First Quarter Protégé Report – Clayton Christians, 1st year

GREETINGS FROM LE RICHÉ WINES

My first year as a newly assigned protégé and I was placed at Le Riche wine estate. All the interns including myself started working at our various estates on the first of December 2014. From what I’ve heard and read, the year at Le Riche looked promising seeing that I will be working under a renowned Cabernet Sauvignon expert in his own right and also a very dedicated and professional team who accepts nothing less than hard work and precision in everything they take on. On my arrival and very first day I had the privilege of meeting the owner and former winemaker of Le Riche wines, mister Etienne Le Riche, followed by the introduction to the current winemaker Christo Le Riche and his cellar assistant Mark Daniels.

The first two weeks was proof of whether I’m cut out for this kind of work or not and even though I never doubted myself to be hard working I never ceased to amaze either, for once again I saw the passion I had for the industry without trying too hard. Not much took place during the first two weeks because of a shortage of clientele and work. Most clients pass through the cellar at its busiest times, which is harvest. The first week was basically a week of little work which was perfect because it gave me a chance to settle in and familiarize myself with the surroundings and everyday cellar duties.  Christo wrote out a whole list of duties we had to carry out for each day and he usually does this early morning so we knew what was expected of us. On the agenda for most of the first and second week was cleaning in and outside the cellar including a tank or two from day till day. In between the cleaning, Mark and I managed to squeeze in some time to label a few bottles with the hand. By this I mean we didn’t make use of a labelling machine but instead we used two handmade, wooden label rollers, which was much more labour intensive but it saves a lot more money at the end of the day. The wine we were busy labelling was the 2013 Cabernet Reserve which is the top quality wine of their range.

On the small holding right next to the cellar, two blocks of vineyards on either side of the cellar needed our attention. The larger block facing the eastern side of the cellar consisted of Pinotage grapes and on the western side of the cellar a much smaller block of Shiraz were still lying dormant until the budding season arrived. Light work such as aligning the dripper pipes in the vineyards together with checking for leaks awaited us in the second week. The second week went by rather swiftly and by Friday we managed to label four pallets of the 2012 Cabernet Reserve. The following week which was also the third week of December, Mark went on leave, which meant we were two experience hands short because Christo hired a mobile labelling station to label the Richesse 2012 which is their entry level red blend and also the remainder of the Reserve 2012. None the less, a team of general workers assisted me and the machine operator in order for the labelling to proceed fluently. I was left by myself and without Christo’s supervision to delegate certain tasks to the team of general workers and to make sure they work at optimal speed without having to come across as dictating them. The labeling of two different wines meant strategic planning had to take place in order to minimize time lost when labels and wines were changed. Thus during the changing period I assigned a number of the helpers to fold boxes while a few strapped the boxes which were newly folded and others placed the identification stickers on the sides of the boxes which stated the type of wine and vintage. During any process where the bottles or wine is physically handled by whoever the case may be there always need to be kept in mind that a certain percentage can be set aside as lost because of spillage during bottling for example and breakage during labelling such as in this case.

As the day went by and the labelling draw near to its end a total loss of approximately 4 bottles of seven hundred-and-fifty millilitres each was written off as loss due to breakage and six bottles due to incorrect filling height which was less than what we’ve anticipated and a very good sign because it ended up being less than what we had accounted for. The labelling was finished all in a day’s work and after a little calculation we concluded that we’ve met our target of labelling more or less ten thousand bottles consisting two thirds of the Richesse and the rest Cabernet Reserve both of 2012 vintage. An interesting fact about the Reserve is that the straight Cabernet made by the Le Riche family can only obtain Reserve status once it’s been approved that the wine is of exceptional standard/quality and worthy of the status according to the winemaker and in most cases a board of expert tasters. The wine should have a certain level of complexity which includes a very soft tannin structure allowing it to have the aging ability such as each and every Reserve they have ever made.

