Over the barrel

© Cape Times Friday 20th December 2013

Whenever I talk to winemakers about their jobs, I always become rapidly bewildered at the incredible number of choices which face them at every turn. On the surface, winemaking is pretty easy – pick grapes, squash grapes, add yeast, watch it bubble, filter it, bottle it, sell it for huge amounts of cash – that’s it, right? No of course it isn’t, and it doesn’t take too much time spent with winemakers to realise that they actually face a myriad of different choices every day. From growing the grapes, knowing when to pick them, what to do in the winery, what kind of yeast/oak/bottles to use – winemakers have to be constantly on their toes, reacting and anticipating, ready to change and adapt at every stage. The good news for winemakers is that nowadays they have access to a massive amount of information which helps them decide what to do. They can get minute by minute weather forecasts, detailed soil analyses, plenty of support and back up from the various science labs around the country. But doesn’t it take the romance and art out of winemaking or is it flying in the face of progress to ignore this wealth of information which can help to make better wine?

One person who not only sucks up all the information available, but goes out of his way to consider additional factors that others might ignore, is Richard Kershaw MW. One of only two MW’s (Master of Wine) in South Africa, and one of a mere 312 worldwide, Richard left his day job as winemaker at Kanu a few years ago to fly solo in Elgin, an area he believes has incredible potential for two varieties in particular – Chardonnay and Syrah (aka Shiraz). As with many start-up businesses, he is yet to own his own vineyards and in the meantime, is buying in grapes from local growers – it seems there is some kudos in selling your grapes to an MW because the queue to do so is very long, giving Richard access to some amazing grapes from different growers, all within a 10 minute tractor drive of his cellar.

With so much good fruit to choose from, one of the factors which Richard considers before buying is which clone the grapes are. Like lots of other agricultural products, grapes can be ‘bred’ for particular purposes this strain might be particularly fruity, that one might be especially good in cooler climates etc – and he uses his very technical background and experience to treat each clone appropriately and thus make better wine. The clones he has chosen are all Burgundian in origin and each brings something different to the blend. Clone CY96 give finely-balanced wines with a distinct citrus edge to them, CY95 is particularly peachy and aromatic whilst CY76 has a lovely nutty/almond character and the wines age rather well. How do we know all this? Because Richard brought some of his 2013 chardonnays, the separate clonal components of which are all still in barrels waiting to be blended, into a fascinating tasting for the launch of his new, Platter 5 Star-winning Chardonnay 2012.

It’s not often that you get to taste the building blocks of a wine in this way – most winemakers are keener to show off their finished product and keep their blending secrets to themselves – but Richard wants to produce wines which really reflect their terroir in terms of the clone, climate and specific site, so understanding all the different components is important. But to my mind, none of this detailed, scientific analysis is as important as the fact that, delicious though the individual clones were, the wine that sang the loudest and brightest was the blend of them all, the 2012 Chardonnay. Science is great at explaining the explainable, but it’s the winemaker’s art of blending which changes this wine from a mere science project into a triumphant masterpiece. Try it at www.richardkershawwines.co.za where you can join the ‘Clonehead Club’ and receive great discounts on all the wines.