Malu Lambert: Vintelligence and cellars of the future

By , 3 July 2024

Quoin Rock, Stellenbosch.

“Precision,” hammers Nico Walters as we bump along the foothills of the Simonsberg. The Quoin Rock/ Knorhoek viticulturist says he was born under this mountain and knows its contours like the proverbial back of his hand. Since the Gaiduk family acquired Quoin Rock in 2012 they have put together a crack team. The winery officially reopened in 2018, after extensive restoration and vineyard replantings. Walters for one comes with some serious viti pedigree having worked Rustenberg for over a decade. Schalk Opperman in charge of the cellar is another. He was most recently the general manager and winemaker at Lammershoek in the Swartland.

The precision in the vineyard follows into the cellar. Entering its cool interior from the unseasonal heat outside is a relief. Opperman and his assistant winemaker Pieter Coetzee are all smiles, because this is the cellar of dreams. The vini team have been given free rein in the R&D department – that’s ‘research and development’ to you and me – and all the toys to play with in its pursuit.

“We’re not just doing it for the sake of it,” says Opperman, referencing the enviable kit all around. “We first do small trials, and then if it works, we scale it up.”

One such successful experiment is the OXOline stacking system, consisting of moveable racks and trolleys that allow barrels to be rotated and handled with minimal labour. It’s obviously labour saving but there are also other advantages to it. Being so easy to manipulate it allows them to do red wine ferments directly in barrel, rather than the usual schlep from tank to barrel. “We found the juice more seamlessly integrates with the oak tannin, than say wine does,” explains Coetzee. “It becomes a lot softer.”

“You also win time. Wines that would normally take 20 months to age, can be bottled sooner, at say 16 months.” They use the system to conduct other trials. In another room a row of barrels filled with cabernet franc are tilted at a 45-degree angle, where they will remain until racking. The purpose of this is to minimise the loss of wine through the bung hole. The end goal is to use less sulphur by reducing the need to top up.

All of the barrels are numbered by their vineyard rows, as well as affixed with a QR code. This directs the user to information on the lot; from when the barrel was last moved to what yeasts were used, the latest analysis and so on. “Traceability is important to us,” affirms Opperman.

Clearly, no detail is overlooked. Opperman shows me the ‘expanding bungs’ lodged in the barrels, which create an hermetic seal negating the need for topping up. There are open top Nico Velo concrete fermenters, a pod of concrete eggs, Stockinger foudres, and the most beautiful Taransaud French oak egg (pictured left) gleaming pristinely in the maturation cellar.

This cellar is clearly ambitious, and after my visit it inspired some thinking about who else in South Africa is pushing the boundaries in cellar technology.

Leeuwenkuil immediately springs to mind with its capacious operation. It was custom built in the Swartland to handle both small as well as large volumes of wine with an ability to process a staggering 30 million litres. The cellar is fitted with all kinds of progressive tech, including AI-operated presses as well as filtering systems that allow for just one cross flow, which means less movement of the wine, and ostensibly higher quality in the final product.

“The less you work with the wine the better…” remarks winemaker Pieter Cartens. Add to this sustainable cooling regimes as well as responsible electricity and water usage, which are all intrinsic parts of the design. Speaking of, Reyneke Wines in Stellenbosch is currently building a new ‘super-sustainable cellar’ from the ground up, as detailed in my article ‘the lightweight bottle revolution’.

The Damascene cellar, Elgin.

From the precise to the practical. Another ambitious cellar worthy of a mention is Damascene in Elgin, a partnership between winemaker Jean Smit and David Curl, former owner of Bordeaux’s Chateau Gaby.

“You don’t build a cellar for ten years, you build it for life,” asserts Smit. “It’s not about being grand, it’s about creating a blank canvas for making high end wine.”.

“The key to what we do is practicality,” he says “That’s the most important. I like to work on one level for unimpeded flow, and because of this we use a roving satellite tank to fill the fermentation vessels. This does away with the need for pumping of grapes from the fruit reception area into tanks.”

Concrete, he says, is his other secret weapon. They have conical concrete tanks with custom-designed set plates that facilitate submerged cap fermentation for some lots, which does away with the need for punch downs or pump overs. The concrete is also naturally cooling, which is imperative for spontaneous fermentation. All the wines are wild fermented, and in a new cellar like this, Smit uses it to his advantage as there are no leftover commercial yeasts haunting his ferments.

The cellar has been built with the idea of protecting the unique yeast population, which Smit says affords them many attributes in the wines. These include a high glycerol content (mouthfeel and ageing potential), the ability to retain acidity as well as lower alcohols than can be attained in other cellars. He says he conducted an experiment to this effect with a contemporary; same vineyard, same fruit, different cellars; and his colleague’s alcohols were over two degrees higher.

As such Smit keeps things scrupulously clean, from open drains to anti-microbial epoxy floors, with the configuration allowing in natural light all the way into the barrel cellar.

“It needs to flow and it needs to be functional,” says Smit. “We use every corner of the cellar throughout the year, there is not a single dud spot. One harvest we had to process 35 per cent of the entire crop in four days and we could fit everything in,” he cites as an example.

Smit says he was inspired by how not to build it after “years and years of looking at how people do things in an impractical way”. Sustainability has been woven right through too, including an artificial wetland that recycles water.

One final piece of practical advice from Smit, as he rightly says with our on-going unstable relationship with electricity: “In South Africa, you can’t build a cellar without a generator, you won’t make a premium wine without one.”

If wine is truly made in the vineyard, as winemakers and marketers are wont to trot out, this delve into some cellars of the future shows just how much more nuanced that conversation really is.

  • Malu Lambert is freelance wine journalist and wine judge who has written for numerous local and international titles. She is a WSET Diploma student and won the title of Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer of the Year 2019. She sits on various tasting panels and has judged in competitions abroad. Follow her on Twitter: @MaluLambert


0 comment(s)

Please read our Comments Policy here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Like our content?

Show your support.