The rest of the week I used the time to familiarize myself with how their barrel system works as I topped up the barrels which was a common thing to do every three weeks seeing that the barrelled wines were all kept for aging and they needed to be filled to the top in order to prevent oxidation, increases in VA and also prevent flor from growing on top of the wine which will ultimately lead to spoilage.

In between topping barrels, Christo would ask me to drive with him to various locations where they do business. I had the opportunity to see places such as Agrimark, Vinimark, Vinlab, WOSA and the list goes on. I was under the impression that he was preparing me for those busy days when he won’t be able to get away from the office which means I have to do the deliveries and a lot of the driving during harvest and thereafter. On certain occasions Yvonne would ask me to conduct tastings with one or two clients and this gave me the chance to sharpen and broaden my knowledge about the Le Riche range and also allowed me to taste with the clients in order to build a mental reference of what quality Cabernet Sauvignon should taste like. With the tasting I handled sales of wines and deliveries to Vinimark and other companies, allowing me to memorize the pricelist and also help me work out shorter routes to each of my destinations because is valuable.

At the end of the third week I went on leave for two weeks until the 5th of January when worked resumed as usual. On my return from holiday Mark and I had many duties to fulfil because now the preparation for harvest had to take place because the grapes were fast starting to grow and was soon to ripen. The two of us had to go into the vineyards once again to remove all the unwanted shoots from the stems and under the cordon arms of the Shiraz and Pinotage vines on both sides of the cellar. Below we can see a picture I took of the lists Christo would make just to give us a summary of what the tasks is for the day.

In preparation of the harvest that was to come Mark and I had to make sure all the open fermenters were cleaned out, we had to clean lug boxes, top up barrels, wash tanks, neatly arrange the boutique and tractor storage rooms, paint the press and I had to check the veraison of the Cabernet vineyards across the road from the cellar. Determining the percentage of veraison is basically an estimation of how many bunches has gone from the hard, green pea size berries to the soft berries which were busy generating colour through the productions of phenols. Christo and I went to each and every farm they bought grapes from in the two days that followed. He showed me where all their blocks were situated, which cultivar it was, the row direction, rootstocks and gave me a lot of extra information about who else is buying at that same farms and what one can expect to pay for a ton of grapes.

For the month of January we were kept busy by with the moving of wine from barrels into tanks and checking whether all the machinery was in working condition. We managed to bottle the 2013 Richesse ourselves with a bottling machine Etienne Le Riche bought from Rustenburg (also his former place of employment) when he decided to start his own venture in the year 1999. The bottling took us 5 days of hard work with a team of 4 people with a fifth addition on the third day due to the fact that the workload was too much for only 4 people to complete in 5 days so the extra man made lighter work. We ended up bottling twenty seven thousand bottles of Richesse 2013 which was the first time I was ever a part of a bottling operation of such magnitude.  A certain percentage of the bottles were bottled with blank corks which are set aside for the international market.

About 2 weeks before the very first Chardonnay came in, which was on the 23rd of January, a team of workers came in to move the bottles from the pallets and pack them neatly into wooden bins. Each bin could hold up to +/- 600 bottles. The team of 11 workers managed to pack everything into bins and we ended up having 45 bins filled with RIchesse 2013 covering every inch in front of the tanks inside the fermentation cellar. With very little room to move around we had to move quickly in order to ship the bins off to the storage warehouse which they rented on Chris Steyn’s farm about 5 to 10 minutes’ drive away from the cellar. The week ended on a high note with all of us knowing the Richesse 2013 was ready for labelling and to be sold soon.

 

The following week and also 2 weeks before the official harvest started for us at Le Riche, we had all the bins on and off the truck and into the storage warehouse. The week after moving the bottles we had to get the wine labelled before the firstgrapes came in. A mobile labelling machine was hired and a team of about 10 workers assisted me and the machine operator in finishing the job. A total 24 of the 45 bins that was filled was labelled and these only consisted of the bottles with the blank corks. The photos which follow shows how the machines were set up.

