The day the harvest season starts is the moment the Waterford team prepares for all year. Now’s the time to put the fruits of their labour to the test.
It’s 6am on a Tuesday morning. The town of Stellenbosch is slowly starting to wake up, yet there’s already some movement in the vineyards at Waterford Estate. If you listen closely, you’ll hear a tractor grumbling, the snip-snip of fast hands and sharp cutters, and the barely audible thud-thud-thud of bunches of grapes landing in crates.
Today marks the official start of the 2018 harvest season, and the Waterford Estate team is in high spirits. A handful of pickers is moving swiftly through a single Chardonnay vineyard block. Beautiful bunches of bright-green grapes – set to form part of a new vintage of Waterford Estate Methode Cap Classique (MCC) – are ripe for the picking.
This will be the 4th time MCC is produced from this particular block, perched high up on the slopes of the Helderberg and planted in 2007. With sandstone and granite-rich soils adding back bone and minerality to the grapes, and the vines benefiting from a hint of sea breeze, the wine promises to boast characteristics typical of the French Champagne style while telling a fascinating story about the terroir.
This early in the harvest season, the grapes are still acidic – the aim being to produce a neutral, dry base wine that can develop over time. Only 2.5 tons of grapes are being picked this morning; the rest will follow a day or two later.
True to Waterford’s nature, there’s a sense of camaraderie in the vineyard as the pickers make their way through the rows of vines. “Tel op – elke korrel is ‘n borrel (Pick up – every grape is a bubble),” one of the pickers quips. “Fill it, Sarel, fill it, fill it,” another one says, as the picked bunches of grapes are added to the pile.
This may look like quick, easy work, but there’s more to it than meets the eye, says viticulturist David van Schalkwyk. He keeps a couple of rolls of bandages in the front of his bakkie, as cuts and bruises are par for the course. This morning, extra pairs of hands come in the form of friends and family who, along with the permanent staff contingent, make short work of the harvest.
When the first strong rays of sunlight hit the vines, the tractors start making their way down to the cellar. Here, the whole grape brunches are pressed and the juice is settled, as only the clear juice is fermented. The wine will be aged for about 9 months, after which bottling – and a second round of fermentation – will follow. Magic is about to be made.
Just after 8am, the team gathers in the courtyard for the blessing of the grapes. This tradition, in which glasses are raised in a toast to the harvest and MCC from a previous vintage is poured over the freshly picked grapes, is not to be missed.
It’s only fitting that Marvin Gaye’s “I heard it through the grapevine” can be heard through the speakers in the courtyard as glasses are clinked. If these grapevines deliver as they should, the bubbles may just exceed the team’s wildest expectations.