On the umpteenth day of the heat wave in the Cape this label designing/blogging “Vaalie” tagged along with Jeremy Borg to find out first-hand the process of wine making from the vine to the bottle. The day got off to a rocky start with a collision on the motorway between a truck of frozen chicken and a bakkie piled high with apples. Fortunately there didn’t seem to be any human casualties, and once we had crawled our way past the Chicken a la pomme on the road, we made good time through to Malmesbury in the Swartland.

Our first stop was the sublimely situated Kasteelsig vineyard, owned by Billy and Penny Hughes (of Guillermo and Penny label fame). Jeremy very patiently showed me all the different grapes being grown for Painted Wolf Wines, from the small and intense Pinotage pearls all the way up to the show-offs of the vineyard – Brash Grenache. We tasted them all – some were intensely sweet and ready (very ready) to be picked, others still had a few days left to ripen – evident in the zing my taste buds experienced. Harvesting this year is somewhat of a logistical nightmare. It started late anyway, but the heat wave had just zoomed everything forward at warp speed and everyone is now ready to get their grapes off the vines and into the vats. Talk of tonnage and transport and vat space is burning up the wires in the wine lands.

One might think that deciding to harvest is easy, but the way I see it, it is rather like deciding when to sell a stock at its highest price. At this time of the year, winemakers are assessing the level of sweetness in the grape (and the colour of the pips) to see whether they have developed the optimum sugar content. If they decide to wait a few days in the hopes of getting a more intense result, they had better keep a sharp eye on the weather because rain drops the sugar content in the grape. On the other hand, if they harvest now, they will never know what a few more days might have done.

Having been introduced to all the main players, Pinotage, Merlot, Viognier, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Shiraz, it was time to toddle off across country to the Swartland Winery where some of the Painted Wolf Wines are produced. Walking through their cooled forest of stainless steel tanks provided a welcome relief to the relentless heat outside. These rows of giants brought it home to me how huge the wine industry is. After a bit of business involving sniffing, twirling, sipping, tasting and spitting, we moved on.

The next cellar was a cross-country trek across to the Stellenbosch area. This one was much more like the wine cellar of my imagination with stacked racks of oak barrels stolidly waiting for bottling day. And the smell that hits your nose is a riot –  newly harvested, madly fermenting grapes mixed with barrelled, gently aging wines – it’s like blackcurrant cordial and champagne in a blender together. Here I met young wine maker Madre, who had a long involved conversation with Jeremy about acids and yeasts and tannins and…. I forget. This is intensely technical stuff proving that good wine isn’t just a happy accident but a dogged and passionate pursuit.

What did I get from the day?

  • Independent winemakers spend a lot of time on the move.
  • Wine making is an art and a science.
  • Logistics are tricky.
  • Spitting without dribbling comes with practice.
  • Oak barrels are the upmarket real estate of the wine world (outrageously expensive) and can only be used for three years. When I see “aged in oak barrels” on a wine label I won’t quibble about a slightly higher price.
  • Wine cellars are a great place to hang out in a heat wave, and the fumes will add to your sense of wellbeing.