We are standing in the middle of the vineyard, first thing in the morning on Easter Saturday, and it’s bitterly cold. It could have been worse. Yesterday we were pummeled with 28mm rain and a howling south westerly gale that bought snow to Bluff Knoll, very rare in April here in WA. This morning, thank goodness, the rain passed through overnight and although it was cold, the sun was starting to shine around the last of the black clouds. We were out at Cape Grace vineyard in Wilyabrup, picking the last of their Cabernet Sauvignon grapes for the 2019 vintage, destined for the 2019 Storyteller Red.
Our morning started early as we rummaged through our little used winter wardrobe trying to find beannies and coats before heading off to Cape Grace. There, we met up with our fellow pickers, about 15 altogether, and headed off to the Cabernet Sauvignon rows where Dylan, Cape Grace’s winemaker showed us how to use the secateurs to remove the bunches of bright purple ripe cabernet grapes from the vines. Most of us sneaked a taste and were surprised at how sweet the grapes were. As we worked our way down the row, we chatted quietly and slowly warmed up as the sun strengthened. Picking grapes is not really that difficult (I guess that’s why so much of Australia’s hand picked grape harvest is done by backpackers!), nor physically demanding. You do have a reach a bit into the vines to locate all the bunches, but then its just a matter of cut, catch and drop them into a nearby bucket. Bucket boys have the heavier job of lifting the full buckets into the trailer and off again in the winery. So its actually quite a pleasant job, out in the morning sunshine and fresh air. Many of the bunches are very easy to grab, but some are twisted around the vines and can be more challenging to pick without loosing precious grapes onto the ground. The going rate per bucket this year is $3, so even good pickers have to work fast to earn their money. We labour away for an hour or so, kept entertained by Dylan and Rob, the vineyard owner, who teach us about the finer points of growing and picking wine grapes as we work.
The pickers assemble at the winery
The buckets are ready!
Busy pickers harvesting the grapes
The sun starts to warm us up
Deb showing how its done!
Our first bin of rich, plump Cabernet Sauvignon grapes
As we neared the end of the rows we encountered significant bird damage to the grapes. Tiny Silvereyes (Zosterops lateralis) sometimes take a fancy to the vines, specially in years when the local marri trees do not flower as well as usual, and they peck a hole in nearly every grape in a bunch. This causes the grape to quickly rot, and we could smell the vinegarey odour rising from these spoilt bunches. We tried to recover some of the untouched grapes, but there were too many, so we left these bunches to rot on the vines. Most vineyards place nets over the vines to prevent the birds getting to the grapes, but that has its downside too. Silvereyes can squeeze into the tiniest of gaps, and if they get under the nets, can then spend all day eating to their hearts content, doing even more damage. Rob’s preference was to let them have a few sacrificial grapes and hope that they left the majority of the row alone, which seems to have worked.
Grapes damaged by Silvereyes, a neat peck mark in every grape
While the bucket boys collected the grapes and transferred them to the winery, we were taken around the vineyard and given lots of information about soils, grape varieties and the intricacies of grafting, where, for example, Chardonnay is grafted onto old Shiraz vines. This speeds the process up of getting grapes by about three years, rather than planting new vines. Pruning is one of the most important procedures undertaken every year and decisions made about how to best prune can have a significant impact on the next years crop. As can the quality of the pruners, who are usually experienced locals who slave away in cold and rain in July, whilst earning very good money for their efforts.
Dylan Arvidson, Cape Grace Winemaker
Dylan explaing how “cane cut” wines are made. The canes (branches) of the vine are cut so it dies off and the fruit shrivel and sweeten
Cane Cut Chenin Blanc nearly ready to make their sweet Desert Wine
Robert Karri-Davies, Vineyard Owner
After our lesson on vineyard management, we headed back to the cellar door for morning tea, hot cross buns and hot coffee which Deb was almost ready to kill for! Then is was off into the winery to start preparing our grapes for their transition into wine. The first step was to pass the bunches through a destemmer to remove the stems which can give the wine a bitter, overly tannic flavour. The destemmer is not used for all grape types, and at Cape Grace is not required for any of their machine picked grapes, where they use a “selective” picker that destems as it picks. But our hand picked bunches required destemming so we had to laboriously feed them into the tiny destemmer, a bunch at a time. The destemmer we used was really designed for home winemakers and regularly overloaded if we fed too many bunches in at a time, so it was slow work. But what came out of the destemmer was partially crushed grapes with most of the green stems removed. These landed in 1 tonne tub and it didn’t take long before we had raw cabernet sauvignon grape juice filling the bottom of the tub. Dylan collected a sdample for us to try and it was delicious! Deep ruby red, very cloudy and so, so sweet with beautiful fresh berry cabernet flavours!
Our grapes, ready for processing
Deb doing some heavy lifting
Destemming the grapes
Everyone gets a turn….
Destemmed grapes in the bin, the juice already getting squeezed out
Pure, sweet, delicious cabernet juice
In total, we had picked 630kg of grapes, an excellent yield apparantly from the two rows we picked. This almost filled the large tub. This was now put aside to ferment. After innoculation with yeasts, the tub would be plunged 4 times a day for the next two weeks. Plunging requires the mass of skins that float to the top as the grapes ferment, to be pushed or plunged down to the bottom of the tub, mixing and wetting all the grapes and skins. A hard job that winemakers dislike, but it’s essential to get the best flavour and colour from the grapes. The mix will then be passed through the old basket press, where the grapes are cruched and the juice collected. The skins are pressed and repressed to get as much flavour and colour out of them. The juice extracted from the press will then be transferred to oak barrels for fermentation in wood before bottling. Our wine won’t be bottled until mid 2020, so we will have to be patient before we can tase the fruits of our labour!
Fermenting Cabernet Franc grapes
So after all this work and education, it was time for lunch, so we walked back to the Cellar door where a beautiful BBQ lunch awaited us. Sausage and onions on bread, fresh local cheese and, of course, some lovely Cape Grace wines to sample. Rob had even pulled a couple of 2004 reds from the cellar for us to try and these were the highlight for me. Aged Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, both exceptional wines and a really good reason to try to keep those reds in the cellar for a few years before drinking them. A very relaxing time sitting under the trees soaking up the sun. After lunch and wine sampling, we reluctantly headed home with a renewed respect for the work our winemakers do in order to allow us put that bottle of liquid joy on the table.
Well earned lunch