Harvest time – Gavin Brand of Cape Rock Wines
We met up with Gavin Brand, winemaker for Cape Rock Wines and owner of his own Landscape Architecture firm, to find out exactly what happens in harvest time. Harvest is one of the most crucial steps in the process of winemaking and is undoubtedly the most important time of year for our winemakers. However, as much as it is rewarding, there are also some challenges that arise.
Tell us, Gavin Brand, what characterised this harvest for you and Cape Rock Wines?
It was early, and done before we knew it due to after effects of the drought in 2017/2018.
After this last harvest – what are you excited about with this vintage in particular?
The low yield should deliver quality wines.
What are some of the challenges you experienced?
The extremely low yield is worrying, because at the end of the day wine producing should be cost-effective. Eskom’s load shedding was a huge challenge, but due to the low yield, the impact was not that devastating – fortunately weather conditions were moderate.
Explain the harvest process: what are the key steps from harvesting to bottling?
Winemaking starts in the vineyards where quality grapes are hand selected and picked. We ferment our wines with natural yeast and use as little sulphur in the winemaking process as possible. Our wines are matured in old 300L French oak barrels for up to a year and bottled with a light filtration. We let the wines rest for a minimum of 6 months after bottling before they are released.
How long does it take for grapes to ripen?
This depends very much on weather conditions and grape variety. Grape bunches can be seen forming by October/November. This year we started harvesting Chenin Blanc by 4 February, which was about a week to 10 days early compared to the norm.
With your “simpler, less mechanised, winemaking techniques” of Cape Rock, are there any steps in your process unique to your winemaking style?
We make use of natural yeast during fermentation, adding hardly anything apart from sulphur. We do not use dangerous pesticides that are bad for the environment. Instead we use copper and sulphur that is allowed in organic farming.
What in your opinion are the strengths and weakness of your estate?
We supply our own grapes for our whole portfolio. Standing on the deck in front of our cellar, we can show visitors where each cultivar grows. Our area, the distance, and low temperatures at night are strengths. Our location is probably the most prominent weakness; the distance from Cape Town, along with the fact that it limits our exposure to the wine-drinking public due to few tourists.
Do you use oak? If yes, what kind? Otherwise what are your favourite barrelling techniques?
Yes, we use third or fourth fill French oak barrels. Our style of wine must not be over wooded – we prefer the wooded influence to be subtle. The wines are made in open-fermentation bins and stored for maturation in barrel as soon as it has been racked once or twice.
How do you prepare for harvest?
We keep an eye on weather patterns and do not go away for more than two or three days towards the end of the year, because weather conditions can change abruptly and it’s crucial that we keep a hawk’s eye on the irrigation of our vines. Warm weather ripens the grapes but heat waves just before and during harvest can also have a negative impact on grape quality.
How many staff members are hands on at harvest time?
We normally have one or two semi-permanent staff. During harvest we make use of the services of various local contracted labourers to hand pick when the grapes are ready to be harvested.
Why is timing so important?
Over ripe grapes will influence the taste or our wines and we will end up with high alcohol wines, which is something we try to avoid.
Do economic and marketing factors influence harvest time?
We try not to commit to any marketing activities and shipping of export orders during harvest time so that we can focus on the task at hand, but every now and then things get a bit hectic with harvest in full swing, orders to be shipped and visitors coming for a tasting.
Tell us about the vineyards you farm. What are they like in terms of soil, climate, and varietal composition?
Our soil is composed of light clay on a broken hardpan layer. The climate is warm Mediterranean with very low annual rainfall. There is a strong maritime influence as we are located about 20 km from the Atlantic Ocean, which cools the area down in the late afternoon and evenings. We specialise in Rhône varieties as they can handle the heat and thus performs really well in our area.