concern (excuse the pun). However I have now discovered that the inside of the press has wonderful acoustics and I keep my mind occupied by blasting out a self-composed compilation of dodgy 80’s anthems. Apparently the press is not sound proof. When I emerge 20 mins later I am soaking wet with grape skins clinging to my hair, eyelashes and clothes but you can eat your dinner off the inside of the press.
Shovelling the skins out of the tank for pressing is another fear factor moment. This requires shimmying up the tanks (which are not at ground level) and manoeuvring yourself through a tiny hole in the side of the tank (an even harder endeavour on the return journey when you are slippery with juice) and lowering yourself into yet another metal coffin slick with skins often reaching waist height. These have to be shovelled out of a small hole at the base of the tank into the press. This is hard physical graft, a great substitution for the gym I have decided. Topping the barrels (to prevent oxidation and make up for the ‘angels share’ lost to evaporation) is another job requiring acrobatic skills. The barrels are stacked 5 high and I again find myself clinging precariously to the side of a sheer wall of barrels as the stack keens alarmingly to one side, hauling myself up until I am to reach the elusive top layer.
At the heart of the gruelling hours, the physical frenzy, the need for absolute accuracy and scientific understanding, not to mention being able to anticipate what each individual wine needs before it knows itself are the dream team: David, Tammy, Luzaan and Alex (despite much confusion this is boy Alex rather than ‘Tannie Groot Lay Gat’, my affectionate – I hope – nickname). A group of incredibly talented yet humble people who fill the winery with laughter, banter, energy and song (ok the latter is mostly my contribution) even when the heat is on. This has cemented my belief that in order to make good wine one must first have great grapes (something the Cederberg has in spades due to the complete lack of virus or downy mildew) but in order to make a great wine you must have great people working with those great grapes, again something Cederberg has in spades. Taste the soon to be released Wild Ferment Barrel aged Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir and you will see exactly what I mean.
I am bruised, I am cut, my feet are swollen and I am exhausted yet I have never been so happy or so inspired.