From grape to glass: harvest time in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley

Bouchard Finlayson’s fine wines are a testament to the passion behind the processes of handcrafted winemaking

27 February 2019 - 12:46 By Zodwa Kumalo
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Bouchard Finlayson: the boutique vineyard and winery.
Bouchard Finlayson: the boutique vineyard and winery.
Image: Supplied/Bouchard Finlayson

It’s 7.11am and the sun is already threatening to blaze in a few minutes. About 28 farm workers are gathered in what looks like a scene out of a movie. The vineyards that stretch for miles into a bright-green-lined carpet against a turquoise blue sky are pregnant with grapes small and large, yellow-green and purple, ripe for picking. Yellow crates are neatly stacked beside a cream-coloured, vintage-style Lamborghini tractor driven by Setrick (Zet) Hansen.

It is harvest time at Bouchard Finlayson. Nestled in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley in Hermanus, Bouchard Finlayson is a family-owned boutique wine estate inspired by the genuine passion of its owners – the Tollman family of the Red Carnation Hotel Collection, who bought it in 2000 – and the team in the vineyard and cellar.

As invited media, we are here to help pick Sauvignon Blanc and Sangiovese grapes. That’s just the first of many manual, and often back-breaking, tasks of the day. Depending on whether they are red or white grapes, the processes involve sorting, fermenting, pumping-over, punching-down, painstaking nurturing and monitoring, barrelling and bottling. Some of the white wines reach shelves by early the following year, while the reds remain in the cellar where they will be carefully nurtured until they are ready for release.

The fruits of labour

“Slowly, slowly; take your time, there’s no rush,” estate manager Mortimer Lee urges. He has been with Bouchard Finlayson since 2009 after working as a winemaker and estate manager for 24 years.

Heads, backs and shoulders are hunched over; hands flash in and out of the leafy vines, tossing bunches of juicy grapes into crates. As we pick, I can’t resist popping a few into my mouth and guiltily look around to see if anyone saw me.  

Farmworkers picking grapes.
Farmworkers picking grapes.
Image: Supplied/Bouchard Finlayson

Samuel Butshula's eyes crease as he catches me munching, grape juice running down my chin. We have been paired so he can to show me the ropes. “Don’t pick the nadruiwe [unripe grapes]. Strip the bottom leaves if you can’t get to the bunch,” he says, mixing Afrikaans and English ngesiXhosa.

He tells me he remembers the day he arrived at Bouchard Finlayson like it was yesterday. July 16 2010: by pronouncing the date as a full sentence, he invokes its memory. He recalls the date clearly because he had travelled all the way from the Eastern Cape, desperately looking for work and close to giving up, and was hired by the family.

Lambert Gardener, a dreadlocked gentleman, jokes with the team. One minute he is throwing crates over the vines to the farm workers once they have emptied theirs, and the next is he jumping on a tractor to unload the stacked trays of freshly picked produce back at the winery.

He will retire soon, Lee says, gesturing towards Simon Hansen, who is now 60 years old and one of five family members who work on the estate. Hansen is one of the first beneficiaries of the owners' gift of gratitude to staff members retiring at 60 with 20 years of service. The winery will build a house for him and his family in one of the townships nestling the village of Hermanus. He has worked on the farm since 1995. 

At 8.17am, my knees are sore. And my back is aching. Inside I’m whining like a spoilt child and dreaming of that lounger under the shade of the thatch with the cool air blowing out of the tasting room back at the winery. Instantly, I feel embarrassed and lazy but still can’t help glancing at the time every so often. Breakfast is at 9am and I think about the words of Peter Finlayson, co-founder and cellar master at Bouchard Finlayson: “Winemaking can be stamina-sapping and demanding.”

The birth of Bouchard Finlayson

Chris Albrecht and Peter Finlayson.
Chris Albrecht and Peter Finlayson.
Image: Supplied/Bouchard Finalyson

In 1989, at the Diner’s Club winemaker of the year competition, Paul Bouchard, a celebrated Burgundian winemaker, was an invited judge who flew from France to be part of the judging panel. He left before the awards were announced but left a message saying: “Whoever wins the competition is my guest at my chateau.”

Finlayson won that competition and spent some time with Bouchard in France, explaining his plans to break ground and plant vines in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. He flew back home, expectant. Six months later, Bouchard returned to SA and the world-renowned Bouchard Finlayson was born.

