As told by Charles Back…
Securing the deal for the kvevris was only the beginning and, although rather harrowing, probably one of the simpler parts of the kvevri journey!
The turnaround time between visiting the craftsman in the Georgian mountains and the day the kvevris arrived in South Africa was around 12 months. As explained previously, the earthenware vessels are made completely by hand and from memory from carefully chosen clay, as the clay’s characteristics will influence the wine’s mineral content. Thereafter, the kvevri is baked in a man-made oven which is closed by building a brick wall once the kvevris are inside. After the kvevris have been baked, the wall is broken down and the kvevris removed. Finally, the inside of the kvevri is sealed with melted beeswax.
Once our kvevris had been completed, handmade wooden crates were built and the thousand litre kvevris placed inside by a group of men. The crates were then nailed shut and loaded onto a truck to be taken to the harbor where the container was waiting. We were told that the loading of the truck caused quite a spell of chaos! The mountain roads are so narrow that the truck had to park in the middle of the road during the entire loading process! The fun didn’t end there though, as the truck could find no space to turn around causing a Georgian-scale snarl-up! Eventually the truck arrived at the Black Sea port where the kvevris were loaded into a container and onto a ship bound for Southern Africa! Not only was this process a rather administratively intensive one, but it cost a pretty penny too!
With our kvevris on their way, I realized that one of the most important aspects of this process would be getting the people who would be making the wine to buy into the concept. It was decided that the kvevri wine would be made under the Spice Route brand, as it fits perfectly into the brand’s identity. Thus we sent our winemaker, Charl du Plessis, to Georgia for a crash course in kvevri-winemaking. Charl met up with Elene Bukhaidze, the same woman from the Georgian Wine Tourism Association who had shown me around, and spent two weeks building up his knowledge of making wine in a kvevri and taking care of the vessel. The kvevri is more than just a tank, and it’s imperative that you live in symbiosis with your kvevri. For instance, the fact that the inside of the kvevri is lined with beeswax means that you can’t clean it with harsh chemicals, so the Georgians use lime. Also, you can’t use just any apparatus when conducting punch downs. The Georgians use a specially made cherry wood tool so as not to compromise the beeswax lining.
Charl assures me that his two weeks in Georgia were filled with much manual labour,supras, and a lot of a pomace brandy called “chacha”. Feel free to ask him about it the next time you have the pleasure of seeing him.
More than a year later and the journey has finally come full circle. Our kvevris have been built into the ground at our Malabar cellar in Malmesbury and the first grapes are fermenting as you read this. I’m incredibly proud to have been able to play a part in creating history for our Swartland cellar. I feel it is quite an accomplishment personally and for my team that we stuck to it, jumped through all the hoops, and overcame every logistical challenge with which we were faced.
Now we can look to the future! I’m convinced that Spice Route, as well as other natural wine producers in the Swartland region, have an amazing opportunity to see what the Swartland can become. Thus far we have started experimenting with Grenache Blanc, Grenache Noir, Chenin Blanc, old vine Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Manseng, Sémillon, Shiraz and Souzão! I’m especially excited about the Petit Manseng, a grape with extremely high acidity that we planted in Darling a few years ago with the intention of making something special.
One of the biggest challenges natural wine producers face is that your average consumer loves the idea and the narrative but expects the wine to taste like their go to bottle off the supermarket shelf. However, I believe that producers equipped with ancient techniques and new technology are going to be making wines that are so complex and so interesting that consumers won’t be able to stay away! By making wine this way you’re able to work with a far greater flavor profile, especially if you can allow oxidation to play a role. You’re not only playing with primary flavors, but flavors that can evolve at different rates and different intensities. In essence, your box of tools is so much larger. With standard wines you are rather reliant on how much flavor the grape has, whereas with this style of winemaking you’re able to evolve and morph the flavors in so many different ways because of the natural process and the fact that you’re using all the attributes of the grape. The addition of skins, pips and stalks allows for more base inputs at the winemaker’s disposal. Clearly, I’m incredibly excited about the wines that will be made within the next few years.
Looking at the next 10 years, I think the main world wine market will consist of two polar opposites. The industrially flavored wines and alternative wines made in line with natural methods. With transparency being an ever growing concern for consumers the world over, industrially flavored wines will initially have their moment in the sun owing to their price point, but then people will turn away and look for something real and authentic. Soon natural wines will be the most sought after product in the market and, if I’m lucky enough to reach my 70th birthday in 7 years time, I’m confident that the majority of wines on the table will be natural!