Harvest Time – Adam Mason (is) Raised by Wolves
Adam Mason is the winemaker and founder of Raised by Wolves, his “side project” and love project – separate from his role as head of winemaking at the larger, more commercial wine estate Mulderbosch. Raised by Wolves is his “alter ego”.
“The wolf in many cultures represents the dark side. There’s something very primal about our fear of wolves: the fear of the wilderness, that other side, the dark side. So on one hand, it represents our untame self.”
We chatted to Adam about his harvest journey this year, in a time characterised by drought in the Cape, and in particular with his “Law of the Wild” philosophy that he applies to the small-batch wines coming from Raised by Wolves.
Tell us what characterised this harvest for you?
Given the drought that has gripped the Cape for the last three years, I was anxious as Harvest 2019 approached. Would the vines have enough reserves to pull them through another cycle? Despite the improved rains we experienced this winter past, and the cool growing conditions throughout most of the season, I still tried to harvest fruit as early as possible in order to limit excessive time on the vine. I’m glad I did, as the vines really did start to shut down towards the middle of February. We noticed radical acid dropout, and little or no appreciable accumulation of sugars for long spells – a sure sign that the vines were throwing in the towel. From what I have in tank and barrel I can say that there is decent concentration (no doubt attributable to low yields) and fortunately for me, good acid balance in all my wines. I’ll remember 2019 not so much for the specifics of each wine I made, but rather from the vine’s point of view, and what I can only imagine to be their relief at making it through yet another year. Let’s hope for a cold and wet winter this year. The vineyards need it.
After this last harvest – what are you excited about with this vintage in particular?
I was really motivated by the vintage conditions to change some aspects of my winemaking, with particular focus on harvest dates. I’m excited by the vibrancy in my wines as a result of this. In truth I am just excited to see how these wines evolve over the coming months.
Every vintage offers a chance to learn something new, and 2019 was particularly challenging on several fronts so I feel as though I’ve made it through a tough challenge this year.
What are some of the challenges you experienced?
The vines themselves were stressed both by the drought and a relatively warm winter. The result was a very inconsistent budbreak, and subsequent uneven ripening of the grapes. One of the major challenges was therefore ripeness monitoring and making the correct call on when to harvest.
From an actual winemaking process, I found 2019 to be quite stress-free for a change. Early picked fruit tends to ferment easily to dryness and at this point most of my wines are sulphured up and locked down for winter hibernation.
How long does it take for grapes to ripen?
Given that the bunches are only really formed some time in November, the ripening process can be considered to occupy the months of November (with variability depending on exact location and variety), December, January, February, March and – in later years, colder regions and sweeter wines – April.
As a rule of thumb about 150 days, I would say.
With your “Law of the Wild” philosophy of Raised by Wolves, and small-batch releases, are there any steps in your process unique to your winemaking style?
There are very few entirely unique processes to winemaking, so I would say that my uniqueness will always be associated with the selection of the vineyards and the choice of harvesting date in combination with my own personal vision for each wine that I make.
My wines are the culmination of all these factors and as such are unique expressions of time and space.
Do you use oak? If yes, what kind? Otherwise what are your favourite barreling techniques?
I use (almost exclusively) old barrels. Anything from a few years old to as many as 19 years old (I have some that were first used in 2000).
How do you prepare for harvest?
I make sure to enjoy a three-week camping holiday with my family in December of every year!
How many staff members are hands on at harvest time?
I only produce 2000 cases of wine under my Raised By Wolves label, so most of the work is done by me. There are times when I can’t be there to pump wine or empty or fill a tank with grapes (usually when I am visiting a vineyard, sampling fruit to make a picking decision). It’s at times like this when I value the help of the small cellar team at Mulderbosch Vineyards where I make all of my wines.
Why is timing so important?
In life, as in winemaking, timing is everything, no?
Do economic and marketing factors influence harvest time?
This might be one last remaining part of the universe where nature still calls the shots.
Tell us about the vineyards you farm. What are they like in terms of soil, climate, and varietal composition?
I’d not be able to do them justice in this piece. Suffice to say the vineyards I chose to work with are located mostly in Stellenbosch, although I am fortunate to source from areas as far afield as the Piekenierskloof and from some rare old vines in Franschhoek. Basically if it’s gnarly and old, or farmed by someone who I admire, or situated on a wild and magical site, then I am interested…
Well thank you Adam for your insights. We took his word that this Q&A couldn’t do justice to the story of his vineyards and so we went out to Stellenbosch to visit him for a more in-depth interview about Raised by Wolves. We discover more on his winemaking philosophy and the diversity of vineyards and grapes that he works with, and journey with him through all of his available wines. Keep an eye on our Behind the Cellar Door blog by the Good Wine Shop for that intriguing conversation…