Where does harvest start? With bottling day AKA clearing space in the cellar for the current vintage.
I’m not sure where to start this story…because I’m still waiting to see where it ends. I guess, ultimately, it started when Vino Pronto introduced me to the Migliarina Grenache. But it turned into love with the Migliarina Seitensprung Riesling 2016.
One of my goals for 2020 was to work a harvest, and after a chatty (very chatty because Aquarians and Ariens both seem to love a good chat) tasting at Vino Pronto where Carsten Migliarina was generous enough to offer me the chance to hang out with him during his upcoming harvest.
I’d been uhmming and ahhing about weedling my way into a Constantia harvest. But somehow, the convenience of living around the corner from the Constantia farms never really felt right for me. Don’t get me wrong…I grew up on these wines and visit the farms a few times a month. But they’re not the wines I’m excited to drink. They happily just sit on the shelf gathering dust and tertiaries. There’s something about the history and financial privilege (I say that with all due respect and love) that has me at a disconnect.
But Carsten’s wines…a winemaker who started as a sommelier…a winemaker with no vineyards…a winemaker who put in the work harvest after harvest, paying his dues to learn the art of winemaking…now that’s someone whose wines I get excited about. How could I possibly say no to this opportunity to learn from him. I couldn’t.
Day 1 was the opportunity to watch his bottling process. I didn’t expect to really learn anything much. I’d heard about the process and watched a few videos…what more could there be to bottling. Before diving into what I learned…I have to say that Carsten is incredible at explaining, in detail, the what/why/how behind everything that he does. So I don’t expect that I would have been given this much information by just anybody.
Most winemakers in South Africa use an external mobile bottling service. But what I didn’t expect was the level of overseeing this service requires from the winemaker. On an average day, he’s a busy man clocking in a solid 10k steps. But on bottling day, he says he hits 20k steps. I didn’t check his step counter…but I believe the German heritage flowing through him.
Starting at the very beginning, I was taught how to actually read a wine bottle….not just the pretty label and not just the confirmation that it indeed held 750ml of hopefully delicious wine. But how the embossed numbers at the bottom of the bottle revealed the bottle mould number that can be checked should the bottle fail. I learned about the numbers that dictate the fill height, and how the temperature of the wine at bottling will affect this number.
What of the mobile bottling unit? Of course the mechanics of the mobile bottling unit were mesmerising, but the fancy pumps and pistons paled in comparison to watching the smooth teamwork executed by the ladies and gentlemen who manned the unit. The hisses and whirrs of the machinery were just ambient noise to the joking camaraderie of the team working in the blazing heat.
The team was ready, the settings were adjusted and set, the pumps were attached to the mobile unit and wine tanks. There was a great deal of swift walking back and forth…watching dials and pressure gauges. They were ready to start pumping. We rushed to check the first litres pumped before the bottles started filling. And I was offered a taste of the super refreshing Chenin Blanc before it filled the bottles. Dang, I wish I hadn’t felt obliged to spit first thing in the morning. Delicious 15º nectar that I was tempted to assess before realising that this was not the time or place to practice my WSET tasting lexicon!
I’ve never fully explained how and why my enjoyment of wine took a more serious academic turn in 2019. The fact is, I discovered garagiste winemaking for the first time. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we’ve all fantasised about making our own wine. My fantasy took me down a rabbit hole of research into home winemaking….a very deep and tempting hole. The viti and vini in WSET has been, by far, the most enjoyable part of wine education for me. And…I was silly enough to think that I knew a few things. I’d strolled through wineries as a tourist and been pleased at how I could identify some of the equipment after all my ‘research’.
But when the professional machinery is presented to you up close and personal with an experienced winemaker explaining how and where it fits into the process…I started to feel like I was drowning trying to connect the book facts to the real life function…yet floating on a high of excitement at being able to touch and ask questions at the same time. I felt like Carsten was explaining everything. I suspect I’ll look back on this day in a few months/years and realise that he was actually coddling me with the basic facts. There is, after all, a reason it takes years of practice to become a winemaker. A few videos, internet articles and books don’t come even close to the bibles of information being shared with me that day.
From the crusher and destemmer that I’d casually referenced in textbooks, being opened up for me to investigate while being schooled on when and why you might only crush and not destem. To the open top fermenter that I’d memorised in parrot fashion to recite in an exam, and being told why one might actually use an open top fermentor as opposed to the sealed tanks (regular punch downs). The intimidating sizes of some of the tanks that I’d always passed in other winery tours…and now actually understanding just how many tons they could hold and what that equates to in money and risk.
And can we talk about the oak barrels…a few awkwardly worded lines about barrel sizes, sources and uses in a textbook…versus now being able to read the information stamped on the barrel lid and understand who makes the barrel, where it was made, and how it was toasted.
I had a moment where Carsten was probably dropping bombs of great information, but I got lost in reading the labels that told me who the winemaker’s were, what the barrels held, and their dates…can you blame me for getting lost in the realisation that these were some of my favourite winemaker’s future wines that I would absolutely be purchasing and drinking in the coming years.
Back and forth we went, between checking on the bottling line in the blazing heat and then walking through the cool cellar to check on the emptying tanks and blending in the top up wine to make sure that not a drop was wasted. Back and forth…earning our 20 000 steps.
Natural fermentation versus inoculated yeast. Sharing a sandwich and snacks in the 15º C nipple raising barrel room. A cheeky tasting of his Syrah maturing in Romanian oak (I can now decode the barrel abbreviations and understand their style and origins). A cheekier tasting of his Syrah maturing in American oak (I couldn’t bare to spit this and swallowed every drop…also, I’m shit at spitting with any grace). The cheekiest tasting of his Syrah in shaved oak that retained the most fruit because of the near non-existent toasting (I sipped and swallowed and then stuck out my hand for another sip, wishing that I wasn’t now awkwardly aware of tasting away his profits!).
It was an incredible first day. That concluded with a generous offer to share a glass of his wine on his stoep with his friendly fur buddy, Roxy, an Alsatian Husky cross with the sweetest temperament. Load shedding had him showing me his cellar by torch light. And another lesson was learned…my dreams of a big fancy show-off wine fridge are completely unnecessary when you have a wicked cool massive floor to almost ceiling repurposed shelf…and the German discipline to organise and label each shelf! There was a modest fridge…packed to almost overflow with a good few bottles I recognised and coveted. But my last lesson for the day was to organise my own wine racks and downgrade my desire for a large fridge. I’ll instead be using that money to stock said fridge.
A recurring theme in these blog posts will undoubtedly be my astonishment at the generosity of the wine community. For some reason, a virtual stranger had invited me into his real life, offered me a peek at how his brain works, and stuck a couple of no longer available wines in my hand as we said goodbye. I can’t help but compare myself to him – that’s how my always in overdrive brain works – our ages, our genders, wondering if I have enough of the same characteristics as he does to…well, we’ll get to that later.
I will forever think back to the day that I decided to hunt down a new wine store that I’d heard so many people rave about. If it weren’t for Vino Pronto, I would never have discovered Carsten Migliarina’s beautifully elegant wines…and wouldn’t have had the invitation to watch a perfectionist winemaker work flippin hard at making wines that I love.
There’s more to this story. This was only day one with it’s 12 003 steps. But I already hope that this story never ends…at least not until the very last bottle is drunk.