The morning started out like any other mid-harvest’s would, grapes coming in by the ton, the press humming in the background as the shoosh of the crusher and destemer droned on throughout the cellar. After a few days of fermentation, the grenache blanc skin-fermented grapes, as well as two barrels of Cabernet Sauvignon had to be pressed. But with only one large 500l barrel and two 225l barrels to squeeze, the large presses could not be used.
Phone-a-friend is a very common and well adapted phrase in the wine industry, and so that’s just what the team did. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to source any kind of press mid-harvest, but let me tell you it certainly is not an easy task! At long last we had found one, graciously loaned to us by the University of Stellenbosch in exchange for a few bottles of MCC for the vinotique. A few hours later, the press had arrived and the commotion had started; I was still inside the cellar doing ballings – when your list of fermenting tanks reaches the second page, it tends to take a while to do.
As I had finished my routine sugar readings, I noticed a small crowd gathering outside of the cellar. I couldn’t help but wonder what all the fuss was about, being an inquisitive young student I couldn’t resist taking a peak. It was the press – but it wasn’t quite what I had in mind. There stood an ancient basket press, wooden slates stained from what looked like a century’s worth of harvesting. Chipped fire-truck red rims revealed some wear and tear over its years of use, while the wooden stacking blocks’ slightly lighter shade of brown further alluded to this machine’s old age.
Right, now to assemble the bloomin’ thing. The wooden frame is first lifted up onto the metal base, while the small metal pegs are twisted and hooked into the sides. Okay, so now that the basket part is assembled, what next? It took a team of 4 men and one very confused student (me) to figure out that the twisting mechanism on top of the press needed to be moved up – it seems like a rather simple task but when you’re standing there wondering “how do we put these do-hikkies into the thingy?”, you realise this may take some time.
Eventually, we placed the slanted, dinged up metal slates into there slots that made the lever mechanism work. What next, though? You’d think that logic would tell you to put the actual lever arm into its socket, so that you can actually swing this whole mechanism up or down with the lever – but for some strange reason it took a solid 15 minutes of staring at the press to figure this out.
With the press assembled, all that was left was to pour the grapes into the basket and crank the lever; upon quick analysis of the press I soon realised I’d need to stack wooden blocks ontop of the circular wooden plates, in order to exert enough pressure onto the grapes. And so, the jenga-block like stacking began, four levels up we stopped and began to crank the lever. After about 30 minutes or so, you stop feeling anything in your shoulder which is great news, because you stop feeling the pain too!
After one or two slight over-flows we soon realised that you can’t crank the lever too quickly, unless you’d like to create something that resembles a mass berry homicide scene, with pulp and juicy bits squirting out everywhere. In the words of the tortoise (to the hare), “slow and steady wins the race”. After the first load was done, it took a further 20 minutes to figure out that I had to reverse the metal slates and crank the lever again, this time slightly faster, in order to move the pressing mechanism up again. After some struggling, I realised some grease or oil would be needed to make the slates slightly more mobile as the lever was cranked. Who needs gym when you can get a full arm workout at work?
Being a student, we are mostly taught how to use more modern technology as most cellars use electrically operated basket presses or large balloon/bag/pneumatic presses. I feel that, although learning the new world winemaking techniques is incredibly beneficial to the younger generation of winemakers, it was refreshing to be reminded of how winemaking was done back in the day. There’s nothing like a day of good, old-fashioned pressing to humble you and bring you closer to the rich history and heritage that winemaking holds. When the machines fail, it’s a handy skill for any winemaker to know how the older technology and older techniques used in winemaking work. It’s also a lot more hands on and personal, your wine truly starts to feel like something you’ve put blood, sweat and tears into – figuratively of course (I don’t think SAWIS would approve in a more literal sense). Out with the new and in with the old (but only sometimes…); it was an incredibly valuable learning experience for me.