Harvest Time – Billy Hughes (Hughes Family Wines)
Harvest time – it’s the most important time of year for our winemakers. Billy Hughes runs a small organic family business in Swartland: Hughes Family Wines. He shares his notes from the field…
Billy Hughes, tell us what characterised this harvest for you at Hughes Family Wines?
One unusual thing about this harvest was that the pH on the reds were quite high. So, we had to be careful and harvest early to get the correct pH. As part of the Swartland Independent Producers movement, we are not allowed to correct for acidity or alcohol etc.
After this last harvest – what are you excited about with this vintage in particular?
This harvest (2019) we tried harvesting some of the cultivars a little earlier than usual, and used more whole bunch fermentation, which we hope is going to add an aspect of freshness to the Red wine with lower sugars. This has been our goal for a few years now and we are seeing some nice progress.
What are some of the challenges you experienced?
Sudden and rapid ripening is always a challenge in the Swartland due to very high daily temperatures. If you’re not in the vineyard every day to taste, sometimes the grapes ripen very quickly over one or two days and suddenly you have to harvest with very high sugars. As we are trying to reduce our sugars and pH a little, this was a big challenge this year. Also, as an organic vineyard and winery the control of fungus and weeds is always a challenge because we do not use commercial chemicals to control them.
Explain the harvest process: what are the key steps from harvesting to bottling?
The grapes are harvested manually, and crates brought into the cellar. For the reds, some destemmed and some whole bunches are put into big tanks and allowed to ferment naturally for 7 to 10 days. We then press into barrels and allow to continue fermenting a little. We rack about 3 times over a period of 8 months, then we blend and bottle. The whites are pressed immediately when they come into the cellar, and put into stainless steel tanks, plastic eggs or barrels to ferment. Once fermented, we blend them and put into barrels until we bottle 8 months later.
How long does it take for grapes to ripen?
Veraison takes place in the first week of December, depending on cultivar, and we harvest between the second week of January and the last week of February.
Are there any steps in your process unique to your winemaking style?
We allow the wines to ferment on native yeasts and do not add commercial yeasts. We also make only blends (mainly), creating wines we feel reflect the flavours of the farm. We also add very little SO2, which we believe helps amplify the natural flavours of the wine. We have increased the proportion of our whole bunch fermentation (up tp 70%), and also do carbonic maceration with the reds while they are whole bunch.
What in your opinion are the strengths and weakness of your estate?
Our strengths: we’re a small, organic, family business with a respect for the environment and natural winemaking, making wines that are unique because we use minimal intervention winemaking. We are based in the Swartland, which is a very promising and unique wine region.
Challenges (weaknesses): we do mainly dry-land farming, and so we are at the mercy of the environment. We also do little to correct or manage environmental influences, as per our philosophy, which means that sometimes we cannot control the outcomes, and we take big risks.
Do you use oak? If yes, what kind? Otherwise what are your favourite barreling techniques?
We use only third fill or older French oak barrels, as per the guidelines of the Swartland Independent Producers. But we are also experimenting with eggs, which are giving interesting results.
How do you prepare for harvest?
We taste the grapes on an almost daily basis, tasting for ripeness and sugar. We plan what will happen to the grapes once they are picked before we actually pick them, and allocate bins and tanks to them.
How many staff members are hands on at harvest time?
The harvest team in the vineyard is about 30 people, and in the cellar it is just Billy, Kiki, Lieze (our winemaker) and then two helpers.
Why is timing so important?
If you don’t taste often and plan when to pick, and the grapes are too ripe, there will be too much residual sugar in the wine, leading to a slightly sweet wine with high alcohol and pH, which is not our style.
Do economic and marketing factors influence harvest time?
We have to harvest when the grapes ripen regardless of economic factors.
Tell us about the vineyards you farm. What are they like in terms of soil, climate, and varietal composition?
We only use grapes from our certified organic vineyard, which is mainly red clay soils, Glenrosa and Oakleaf and a hot, dry climate. We grow Rhone style cultivars which grow particularly well in these types of soils, giving the fruit dark red colours and mineral flavours.
From your wine estate – best winter wine?
Our Red blend (any year) is always a great winter wine because of the spicy undertones presented by the Shiraz and other Rhone style cultivars. It goes well with all warm winter dishes like Game and red meat dishes, spicy curries, and any of the bold flavours present in warm winter dishes.