At Le Riche they store their harvest machinery such as the peristaltic pump, the shaky table, conveyer belt, crush and destemmer at the top tractor store. The machinery was still wrapped with plastic wrap since end of the previous year’s harvest. The machinery is unpacked, wrapping plastic removed and each one gets a wash with a Caustic liquid which is diluted with water. The caustic is a very strong base and is used to clean tanks and all equipment stained with wine. Due to its chemical properties the caustic reacts with the phenols in the wine and causes the wine to change from dark plum/red to black/blue. The machinery is then sterilized with peroxide which is applied directly to the object (in its diluted form) and left for ten minutes in order for the peroxide to disinfect and kill all microorganisms which could potentially cause spoilage. The pump, shaky table and conveyer belt is then left in the cellar area where it will remain for the rest of the harvest. 

On the 23rd of January 2015 the very first Chardonnay grapes came in. The morning started off with Mark and I sterilizing the machinery, buckets and any other equipment we might use during the processing of the grapes. The machines were set up and ready to use by 9:45 am and the grapes arrived at 10 am. The grapes came in at a balling between 22 and 23 which was ideal for the tropical style Chardonnay they planned to produce. No SO2 additions were made because the quality and health of the grapes allowed us to cut out chemical additives. Because of the press that’s been used it didn’t allowed us to work very reductive, therefore the juice was allowed to oxidize on a small scale which eventually makes the wine less susceptible to oxidation at a later stage. As the lugboxes filled with grapes came in it was immediately divided into batches of 30 on wooden pallets, making it easier to keep track of how many crates were delivered and how many went into each tank.

The total mass of grapes that came in is ultimately determined by taking the weight of 5 random crates, adding them up and getting the average. This was done for every batch of thirty crates which was then used to determine the total mass in tons of grapes that came in for a specific block of a specific cultivar.

This was the process for each and every block of grapes which came in but with each one there was always something different. The whole bunches are thrown directly into the press and the free run juice is first captured in the receiving bowl below the press and then pumped to a tank. During the press process the grapes are pressed by a canvas material balloon inside the machine which is blown up through the use of a compressor. The balloon structure is blown up to a certain pressure measurement which can be seen on the meter and this is measured in bar. At the end a yield of 650 litres to 750 litres was the target per ton. After all the grapes were pressed the juice was inoculated with lalleman BDX which is a Canadian based product and normally used for slower fermentation which allows for a slower but more controlled and linear fermentation. The must was then cooled down to 18 degrees directly after the fermentation started increasing in speed.

For a while after the Chardonnay came in I had to sample grapes from the Pinotage and Shiraz blocks on either sides of the cellar. The grapes were crushed and the juice was tested for the amount of sugar content it consisted of at that specific time. This was done by taking the +/- 30 balling meter, placing it in the juice and taking the readings of the sugar content. Based on where the juice aligned itself on the meter a reading was taken. The knowledge of the science behind how the balling meter works eludes me, but if I could take one guess I’d say it has something to do with the viscosity of the juice when it contains a certain amount of sugar and the buoyancy of the meter is influenced by this viscosity.

The cultivars next to come in were the Pinotage and Shiraz which came from the estate itself. The two varieties came in on the same day and were placed in the same open fermenter which ended up fermenting together as well. The Pinotage is not used in their range therefore it will be sold off as bulk wine after the harvest and after it completed malolactic fermentation. Malolactic fermentation is normally referred to as a second fermentation a red wine undergoes, where the harder malic acids is converted to lactic acid, which is a much softer acid, giving the wine a softer and more elegant mouthfeel. Malolactic fermentation is performed by Lactic acid bacteria, such as Oenococcus oeni, naturally present in wine.