The winemaking will continue until the end of the day, sometimes later. It’s harvest season and the work, it seems, is never done, sometimes happening all at once despite careful planning.

The timing of the grape harvest is a much-discussed event. Analyses of sugar and acid levels, among other factors, are needed before the decision is made.

“Deciding when exactly you should tackle each cultivar is often a calculated risk. Is it close enough to the exact analysis and the exact stage of development you want or do you rely on the weather conditions to remain favourable … wait a bit longer?” says Lee.

First to be harvested, he says, are usually the Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc grapes and last are the Italian reds such as the Sangiovese and the Nebbiolos.

Producing handcrafted wines

Winemaker Chris Albrecht punching down red grapes.
Winemaker Chris Albrecht punching down red grapes.
Image: Supplied/Bouchard Finlayson

Back at the winery, it seems everything is happening at once. Truckloads of Chardonnay grapes, bought from Kaaimansgat, have just been delivered (they ripened a few weeks earlier than usual), the Sauvignon Blanc grapes are being destemmed by a machine and then pressed, and two interns who hail from Canada and Italy, respectively, are pumping over red grapes in ginormous vats to extract tannin and colour from the skins in the wine.

In another room, under the watchful eye of Bouchard Finlayson winemaker Chris Albrecht, we punch-down red grapes, which is a process of stirring the red wine to prevent the cap (the top layer of mostly grape skin) from getting too extracted.

This requires full body weight and a step ladder to break the cap seal and really sink the large ladle into the vat of liquid. I almost fall in – twice. The air is thick with the aromas of fermenting grapes, wooden barrels and the vibration of humming machines and purring forklifts.

It’s no accident that most of the processes at this winery are done manually, because there are machines out there that can save time and energy. This distinctly olde-worlde charm underpinned by Burgundian principles must certainly play a role in carefully teasing out the evocative tastes of each of the nine handcrafted wines produced here. This is a boutique winery, after all; far from the considerations of mass production.

The sun is almost setting as we drive towards Kwaaiwater beach, just a few kilometres from the wine estate. Ahead, on the usually green mountains, you can see the damage caused by the recent fires that destroyed about 10 hectares of the neighbouring vineyards in mid-January, according to Wineland Media.

A celebration of Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir vines.
Pinot Noir vines.
Image: Supplied/Bouchard Finlayson

A cool sea breeze blows over us as Albrecht pours elegant glasses of the flagship Galpin Peak Pinot Noir, explaining the technicalities, which, humbly, skate over my head. The sea breezes apparently work to keep the vines cool and ripening slowly. The vines are influenced by a maritime climate, I read, which creates one of the most important terroir features in this valley. The duplex soils, classified as Malmesbury shale, are particularly favourable for the quality production of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the cultivars Bouchard Finlayson are world renowned for, as well as and Sauvignon Blanc, the estate's biggest seller.

The flagship Galpin Peak.
The flagship Galpin Peak.
Image: Supplied/Bouchard Finlayson

Earlier, Finlayson had taken us through the three Pinot vintages – the 2001, the 2003 and the 2005. He is credited for pioneering Pinot Noir in the area and this year marked the sixth annual Pinot Noir Celebration at the end of January. When you think of Pinot Noir, you should immediately associate it with the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. That is the aim of the festival.

Said Finlayson: “2001 was a great vintage. It behaved itself, following on from 2000, just before Christmas 1999, when we got hit by hail and lost half the crop. However, when we have a nice light crop, the vines get a chance to build a better reserve so the next year you will score. It’s like 2015 after 2014 - 2014 was a very wet year.

“There was a lot of rot and rain in 2003 but the wine turned out fabulous. And of course, 2005 is our pièce de resistance!” he said as we sipped and fully appreciated all the blood, sweat, tears and science that went into producing these fine wines of Bouchard Finlayson, which are among the best SA has to offer.

Some of the older vintages are available for sale at the cellar door as part of "Peter's Picks". These vintage gems from library stock include some 18-year-old red wines, which have been cellared in the best possible conditions to not only provide pleasure to connoisseurs and collectors, but also to be served and savoured at special occasions.

Visit www.bouchardfinlayson.co.za for more information.

This article was paid for by Bouchard Finlayson.

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