As I moved through the rows of shiraz, clipping bunches and lugging the crates about on a wintry Sunday, I had ample time to have a close look at the variety and individuality of the grapes that end up as wine. All the fancy bottles and pretty or not labels, and all the variation that wine offers begins with plants in a row, dangling perfect and not so perfect bunches of grapes.
Luddite is only one wine, a shiraz. It is a powerful wine, but at the same time it remains pure-fruited and balanced â€“ and above all inviting the next mouthful. Walking through the rows of grapes in 2007 that will be released as wine in 2009, itâ€™s amazing to see the variation in the quantity and state of the bunches: from the ends of the rows where the wind eats at them, to the sheltered middle, to the patches where the soil offers more or less nurture.
Winemaker Niels Verburg has made a few â€œgreen harvestâ€ sweeps already, thinning out the aberrant bunches, and tells us volunteer pickers to take only bunches that we wouldnâ€™t mind eating. Ripe shiraz is very edible, and my boxes fill quickly, though the birds have beaten me to a good few bunches.
I was interested in what seemed an early date to be picking shiraz, which is late ripening. Verburg explained it was because these were dry-land vineyards, in other words, unirrigated. He wants it that way. Itâ€™s a part of a desire to express the vintage and this patch of land in as pure a fashion as possible. The very dramatic intervention of irrigation helps mitigate the vagaries of nature and has become a critical weapon in the arsenal of commercial farming.
Earlier that week I had been to visit another dry-land vineyard, a remarkable block of pinotage that was planted on Meerendal in 1955. Meerendal have now released a wine from these grapes called â€œHeritage Blockâ€ Pinotage 2005 and it is a fine achievement, which they are well aware of, pricing it at R250.
The whole of Meerendal is unirrigated, suggesting (at the very least) a team that also believe in the old-fashioned ways of making wine. Many would add a philosophical layer to this, and add, as Verburg does, that this is key in taking the idea of site-specific wine seriously. But at Meerendal, the winemaker, Liza Goodwin, doesnâ€™t buy into the concept of â€œterroirâ€, saying that the human hand of the winemaker is by far (80% she avows) the most critical factor in what many call â€œterroirâ€. And it is true that a human decides to irrigate or not, but then again, there is that savoury note you taste in all Meerendal winesâ€¦ through all the different winemakers.