On the day the Pinotage arrived the Shiraz was soon to follow. Both the Pinotage and Shiraz were processed on the same day and it went to the same open fermenter. The same as with the Chardonnay, the crates were weighed and the average weight was recorded in order to determine the mass of grapes received per ton. The reason the weight per ton is important is because the producers are paid accordingly and it’s also of utmost important in order to determine the possible yield per ton. The grapes were dumped on the conveyer belt in order for us to sort out and separate the good bunches from the bad. Anything which can influence and jeopardize the quality of the wine was removed and this consisted of leaves, snails, rotten berries and anything other than berries.

At the top of the belt the grapes fall into the destemmer, separating the grapes from the stems and pushing it downwards into the receiving end of the peristaltic pump. Before it enters the mule of the pump it first had to pass through the rubber roller which is used to split the berries in order for the juice and flesh to be liberated from the skins. Entering the pump the grape moves through a passage within the pump as it is eventually sucked into the thick pipe connected to the other end of the pump. The suction force is generated by the up and down movement of a large piston within the pump, running at a constant speed which allows for an even sucking and pushing action as the piston maintains its momentum.

The grapes move through the pipe and into the open fermenter which was initially used as the fermentation tank. A light dose of 25ppm of SO2 were added with the juice to prevent oxidation and killing off all natural yeasts which is present on the grapes. From here on the juice is inoculated with Lalvin EC 1118 and left to ferment while Christo and I monitor the fermentations. On a daily basis I would monitor the fermentations by drawing samples of the fermenting musts and measuring how their balling drops.

To extract more colour from the skins we manually punched down the skins. These punch downs were done in shifts where the three of us would work out a schedule which suits us best. Seeing that I stayed in Raithby at the time I normally did the Saturday punch down shifts, Mark would do the Sunday morning and afternoon shifts and Christo normally did the Sunday evening shifts. But this wasn’t fixed and varied from time to time. All the above was done with all the wines which was made afterwards.

When a certain fermenting tank of must dropped to a certain balling, normally 18 °B, we would add a certain amount of Fermaid K which is a yeast nutrition. This prevented fermentations from dragging and eventually getting stuck. The yeast nutrition boosts the fermentation process and a fast decline in balling is seen from here on. When the sugar concentration drops till a low of 5°B the skins is separated from the wine by the pressing process. The free run is first pumped to a tank and the skins is then pressed until it is dry and rid of all the wine. Skins are discarded with the bakkie. After a day of pressing or processing I would normally fill the bakkie with skins, leaves etc.  and drive it to the dumping sight which is situated on Kent Forester wine estate.

Certain tanks of wines are bound to pick up a H2S smell which is associated with the smell of boiled egg. The smell of H2S isn’t life threatening but, it’s only a sign that the yeast is struggling due to a lack of nitrogen which is what yeast consumes when it converts sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide during fermentation. We’ve only picked it up twice this harvest and we’ve dealt with it accordingly. A blue plastic bin is placed underneath the tank, where the wine is pump into the bin and back into the tank. This is done for half an hour or more depending on how strong the smell. After the open air pump over is performed the smell will slowly start to disappear, if it didn’t then we would repeat the process the next day.

