The Springfield Summer Games
Where winemaking is an adrenaline sport
Return of the Frost Copters
“So there I was in the helicopter, while Abrie was running around below with a thermometer finding patches of the vineyard where the air was below zero. All we needed to do was find the temperature inversion, fly the chopper in low enough, and then whip up the freezing air, mixing it with warmer air.”
And apparently that’s just how one deals with black frost in Robertson.
Mad max and Coca-cola
I had been chatting to Jeanette Bruwer, co-owner of Springfield Estate, and brother to winemaker Abrie Bruwer at one of the tastings of Springfield’s now renowned “Lost Vintage” release; the Methode Ancienne 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon. We’d gotten to chatting about the perils that await anyone who would try their hand at vinegrowing by day and frost fighting by night.
“Well, we don’t always do it that way,” responded Jeanette with Wind in the Willows-worthy wistfulness. “But Abrie has built us a big metal contraption that looks like something out of Mad Max, with flames and fans up at the top, that one can drive through the vineyards…”
She perked up again at the thought. “It’s important to build fun into your work,” she continued. I don’t want to be making wine like they make coca-cola; picking grapes, adding yeast, putting it into a bottle. Again and again and again. Who wants to do that?! You must keep the fun in there. That was why we dropped those bottles into the ocean. That, and to give us another excuse to go fishing.”
But before learning about how Jeanette and her brother dropped 600 bottles of wine into the ocean, and then spent 3 and a half years trying to find them again, perhaps you deserve a little backstory:
“When I was a young warthog…”
NINETEEN ninety seven was beautifully cool vintage in Robertson; ideal for growing incredible grapes, & therefore superlative wines. The common misconception that it’s tough to produce great wine in Robertson because of the heat, but in reality, the nights are incredibly cold, allowing nocturnal respite for the vines.
“Back then you had to be a really shitty winemaker not to make something incredible,” continued Jeannette. “Not like 2015; that was a very tough year.”
[SIDENOTE: 2015 is widely considered to be one of the finest vintages for red wine in recent South African history, but clearly not in Robertson. Which serves as a reminder that it is very hard to make categorical statements about South African vintages – given how varied the climates can be from ward to ward. But back to 1997…]
The question I asked was, “if 1997 was such a great year, why on earth would you have to wait two decades for this guy to be ready to sing?” It certainly doesn’t improve your cash flow to have to wait 20 years before seeing a return on your investment…So, as Austin Powers is fond of asking, “What does it all mean, Basil?!”
Native yeast: how to have less cowbell in your wine
“So here is the thing,” answered Jeanette, “We really love to drink, but we hate getting drunk, so we decided the obvious solution was to make lower alcohol wines. The shift to native yeast (over inoculated yeast) was an obvious way to do this.
“When using natural yeast, you need more sugar to create 1% alcohol than you would need with cultivated yeast. With natural yeast, you have a much longer fermentation (five days can become seven weeks!) and so the longer period of time means that more volatile alcohol evaporates. The end result; lower ABV.”
“But,” Jeanette continued (with what turned out to be a twenty-year-long “but”), “the skins are in contact with the juice for all that time. Take into account that we still crushed the grapes in those days, and add the fact that we used all new oak barrels and you have one helluva blockbuster wine. In the worst sense possible.”
It was like the Mars Volta of wine; massive, complex, layered, masterful, unbearable…and almost certainly contraindicated for anyone with a pacemaker. Proof that sometimes you can have too much awesomeness.
In the drink
So, with the Springfield team unwilling to release the wine, and loathed to turf it, most winemakers would have resigned themselves to the long wait. But as we have seen thus far, life at the Bruwer house is hardly an episode of Leave it to Beaver. Hell, if anything, it’s more like the opening credits to Danger Bay.
Having read about the possibility of a lengthy ocean dip speeding up the aging process, the Springfield team decided to continue the Danger Bay theme by welding together some metal cages, filling them with 600 bottles of the yet-to-be-lost vintage, and then sinking them to the bottom of the ocean.
“We waited for the stormiest day, because we didn’t want anyone else out there seeing what we were doing,” continued Jeanette. “We were all ready to dump the bottles – it was 1999, by the way. We had just got a fancy new GPS, and Abrie turned to me and asked, ‘where’s the pen?’ As if we always carried pens with us when we went out fishing in the middle of the storm! Obviously, I didn’t have one, so there was Abrie desperately carving the co-ordinates into the side of the boat with his knife.
“It should be added at this point that large sharks are not uncommon in
Struisbaai, and strong currents are a regular affair”
Then, with almost Old Testament-level storytelling aplomb, she paused to add, “They are still there to this day.”
“By the time he was done, we had drifted terribly, of course, so, when we started looking for the cages six months later, they were nowhere to be found.”
It should be added at this point that large sharks are not uncommon in Struisbaai, and strong currents are a regular affair, which goes someway to explaining why the immediate search was not more thorough. But as fortune would have it, three and a half years later, on a New Year’s Day, while the family was out on a leisure cruise, that the metal cages just happened to be poking out from behind a rocky crag!
“Caloo Callay,” chortled winelovers in their joy. The prodigal vintage that was lost, and had now been found! It was Nemo, Lassie, and Free Willy all rolled into one joyous aquatic frollick…
But sadly that all went down in 2003, and as history has shown, the wines that emerged from Davy Jones’s cellar were far from ready.
“The whole adventure had sped up the aging process by about five or six years, but they still weren’t ready. Funnily enough, now [in 2017], those 600 bottles are ready to be drunk, whereas the rest of the 1997 vintage will still continue to improve until 2020 at least. The idea was to use all those things that could ordinarily ruin a wine…movement, UV light, a slightly elevated temperature…and I guess it worked.”
“But, but, but….aren’t you going to sell those wines that you sunk?” I asked, desperately curious to know if I would be able to taste the sea spray, or pick up subtle complications of barnacle and Great White.
“But why?” retorted Jeanette. “It’ll be much more fun to drink them all on the farm!”