Every year, somewhere during January, the pace quickens at Waterford Estate, as the winemaking team shifts their focus from waiting patiently for the grapes to ripen, to getting the fruit out of the hot vineyards and into the cool cellar at precisely the right time.
On Day 2 of the start of the 2019 harvest season, the estate grounds are buzzing from 05h30 already. The picking crew is in high spirits: today’s plan of clearing a few rows of tempranillo and merlot vines should be light, easy work. By 3pm, most will head home for a snooze.
As the team makes their way up into the vineyards, every picker is armed with a bright-red shear and a crate in which to gather the loot. A brand-new tractor glints in the first bit of morning light and, a few metres away, the Arnold family rooster is making its presence known.
Prepping for this morning’s harvest started yesterday already, when the leaves around the ripe bunches were removed to expose plump, purple-red grapes. Tempranillo, a very old Spanish grape varietal used in the Waterford Estate Rose-Mary, ripens early in the season, producing big bunches that are easy to pick.
Today, some merlot is also being harvested for inclusion in the same light wine. The difference in taste is striking: the tempranillo is already seductively sweet this early in the season, while the merlot grapes are a lot less tempting to nibble on. Yet, both grapes are at their peak in terms of adding just the right amount of flavour, sweetness and blush to the estate’s popular blanc de noir.
Most members of the picking team work on the farm throughout the year and have built a strong relationship with viticulturist David van Schalkwyk. Every summer, a few extra hands are brought in to lighten the load over harvest time, when great care is taken to pick very specific rows of grapes as they ripen.
The packers move quickly through the vineyard, clearly used to getting this job done at great speed. “Pick up, pick up, pick up,” shouts David, ducking his head to miss a crate that comes flying in his direction. “Cut the vines clean. The guys at the back can’t keep up!”
Managing partner Kevin Arnold briefly joins the harvest to see if everything is going according to plan. “It’s quite a challenging year,” says Kevin. “We had a bit of rain last week and more is expected this weekend.”
The high humidity and moisture levels, Kevin explains, create favourable conditions for downy mildew, white rust and other fungal diseases to grow. David, therefore, has to keep a close eye on the vines this year, and act quickly if a disease rears its head. Compromising the quality of the wine, and the health of the vineyard, is simply out of the question.
“It looks like our yield will also be about 15% lower than last year’s,” Kevin continues. “But, if you take the average over the past 10 years, this season’s lower yield isn’t anything to worry about. The grapes are very healthy.”
When the morning’s harvest is done, the grapes are offloaded at the cellar and whole-bunch pressed in order to preserve the elegance and finesse of the wine. Limited skin contact will ensure a stunning salmon-pink colour that speaks of a long, happy summer in one of the most beautiful corners of the world.
As David gets into his bakkie, he turns to check if all his workers are on their way to perform the rest of the day’s chores. The slogan on the back of his T-shirt catches the eye: “Live the journey; bottle the memories” – a striking reminder that every bottle of Waterford Estate wine is intended to be an authentic expression of the terroir, the season, the people and their stories.
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