Working in the wine trade offers many opportunities for our keen and enthusiastic staff. Learning about wine can be hands-on as well as book-smart, which is something we love. It’s good to remember that we work here because we love wine, and occasionally we have the opportunity for some of our teams to visit far-away places and help out with a vintage. Recently, three eager managers had the opportunity to visit Rustenberg Estate in South Africa. Caitlin from our new Edinburgh Fort Kinnaird store was one of the lucky three…
I arrived at Heathrow far too early so immediately headed to the bar for a large glass of Loius Latour Grande Ardeche, awaiting the arrival of James and Sophie. We had never met each other before so as I was waiting I emailed them to let them know where I was. I got the reply, ‘look to your right’. There they were in the bar already, both with glasses of Ardeche, I knew right away we would get on!
Landing safely at Cape Town, we were greeted by Murray Barlow, winemaker at Rustenburg and son of Simon and Rozanne who own the estate. He drove us through to Stellenbosch passing several vineyards on the way such as Glenelly and a brandy distillery. Murray pointed out a few vineyards which had a reddish tint. This, he explained, was a sign of leaf roll virus which reduces chlorophyll in the vine leaves and affects crop yields. A problem in South African old vines. Eventually we arrived at the Rustenburg estate… wow. The estate itself is 17th century Dutch architecture so everything is thatched and the property is surrounded by the most incredible gardens with spectacular views. My words cannot really do justice to how beautiful this place is.
After receiving an incredibly warm welcome from Simon and Rozanne and being shown our amazing rooms, we took a wander around the house and the estate. You could spend hours looking at all the incredible history and antiques filling the house, and the estate’s story is incredibly interesting. More time could be spent wandering around the beautiful gardens. As we wandered down a grassy aisle between an amazing oasis of flowers either side, we stopped to sit at an old ornate stone bench for a minute. As we sat and looked up we gasped at the sight before us, a craggy mountain ridge towered in the background with the perfectly manicured garden stretching out before is and the moon peeking out prematurely. Stunning.
The evening meal set the precedent for the food to come, Rozanne is the most amazing cook and we were truly spoilt over the two weeks we stayed. We were presented with everything from fillet beef to the best lemon meringue pie I have ever tasted. That evening we had moussaka and Rustenburg Shiraz by candlelight. To finish, straw wine over ice cream. Happy and stuffed we made our way to bed, in preparation for starting work at the winery the next day.
First we were kitted out with hats, jackets and work boots, after being warned we would spend the week covered in wine, very true! The first day we had a wander around the winery, which was specially constructed to fit within and respect the original thatched buildings. After a quick tour we got stuck into winery life. We had a go at pump overs on the first day, an important feature of red wine making which pumps fermenting juice from the bottom of the tank over the top ‘cap’ (a layer of grape skins) to help with colour, tannin and flavour extraction. It is a messy job but very fun. We also had a go at cleaning the press. Rustenburg use a pneumatic press for white and rosé wine making. It a great machine but all those grape skins get stuck so it needs to be cleaned after every use which involved a lot of water and getting quite damp.
The next day we were up early to help pick grapes. Something I did not realise was that all of Rustenburg’s wines are hand picked. I have to say I felt more like a hindrance than a help, the women were so fast with their clippers! We got a chance to pick a few different grape varieties over the time we were there and it was really interesting to see the different appearances and taste of the grapes straight from the vine. What really amazed me was the difference just a few rows of vines could make to ripeness. It just shows you what a difficult job winemakers have to decide when to harvest the grapes. It is not just time of harvest that affects the wine but there are an almost endless amount of options available to wine makers when making their wine and lots of decisions to be made between growing the grapes to the finished wine.
On one morning in the winery we tasted wine from the barrels which were destined to make up the Peter Barlow and other wines. The wines are matured in barrels made by different cooperages, and the different barrels made a remarkable difference between the tastes of the wine aged in them despite the fact they were all French oak and charred to the same level.
We got to help out with so many parts of the winemaking process. Another afternoon was spent taking sugar readings from the Chardonnay barrels. The barrels are kept at quite a cool temperature so it was a little chilly but we siphoned off wine from each barrel and used a hydrometer to test the sugar levels. This gives an indication of the progression of the fermentation process. We also took sugar readings from grapes before harvest to check for sugar ripeness and pH levels.
It was not all hard work, however, our work at the winery was punctuated with delicious lunches courtesy of Rozanne and evening swims by the pool. After our daily swim Murray and his fiancee Tammy invited us over to their house for evening meals. We got acquainted with the famous South African Braii, basically a delicious barbeque, and got to try some fabulous wines from their own collection. We also got a chance to visit Cape Town and many of the Vineyards around Stellenbosch and Constantia. Cape town was fantastic, we did all the usual touristy things. Table mountain is something I will never forget and Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent time in prison, was also extremely interesting.
Touring around the winelands we visited DeMorgenzon, Glenelly, Klein Constantia, Kanonkop, Groot Constantia, Jordan, Van Ryn’s Brandy distillery and Steenburg. All had such a great range of wines to try including a white Cabernet Sauvignon and rose pinotage. I even found a pinotage I liked! Over the course of the trip some wine highlights were: Rustenburg Five Soldiers; R. M. Nicholson 2000 – an interesting vintage because it was tainted with smoke from brush fires; Rustenberg Straw wine (a couple of different vintages); Van Ryns 12 year old brandy; Kanonkop 1991 Cabernet Sauvignon; and Klein constantia Vin de Constance.
I think my favourite evening was spent having pizza and wine on the top of the five soldiers overlooking Stellenbosch at sunset. My time in South Africa was unforgettable and fantastic. I would like to thank Simon, Rozanne, Murray and Tammy for their incredible hospitality. I would also like to thank the winemaking team for putting up with our numerous questions.
Cheers to vintage 2015!