On one occasion we decided to add 20 crates of whole bunches to one of the open fermenters and the rest of the grapes we passed through the normal process. The grapes we used were Cinsault which is known to have very large grapes and also known for not having good colour. Once the whole bunches were in Christo and I sterilized our feet with peroxide and started stomping grapes to generate some juice. In the photos below can be seen how we got into the open fermenters and physically started stomping grapes with our feet. In the attached file a video of us busy stomping can also be viewed. Once enough stomping took place and the grapes couldn’t be crushed any further with the feet we started processing the rest of the Cinsault. In this case the Cinsault was not inoculated and was left to ferment naturally which is risky but in an already fermenting cellar it wasn’t a problem. Naturally fermenting wine is always a gamble but it saves costs because one can scale down on the use of yeast and SO2. The Cinsault was left to ferment dry and later covered with one of the fibre glass lids in order for Carbon dioxide to build up. The carbon dioxide build up helps to protect the wine against oxidation during its long period as it is left in the open fermenter. Near to the end of the harvest one of the long awaited tanks arrived from France. The Seguin Moreau 50hL which can be translated to be 5000 L arrived by truck and it was our job to take it off and find a place for it, which is where it will stand for the rest of its time in the cellar. The tank was made of wood with a state of the art measuring glass on the side so one can visually monitor the fermentation process. The tank was first filled with water to the top and left to stand for about a day and a half in order for the wood to swell and close any leakages between the wooden planks. Thereafter only the best quality grapes, such as the Cabernet Sauvignon E1 block from Christopher Steyn’s farm was placed in this tank. This block is believed to be the best quality to enter the cellar and is used to produce the reserve, therefore extra precaution isn’t taken and sorting is of outmost importance. After inoculation the fermentation can be monitored visually which is an added advantage because this was never possible to this extend in the past. This tank is also the very first of its kind in South Africa and the Le Riche family shares the spoils with only a few French wineries who enjoy the benefits of such cutting edge technology. Below a few photos can be viewed taken prior the time it was used for fermentation.

 

In the last two months I had the opportunity to sit in on tastings presented by Yvonne and Christo. They are part of a tasting group who is focused on tasting as much international wines as they can but always try and compare it to our local brands. The first tasting took place on the 3rd of March and was presented by Yvonne. The theme of the tasting was based on wines from Alsace compared to those from South Africa but especially more focused on Gewürztraminers, Riesling’s and Pinot Gris. This was only my second Alsatian wine tasting but I surely hope I get to taste many more in the near future because I grew a liking for their chalky, savoury and well balance wines and I’m referring more to their Rieslings even though I liked the Pinot Gris better at the end of the night on this occasion. Below a photo can be seen of one of the wines I was allowed to take home after the tasting.

The second tasting we had was very recently and it was on international Port’s from Portugal compared to South African Port’s. It was presented by Christo as linear tasting which started from the youngest to the oldest vintage. Being a lover of Port I thought that this would be the ideal opportunity to sit in and learn something new cause Christo is a very insightful and knowledgeable person, so what’s not to like about this tasting. He started off with a brief description of where Port originated from and then moved on to how it is made and the different styles one gets. Even though I’ve read about Port before the tasting it still intrigued me to hear all the interesting information and my liking grew even stronger.

The likes of the Bredell family’s 2002 CWG Port together with one from Boplaas which was a 2010 vintage was the highlight of my evening in terms of taste and aroma but the one I really thought was well made by an international producer was the Dow’s 1991 vintage port. We started off with the multi award winning 2010 Boplaas port and moved down where we ended the evening off with a Niepoort 1982 vintage port. Never have I tasted a wine as old as the Niepoort which was a privilege for me because it could be that I won’t taste these kinds of wines very soon again. A few photos can be seen below of the wines that were tasted on the evening.

Other tastings I had was much more informal in a sense that sometimes Yvonne or Etienne will call me to taste some or other vintage of their reserve. The one that really stood out above the rest was the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve as can be seen below.

On various occasions Christo would ask me to assist him in completing the data record he has been keeping ever since he was appointed winemaker. It consist of keeping record of fermentations, tasting notes on the wines in barrels and tanks, full analysis and precise measurement of the amount of litres in each barrel, vat or tank. This system or data base he created is very precise and it seems to work absolutely well. One thing I’ve learned about Christo is that he emphasizes on being accurate at all times and working neat and precise. With all the things mentioned above I can say with certainty that I have learned so much in the last few months.  I will be able to carry not only the memories but also the knowledge I’ve picked up, together with the skills obtained and contacts I’ve build up, because like I’ve heard before, it’s not always about what you know, it’s more about who you know. The point is to not waste time.