This article was first published in the fourth-quarter 2012 edition of Personal Finance magazine.
The northern hemisphere’s 2012 wine harvest will be coming to an end by the time this magazine hits the shelves. Almost 20 years ago, I was excitedly finishing my first vintage as a cellarhand in the Entre-Deux-Mers region of France. That’s half a lifetime of harvests away. No wonder I look so ropy. It would take an awful lot of Botox to smooth out the evidence of this winemaker’s life.
However, the physical deterioration that age brings is a small price to pay for the freedom from self-conscious angst that characterises the thoughtful youth. This means you can contemplate the philo-sophy of something without feeling like a fake.
Many of the contemporaries I admire believe that winemaking is as much about science as it is art. Through science we understand how to get the basics right. But it is the art that contributes the X factor that sets some wines apart.
The early 1990s were an exciting time for our wine industry. After years of isolation, we could travel. Young South African winemakers travelled extensively, and this was one of the reasons our wines improved dramatically during the 1990s.
Before 1990 our red wines often showed dried-out fruit characteristics on the palate, tomato leaf aromas, tart acid and puckering tannin. Our whites were often made with searing acidity. Through travelling, we experienced different winemaking philosophies and techniques. Our reds started to showcase the riper, juicier, softer characteristics we see today. White wines became creamier and fruitier.
Prior to the country’s first democratic election in 1994, most vineyards bore white fruit, and swathes of hectares were planted to neutral, naturally high-acidic varieties that were better suited to the production of superior brandy than to wine.
But internationally there was an insatiable thirst for red wine, and especially for varieties such as Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Within 10 years we had swung the pendulum so that our plantings more accurately reflected the international consumer market. As with rushing anything in life, we made mistakes, but, overall, the blistering pace with which we adapted to the new market opportunities kept us competitive and helped to grow our international market share rapidly.
When I started Flagstone Winery in the late 1990s, it was built around a model I had seen work brilliantly in California. Instead of owning vineyards, the winemaking company bought in selected grapes from independent growers.
Those first few vintages were characterised by little sleep, much wine and back-breaking work. My team and I went about our chosen passion with unbridled zeal. Half the industry thought we were mad, but beneath the chaotic exterior everything was solidly underpinned by hard scientific fact and winemaking techniques intricately and obsessively designed to get the best out of the vineyards with which we worked.
The Flagstone operation started in a run-down shell of an old depot in Cape Town harbour. All the winemaking happened outside, under a high overhang roof, open on three sides to the elements. The laboratory and office were crammed into the old, rickety building, which we shared with the seagulls.
I chose this location because the rental was cheap. For security, I put a razor-wire fence around the yard and adopted a huge boxer from the SPCA called Malolactic, or Malo for short. Malo and I had some cool adventures together.
I was hopelessly under-funded, having borrowed from the bank to start up the dream. Almost all my tanks and equipment were second or third hand. Because of all the old machinery and our exposed setting, things continually broke down, but it is amazing how long you can keep a winery going with ingenuity, duct tape, wire and a pair of good-quality pliers.
There wasn’t a budget for a large team, so harvest logistics were tough. I would often work in the winery during the day, then load a truck of empty picking crates at around midnight and head off into the hinterland, stopping at 3am outside the farmer’s gate for a few hours of sleep, before waking with the sun and picking with the team. Then I’d drive back to the winery with a truckload of grapes in time for lunch and a restorative glass of wine.
Thus recharged, the afternoon winemaking activities would kick off. Eighteen- and 20-hour days were the norm, and everyone on the team worked until they dropped, often crashing on a mattress on the floor of the office or lab.
The energy and creativity were infectious. People said Flagstone felt more like a cross between an advertising agency and a Greenpeace operation than a winery. Most importantly, we really had fun. There were lots of parties, and, luckily for us, people loved to drink our wine.
But beyond the soft tannins and ripe flavours, there was an X factor to Flagstone from the beginning. I didn’t even realise this initially. And when I started to recognise that something was special, I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Then, a few vintages into the adventure, I sent some unlabelled wines to the famous English wine critic Jancis Robinson, requesting her comments. She wrote back saying they were really good, but what made the biggest impression was that they were “happy wines”. I realised it was as simple as that. The X factor at Flagstone was joyfulness.
This isn’t unique. Many wines are happy wines. And the X factor in my own wines isn’t always evident. Perhaps, like our energy levels, it isn’t constant. Adverse circumstances often conspire, making it impossible to achieve, but it’s what we aim for.
The scientific part, like most things in winemaking, starts in the vineyard. Your vines need to be healthy, but you don’t want them to be too comfortable. If you plant a Shiraz vine in Singapore near the equator, give it a flagpole to climb and ample compost and water, it is unlikely the thing will produce any fruit at all.
A vine produces grapes only when it detects that the environment in which it finds itself isn’t perfect. To deal with this, it decides to “move”, and to achieve this without feet or wings, it makes babies or, more accurately, potential babies in the form of seeds.
To ensure the seeds are carried away, the vine has to package them so that a passing animal will ingest the seeds and wander off, before depositing them with some manure, thus “moving” the genetic material of the plant to a potentially better environment. And that is the only reason a vine produces the fruity part of a grape – the package. By manipulating the environment, the grower can encourage the vine to produce juicier, more delicious fruit.
The first opportunity to manipulate the environment is deciding where to plant a vineyard. Climate, soil, slope, aspect and the amount of wind during the growing season all play major roles. Then the grower can choose to irrigate or not; and, if so, when. Thus the grower is able to send crucial time-specific signals to the vine’s decision-making system. The combined result of all this insight and manipulation is a vine that produces intensely concentrated, flavourful grapes. Easily more than 70 percent of making a great red wine is already achieved if you can get such fruit into the winery.
Then there are as many winemaking methods as there are winemakers. Technically perhaps, there is a generally accepted right way and wrong way to make wine, but grape juice is a forgiving medium, so even here the lines are blurred.
By balancing all the different chemical elements, such as acid and sugar, tannin and colour extraction, you are almost all the way to making a great wine, a reflection of the work done in the vineyard. The clarity and cleanness of aromas and flavours take you further, and the job is 99-percent done.
But it’s the last one percent where the X factor resides, and here science cannot explain what is going on. This X factor can be any type of energy that separates one wine from another. You contribute to this X factor by how you treat the land and the people with whom you work. Then there is the energy you plough into the creative process.
The wines I most enjoy drinking are inevitably exuberant expressions of fun and joy, made by nice people.
How can you, as a consumer, spot the X factor? It’s actually very easy. The difficult part is being open to the ethereal notion in the first place.
First, you should care only about what tastes good to you. Other people’s opinions are irrelevant and should be ignored – they will never know what you taste, so concentrate with care on your own experience. Test a lot of wines and discover which complement the food you like. Once you’ve nailed what tastes good to you and tastes good with your food, focus on how the wine makes you feel. This is where the art and the X factor come into play. It’s like music: you should listen only to music that makes you happy, and the same can be said for wine.
Enjoy the discovery.