By winemaking student Geena Whiting.
I grew up in KwaZulu Natal, on a small holding that was a hodgepodge of different agricultural sectors. We had chickens that ran around and horses and cows that roamed. Fields of lavender and tea tree that left the air smelling sweet and fresh. A veggie garden that when given attention provided delicious veggies but in general it was a space for wild herbs and rouge mielies to grow. Eight dogs that were supposed to patrol the farm, but spent most of their days lying on the stoop (or to my mother’s irritation) on our carpets and couches.
We also planted 12 grape vines, that over the years had been left to grow wildly and every second winter or so they were hacked back, to what the untrained person would have been considered as pruning. The leaves were big and the grape flesh was sweet, the skins too tannic to eat. To this day I have no idea what cultivar it was.
This was the year my mother decided “If we have grapes, we may as well have wine too”. Easier said than done mom. We harvested on a Saturday morning, our first error was not harvesting early enough, in the sweltering Durban summer it felt like it was 38 °C at 10 in the morning the hot African sun beating down on our skin, sweat beading in the furrows of our foreheads and the humidity bordering on the stereotypical. We set about our task of harvesting, having no idea the balling of the grapes or the acid levels, we had just decided they had been up there for long enough. The leaves around the bunch zone had not been cleared so it was a lot like playing hide and seek with the grape bunches.
Eventually all of the grapes had been harvested and in the midday heat we washed our feet and proceeded to do the overly romanticized grape stomping. I recall initially stepping very lightly as I was scared of being stung by a bee that may have been resting in between the grapes. Eventually I found my courage and started to stomp vigorously, all the while the grape must was being exposed to temperatures above 26 °C and excessive air contact.
The 80 litre yield of must and skins were then transferred to white buckets with lids, and the yeast was rehydrated by my mother and added. I have no idea how she went about the rehydration, but we bought one of those “make-your-own-wine” kits, and she seemed confident that all was done correctly. The buckets were then stored in the broom closet under the stairs and left for who knows how long.
I recall when we bottled that the wine reeked of vinegar and sherry and was so high in alcohol it burned to swallow. There were no fruit or other flavours and it seemed pointless to bottle it and call it wine. To change the old saying: when life gives you off –wine, make moonshine! That is exactly what we ended up doing. Distilling it off and getting the alcohol and adding cordials made from the fruit trees on the farm.
From a wine making point of view, so many things went wrong; I don’t even think we knew what malic acid was, let alone that we must conduct MLF to get rid of it. I know so much more and could probably make a drinkable wine out of that unknown cultivar on my childhood farm.
And yet knowing how to do things correctly cannot make up the fond memories of the process, sneaking around and opening the buckets to smell the wine, gripping my father’s arm so I didn’t fall over while stomping the grapes, our dogs trying to eat the berries as we harvested them. There is space for automatization in our cellars; it is necessary to take our industry to the future; however there must also be space for experiences such as the one in my childhood. Wine is like history in a bottle, we must make history while making wine.