Friday, 29 April 2016

Harvest in Clare

It was harvest time again in Southern Hemisphere and I was itching to go back to the wineries. This time I was lucky to spend just over a fortnight at Sevenhill Cellars in Clare, South Australia, working with a small but truly international team including Jeremy from Australia, Ricardo from Portugal and Yongxie from Guangdong province (mainland Chinese) who just finished studying at University of Adelaide, all worked under the watchful eye of winemaker Liz Heidenreich.

Established in 1851, Sevenhill is a Jesuit winery and the oldest one in Clare. Although it is only a medium size winery crushing around 300 tons (200,000 bottles), it makes all styles of wine from sparkling to fortified, as well as Alter wine for churches in Australia and Asia. A ceremony was held at the beginning of the vintage to give blessing to the grapes.

I have to say that winery work during harvest is pretty routine and repetitive. Daily chores are crushing grapes, inoculating the juice, checking ferments, plunging down, pumping over, pressing and endless cleaning. But what makes the work exciting and fun is the enthusiasm of people, who are willing to share their knowledge, help and learn from each other. No matter how experienced or not you are, there are always something you can give and take. And of course there is also the satisfaction that the sticky juice we are handling would turn into delicious, and maybe even award-winning wine one day, to be appreciated and shared among friends.

I was working with a great team. Starting with Yongxie, he completed a viticulture/winemaking degree in Beijing Agricultural University, did a vintage at one of the big wineries in the motherland before continuing his study in Adelaide. Sevenhill was his second harvest. Winery work can be heavy duty and Yongxie is petite, but he never gives up. Liz sent him into an open fermenter to manually scoop out 2.5 tons of Syrah skin. It was a tough job as he had to raise the spade full of skin above his head to dump it into the basket press. We asked to take turn but he did it all by himself. He reckoned winery work and grape processing are by and large about machine operation and that the quality of vineyards is the key to making the best wine. How true this is! The quality of Chinese wine is improving because of better winery practice but there are still vineyard management issues to be tackled. I would love to see more Yongxies - young Chinese with the right attitude who understand that winemaking is not about fancy cellars, huge tanks and expensive barrels, and who are eager to contribute to the China wine industry.

Ricardo is another young man with ambition. He is methodical and thinks through the work process rather than just takes instructions. Ricardo has a friend, Joel Santos, another winemaker from his village who is working at Tim Adams Winery close to Sevenhill. Joel and I have a common link: he is one of the 48 winemakers taking part in the Ningxia Wine Challenge and I was one of the judges assessing the applicants. The fact that I had also done four vintages in Portugal further forged our friendship. Both Ricardo and Joel are passionate about wine. We bumped into each other while visiting other wineries on our day off, and we went to the Adelaide Cellar Door Festival, an annual wine event featuring over 180 wine and food producers from South Australia. Although the Portuguese duo were having a great time in Australia, both plan to make wine back in their home country eventually. After all, they believe, Portugal makes one of the best wines in the world!

Jeremy is a friendly chap that is responsible for the winery when Liz is not around. Although quiet, he is always there to help as long as you ask. Liz, in contrast, is the most fun and non-boss like winemaker I have worked with. As a matter of fact, we went back a long way as we did three vintages together at Adega do Cantor (by the way, the property is in the market now) in the Algarve when I graduated from my winemaking diploma. She is a problem solver and leads by example. I had the grapes jammed like concrete in the passageway between the augur and the crusher once. Liz was cool, stopped the machines, dug and loosened the grapes with bare hands. She just said she is the one with the longest hand! Another reason why she was loved by us all was that she cooked us bacon sausage and egg sandwich on a barbecue stove, not once, but twice at the cellar in two weeks! I don’t think you can ask more from your boss.

Two weeks flew quickly. I came back with swollen fingers, cuts, bruises and scars but I was content - having crushed all the Riesling (where Clare is famous for) at Sevenhill, making new friends and meeting the new generation of Chinese winemakers. This is the spirit of winemaking and working at wineries always remind me of why wine is such a special drink.

Sevenhill is available from Free Duty, with retail shops at China/Hong Kong border and an online sales platform. Look out for the 2016 Riesling that I part-made in the next few years.

Inigo Riesling: Vibrant with intense citrus aromas and crisp acidity.
Inigo Syrah: Lively with bright red fruits and spices supported by fine tannins
St Francis Xavier Single-Vineyard Riesling: Elegant and pure, citrus and floral with lingering finish (not available in Hong Kong yet).

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