Squeak, blend and fill: the traits of a quality winemaker

by | Jul 9, 2021 | Article, Blog

While many perceive winemakers as the ‘mortal gods’ of our society, ADRE RHEEDER, operations manager at Darling’s Ormonde Private Cellar, and a trained viticulturist, writes that the traits of a class winemaker lies in his or her subtlety and work ethic in the cellar.

The other day, while entertaining members of our marketing company, a pretty lady from Gauteng asked me with stars in her eyes, “are you the winemaker!” to which I replied “no, but I know my way around the cellar” I tried, but it did not have the effect, I’m not a winemaker, the stars were gone.

There is this little joke about what the difference is between God and a Winemaker from which the answer comes that God does not think he is a winemaker. I used to tell it frequently but as time went by, and I got to know my way around the cellar more, I kind of stopped using it. 

I am a vineyard man, there where the initial make-or-break happens, we all know that no quality wine was ever made from bad grapes, cannot be done, never will, this is true.

In a vineyard however, there is a spot to hide from producing quality fruit. Many factors determine the quality of grapes but in short, location, cultivar choice and absolute optimum execution of all proven practices. These are the factors we can manage and control. Then there is the weather, the one factor we cannot control, and even very subtle almost unnoticeable climatic events can cause a negative result and substandard fruit. A place to hide.

After a load of quality grapes has been offloaded at the cellar, there are much less uncontrollable factors that can prevent that load of quality grapes to be turned into a quality wine. No place to hide.

Fortunately, I can spend time in our cellar and over time changed my initial demeaned perception of winemakers significantly.

Even with my limited experience, I think I can identify three very important qualities of a good winemaker. There is obviously many more but for some reason, whenever I picture one of our many great South African winemakers, everyone has all these traits.     

They are squeaking wheels, relentlessly do whatever they can to make sure grapes arrive cool, healthy, and perfect ripe at their cellar. They come to the vineyard, sometimes suddenly appearing, like a ghost, and then the questions observations and remarks… “when are you going to break leaves, you should have removed those shoulder bunches already, don’t you think the vegetative growth is to vigorous, why don’t you rather top and not tip, the grapes are ready can you pick tomorrow,…why can’t you pick tomorrow, you must pick tomorrow, early, first for me,….” And they do get good grapes, and they make good wine!

They are exceptionally good blenders and understand the interaction of colour, aroma, taste, texture, exactly where it comes from, and how to combine it to satisfy market expectation. Cannot blend, cannot make wine.

How much of that will bring what to this wine, a 300-litre barrel of smooth roundness that trim the little bit too much sharp in a five thousand litre tank, a little current vintage just to freshen up last years red before going to bottle, the spice and soft sweet fruit in this blend of first and second fill Sylvain barrels Shiraz is beautifully married, a full wine, lets add ten percent of the low alcohol unwooded Grenache that show such intense cherries and see if it brings bit of tang.

A good winemaker is a filler, making sure that after fermentation vessels must be kept full and barrels are topped up regularly because wine resting and developing in a full vessel, is a happy healthy wine. One can drop CO2 on top of the wine in a partly filled tank yes, of burn a sulphur stick to protect the wine, but the chances are that at some stage the wine will be exposed to the general atmosphere in the cellar, from where contamination will materialize. It might sound easy but no, a good comprehension of regulation, blending and logistical planning is vital. Simple enough but if the winemaker does not have the resource of unlimited tank and barrel space in a variety of different sizes, which very few cellars have, the planning must be meticulous.

To all those squeaking wheel, blender, and filler winemakers out there, from a vineyard guy, hats off to you!

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