A matter of taste - and careful tasting

Wednesday, 22 December, 2004
Lesley Beake
Ask a winemaker about the ‘quiet season’ after harvest is in, and you are likely to get a strange look. Lesley Beake interviewed Elunda Basson, red winemaker at Nederburg, on her feelings about the ongoing evaluation of the wines in waiting in the cellar – and what happens after the excitements of the crush and the drama of the fermentation.
‘Some people seem to think that harvest is the only busy time, and we are just hanging about during the rest of the year. That’s just not true!’ For a moment Elunda looks reflectively towards the huge cellar and smiles. ‘Not true at all. We are always busy, always under pressure of one kind or another - except when the cellar closes down for two weeks over Christmas and more or less forces everyone to have a much-needed break. Managing a cellar on a twelve-month cycle is a matter of meticulous attention and complete concentration. ‘During June and July we have intensive tasting of the wines in-barrel and allocate them provisionally to specific blends. When that’s finished, we list which of the blends is priority and which can go out first. This involves a great deal of tasting and a lot of big decisions! Then we start emptying wine from barrels - empty the old wine and fill with the new. As well as tasting for blending of the old vintages, we have to taste the new vintage as well and get the wines into barrels. ‘And over and above the tasting decisions, we also have to keep an eye on space for the new vintage - we have to time the balance between those barrel batches and blending in the tanks, making sure that we have space at the right time when the new batches arrive. We have areas that we consider more as storage of wines than fermentation space - but we have to manage the movement of wines carefully so that those tanks are available when we need them for fermentation. ‘From August onwards we are busy emptying barrels and making up blends - a big job in a cellar like this where such volumes of wine are involved. We work on a priority basis - the best of the best wines go to the auction wines, the next best to the Reserve Private Bin and so on, working from the smallest (top) quantities down to the bigger volume blends. All the wines are kept separate and handled differently so that we have as broad a base as possible when we come to blending. We try to harvest, and keep, the wines separately all the way through the ageing period. Key varieties from different areas are kept separate too. ‘Then, of course, we have to taste for the effect of the wood! ‘By November we should be finishing with the blending sessions and begin fining, filtering and adjusting the wines. Then, after that, we can turn our attention again to the unblended wines in vats and tanks, and start the process again. ‘And ALL the time we are tasting regularly. Young wine we would taste daily during fermentation, but once fermentation is finished and the juice is off the skins, then you basically have wine to work with. We taste it again to make sure we like it, and after malolactic fermentation we let it settle for about a month. And then we taste through the whole cellar to give every wine a grading and an allocation - and to see where it fits in on the programme. It’s at this point that we can assess which wines are in the same quality group - even at that young stage. It really helps that we have a historical knowledge of the grapes before the fruit even arrives. When the best grapes come in - we already know in advance what to expect! ‘Then ….. we taste through the cellar again, just to make sure of our wines ….. to reallocate and reaffirm what we have to work with. And then we taste a little bit more. ‘After that it is not necessary to taste quite as much. But we try to get round to all the barrels every three months. We taste and rack, test and adjust. Movement of the wine, and a bit of aeration gives it life, but air space in barrels creates a dangerous area for things to happen, so we are watching the levels all the time ..… and tasting. Every tasting is a chance to assess the progress of the wine and grade it again. ‘At the end of each stage in the life of the wines, we look at the whole cellar on one day so that we have a really clear picture of what we’ve got, where we are with the bigger blends …..whether we need to further refine. In the blending lies the art. The more options you have, the better the wine will be. That’s the skill. ‘And, of course, once we reach that point in the year, the harvest begins (some of our earliest fruit comes in from Papkuilsfontein in January and some of the latest reds come in at the end of March, so it’s a long season for us). So we begin tasting that as well.’ So ..… there we have it. Winemakers don’t just hang around all year after the harvest. They work ….. damn hard. Tasting. Elunda Basson was appointed red winemaker at Nederburg Wines with effect from January 2001, after a year working as assistant winemaker with Hennie Huskisson at Nederburg. She studied viticulture and oenology for two years at the University of Stellenbosch before transferring to the Elsenburg Agricultural College. In 1997 she completed a Higher Certificate in Agriculture and a Diploma in Cellar Technology, which included a study tour of Italy. Elunda worked harvests as an assistant winemaker at Rickety Bridge Vineyards in Franschhoek - first with David Lockley and later with Boela Gerber - and spent a harvest at Dry Creek Vineyards in Sonoma County, California.
Elunda Basson
Elunda Basson

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