What’s in a bottle?

I want to tell you a story that is pretty fundamental to the way I think about wine.

Let me take you back to 1995, and to invite you to picture a small winery at the top of the Devon Valley just outside Stellenbosch in South Africa.

You are looking at the white plaster walls of an unobtrusively modern new winery building tucked onto the side of the low hills that separate the Devon Valley from the main road north from Stellenbosch.

It is late summer – February – and pretty hot. Maybe 35-36 degrees at midday. And yet when you walk through the large green double doors of the cellar, the 20 degrees of the cellar seems blissfully cool, the floor wet from cleaning and cold droplets clinging to the stainless steel tanks of fermenting Sauvignon.

You are waiting for our first delivery of red grapes – the pickers started at dawn. You were expecting the first load mid-morning, but they are late.

Walking back to the outside means you have to flip down the sunglasses that you have clipped to your NHS glasses – it is not going to be long before you see the logic of switching to contact lenses –  and the blast of hot dry air is like a furnace. Yet this time, above the cicadas which are growing louder and louder in the heat of the day, you can hear the low growl of a tractor.

Winding up the narrow track to the winery is a tractor towing a flatbed trailer, laden with ten half-ton apple-crates full to the brim with gleaming back grapes. Perched on the sides of the bins, a couple of the pickers in their blue overalls and yellow t-shirts.

The Pinotage is here.

You’ve already cleaned the crusher-destemmer thoroughly – after the last white grapes went through last night, and again this morning just to be sure, but you find yourself stooping to pick up the hose once again. You play it across the receival hopper and down into the guts of the machine, the water cooling your hand, to remove any traces of dust that may have settled there.

There are not many tasks in this chain from vine to glass that are your very own, but this is one of them. And you haven’t had much else to do today.

But now as the driver backs ups the trailer, and Koos hops on the forklift to unload the bins, this is where the winery team kick into action, and like a patient arriving at A&E, everyone drops into their own task.

Henrik flicks on the crusher, and the low grind of the rollers starts up, followed by the whirring clatter of the destemmer.

You have clambered atop the upturned apple crate next to the hopper and are standing ready with the plastic pitchfork. As the rotating head of the forklift slowly upturns the bin into the hopper, your job with the fork is to hold back the tumble of plump grapes which might block the hopper, and to regulate the flow, so that they feed in at a steady pace. And as the tumble of grapes slows, you coax the last reluctant bunches into the mouth of the machine, where rude, mechanical paddles beat every bunch, knocking the grapes off and into the mouth of the crusher waiting below, and spitting out the stems onto a growing pile in a second trailer.

Jean-Marc busies himself with the plastic measuring funnel, carefully apportioning tiny doses of liquid sulphur to ward off spoilage yeasts and bacteria, and noting kilos of grapes and ml of sulphur in a tiny notebook.

As the sleek rubbery elongated ovals of grape-flash burst between the rollers – a wonderful smell rises up – a heady mix of summer pudding, plum compote and a sweet note of banana.

Bin emptied, the forklift backs up and stacks the empty crate, and you have time to hop down and follow the fat hose from the must pump under the crusher, through the double doors back into the cool of the cellar at top of the winery. The hose snakes along the wooden staging above the fermentation tanks, until it dives over the wide mouth of one of the steel tanks, held in place by some plastic rope, and you hear (and can barely see, until your eyes adjust to the dark of the tank interior) the flurry of soft grape pulp hitting stainless steel.

You stand up and peer over the railing to the bottom of the tank, checking the bottom valve is properly closed, and the door seal shows no sign of leaking before sauntering back outside to hop atop the apple crate just in time for the next bin to be gently upended.

10 bins later, and the 5 Tonne tank is almost full, and you can reach down and touch the top of the grape pulp, which smells divine, and is already releasing a rich ruby red colour from the skins of the grapes into the juice.

For the next two weeks, you twice-daily job is to lie flat on the wooden decking at the top of the red wine tanks, and to guide the gushing hose which bears liquid from the bottom of the tank, over the top of the ‘cap’, or dry skins pushed out of the wine by the fermentation activity beneath.

At the beginning, all is just sweet grape pulp soup, darkening a little every day, and the smells are all fruit-ester – bananas and a hint of nail polish. But then as the fermentation takes hold, and the juice slowly turns into wine, the fermentation heats up. The skins slowly give up their deep black secrets and the smells turn more yeasty, earthy and jammy, until finally the last vestiges of sweetness disappear, and a raw, brutal young black-red explodes with flavour, the heat of alcohol, and the dryness and grip of tannin no longer softened with traces of sweetness.

It is going to be an amazing wine.

Now fast-forward nearly over two years, (most of which no longer witnessed by you) past a full year of the wine resting in brand new French oak barrels, and a second year which started with a bottling. Then a period of sending out samples, the visit of the excited Safeway buyer, and the plaudits of the judges at the International Wine Challenge who gave the wine a Trophy for the best wine in its first year of production.

And that very wine is now sitting in front of you on the shelves of Safeway supermarket.

South Africa. Top shelf. Jacana Pinotage Reserve, £8.99 (In 1997, the cheap stuff is still £2.99, and those well-known South African brands are all £3.99 and £4.99). Nothing much from South Africa sells above £5, unless it says ‘Boschendal’ or ‘Rustenberg’ on it, and even then, not much.

Knowing what you know about this wine, of course you are going to buy it – for you it is bottled history.

The sights and sounds and smells of a year of grape-growing and a year of winemaking locked up inside a bottle.

But stripped of all of that, if you were an ordinary shopper are nosing your trolley tentatively down the wine aisle looking for a bottle you can trust to give your family a glass or two of relaxation at the weekend, how likely is it that your eyes will stray to the top shelf?

And this is wine’s problem. A category of dreams and romance that is sold on price.

To read some thoughts about what we can do about it, continue to part 2

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