Wine has been one of my interests for a number of years, and my travels have given me the possibility of visiting vineyards and cellars around the world. Along with the many opportunities for tasting, I have focused some of my recent travels on harvest season and work in wine farms.
South Africa’s Wine Industry
South Africa is internationally known for its fine wines, the result of plenty of suns and fertile land. While the Stellenbosch region is a favourite, there are many more to mention. Franschhoek, Swartland, Robertson…the areas surrounding Cape Town are all rich in vines. Many vineyards maintain organic practices, working with the natural landscape instead of around it. The most common varieties of grapes are Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Typical of only South Africa is the Pinotage varietal, a hybrid of Pinot Noir and Cinsault, often tasting of berries, chocolate and spices. Most wine estates are open daily for tasting, giving you the perfect opportunity to taste the products in a beautiful setting. However, be sure to find out if the vineyard you visit requires a reservation for tastings.
Finding Volunteering Opportunities
Before going to South Africa, I did research online to find winemakers that were looking for volunteers. One website was of particular help. HelpX puts volunteers in connection with small business owners and project leaders around the world. I contacted Edmund Oettlé from Upland Organic Estate in Wellington (about an hour from Cape Town). We decided I would come for a few weeks in March to do mainly cellar work. The volunteering package included several benefits. A small stipend for food, accommodation in a lovely cottage, and dinner with the family once a week. And, obviously, I can’t forget to mention the many bottles of wine I had the pleasure to taste).
Along with me was a woman my age from Germany who had already worked on the farm on two separate occasions. The fact that she was returning a third time immediately put me at ease about the farm owners and level of respect they have for their workers. For three weeks we shared the cottage with a French wine and spirits student. From Monday to Friday we worked from 8 am to 5 pm, stopping to share a meal at lunch and refuel for the second half of the day.
So what does working on a wine farm or in a cellar look like? The work outdoors is generally focused on the vines, making sure they are well maintained and pruned throughout the year and finally, cutting off the grapes during the harvest. Cellar work includes every part of the process that happens after the grapes have been picked until wine is bottled. Although the tasks vary daily and throughout the season, one thing is for certain, there is never a lack of work.
The first 15 minutes of day one was probably the most challenging as I had to ”stir the grapes” in a large tank. What looks like a basic job is made much more difficult by the fermentation of the grapes, creating a dense mass which becomes very heavy to move. The purpose is to mix the grape skins with all the juice which has settled beneath the layer of skins. In order for the wine to develop the flavour imparted to it by the skins, it is necessary for the skins to get into contact with the juice.
After close to an hour I had only made slight progress in the tank, though the large blister on my hand was well developed. Seeing my struggle, Edmund decided to show me how to place a tube in the juice at the bottom of the tank and pump it through to the top of the tank, mixing the juice and grape skins. Much better…
Feedback on the Work
One of the more time-consuming jobs we were in charge of was for the preparation of sparkling wine, called Methode Cap Classique (MCC) in South Africa. The process to make this wine is the same as Champagne, however, local grapes are used. Each bottle needs to be opened individually so that the pressure can expulse the yeast which has formed a deposit in the wine, a process known as disgorgement. Once removed, a dosage of a low concentration of liqueur, (in our case brandy infused with vanilla bean), was added to the bottle to impart flavour and strength.
Once a bottle received its dosage, I topped them off and corked them one by one. After a few bottles, it was easy to develop a rhythm and fall into a steady pace. This was accompanied by a fun playlist! We disgorged about 1000 bottles in a few days, and of course, we had the chance to taste test!
Whatever the job, Edmund was always clear in his expectations. He was respectful about giving us space to do what we had to do. It never felt like he was a big boss. He was simply a helpful leader on par with his workers. Not only was he enjoyable in the work environment, but he also had a great sense of humour and was always quick and witty with his words. The weekly meal with him and his wife Elsie was a feast, including local specialities, homegrown produce, wine and brandy tasting.
Weekends were free and we often explored nearby vineyards, towns, and the landscape. Swimming in rock pools, sampling some of the country’s finest wines, and relaxing in the sun was all part of the experience. A few favourite vineyards we had the chance to visit were Boschendal, Vergelegen, Waterkloof and Bosman. For a meal worthy of a king, check out the tasting menu with wine pairing at Waterkloof Estate – it will not disappoint.
The three weeks at Upland flew by, I wouldn’t say easily but definitely pleasantly. The work was tough enough to remind me of the effort required to run a farm. But the working environment was positive and light. I was waking up every morning in a natural landscape straight out of a dream. As well as learning much more about the winemaking process than ever before. Mountains looming all around us, fields of green, trees standing tall, a small river on the property, the scenery shone.
Without a doubt the next time I can travel to South Africa I will certainly pass by Upland to see Edmund and Elsie and sample their latest bottles. Then I will have to continue exploring the vast region of vineyards around Cape Town!