The next time I relax with a glass of wine, I’ll sip with a deeper understanding of the back-breaking labour, teamwork, knowledge and skill that goes into every bottle.
Last week I pulled on my hiking boots, rolled up my sleeves and took to the vineyards of Bouchard Finlayson during their annual media harvest day. In the cool of the early morning, I joined several journalists in snipping the ripe grapes from the vines alongside a team of 28 full-time and seasonal pickers, eating, laughing and chatting with friendly camaraderie.
Some of the permanent pickers, such as general worker Lucinda Adams, have been on the farm for more than 20 years. “I love my work,” she told me in Afrikaans. “For me, this farm is the best place ever.”
Each of us paired up with a picking partner, one on the ‘inside’ of the vine, the other on the ‘outside’, working methodically and placing the fruit gently into yellow crates, which, when full, were collected by staff on the farm tractor. Within two hours, our 33-strong team had picked three tonnes of grapes in the Sauvignon Blanc block.
Picking takes place between 07:00 and 17:00 every day during the harvest, with a one-hour break for lunch. It is hard work, especially on a hot day, suitable only for those who are fit, have stamina and a positive and respectful approach to teamwork.
“To ensure that our picking teams are productive, I try to balance the number of new and old staff,” said viticulturist, Mortimer Lee, noting that the first three weeks are the most intense of the six-week picking period. “People underestimate how labour-intensive the process is, bending and crouching for nine hours a day in the blazing sun. We don’t want speed with regard to the picking: efficiency and rooting out the good from the rot is what is most critical.”
This boutique estate was the second wine farm to be established in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley after Hamilton Russell. Today Bouchard Finlayson produces five iconic reds and five whites. The first vines of Sauvingnon Blanc were planted by legendary winemaker Peter Finlayson in 1989, with the first full-yield harvest in 1995. The farm was sold to the Tollman family in 2000. Peter, known in the valley as the “father of Pinot Noir”, was also the first winemaker at Hamilton Russell Vineyards, which has been in the business since 1981.
“In the Hemel-en-Aarde, the grape I have always had a strong belief in is Pinot Noir, which is the flagship wine of the valley, as it is traditionally only successful in cool areas,” said Peter.
Mortimer explained that the grapes for the different varietals are picked at different stages during harvest season. “Generally, the reds, such as the Mourvèdre, come in later than the whites. We have done the bulk of the harvest; now we’re waiting for small parcels to ripen.”
For winemaker Chris Albrecht, this is his third official harvest at Bouchard Finlayson, where he has worked since 2010, first as an assistant winemaker. He said the overall quality of the grapes is good, but some varietals such as Chardonnay have ripened earlier than normal, due to the 2018 winter not being cold enough. “We had a few exceptionally warm days in June which has resulted in uneven ripening and a lower yield of Chardonnay.”
We’ll keep our fingers crossed that this year’s harvest will result in another vintage of premium, award-winning wines for our Hemel-en-Aarde region.