Minimal Introspection Winemaking:
Hermanuspietersfontein’s Wilhelm Pienaar on Gravity and Simplicity
On the spectrum
“Minimal Intervention” is arguably the most over-used, under-defined phrase in the winemaking industry right now.
It’s acceptable application forms a spectrum bigger than a Swartland foudre, and (at the time of writing) shows no hint of ever being able to provide the consumer with any meaningful intel about the wine to which it has been attached.
This “intervention spectrum” is bookended by two large structures. On the near end stands an ivory tower, choccers with winemakers, who hate being called as much (and refuse to even make eye-contact with grapes during harvest time lest they impart undue influence on the fruit), and on the far end is an office block packed with PR agents and copywriters, paid by the hour, to churn out back label copy for Sainsbury’s.
“Some folk profess to do little more than tap the grapes around like anaemic kittens with alcoholic ball of yarn.”
But somewhere in the middle of this sea of sound and fury are some honest-but-respectful new world alchemists who love an unpretentious and obvious link between the grapes on the vine and the wine in the bottle.
Hermanuspietersfontein’s winemaker, Wilhelm Pienaar (he says it’s okay to call him a winemaker) gave us a Wonkeresque tour of the winery’s cellar in Hermanus, on the Cape South Coast, and brought a fresh angle to this weary notion.
HPF: The Architecture of Minimal Intervention
“I don’t want to have to mess with the grapes too much,” says Pienaar.
“I just want to be able to dump the grapes into the fermenter. Then they ferment. Go figure. Then I put them in a barrel, and two years later I do a rough filtration, and off you go. That would make me happy as pie.”
This is “minimal intervention” at its most unpretentious. In fact, one would be forgiven for mistaking this laissez faire approach as the sort of “minimal intervention” that a teenage likes to employ with his laundry basket. But there is nothing negligent about the Hermanuspietersfontein winemaking ethos. In fact it is quite the opposite.
Dolly Parton once said that “it costs a lot of money to look this cheap”. Similarly, it takes a lot of planning to make incredible wines in such a simple fashion. For Wilhelm Pienaar, part of the secret to Hermanuspietersfontein’s minimal intervention approach is that the winery was intelligently designed long before the winemaking process began.
“What makes our cellar so amazing is the way it has been laid out. We have an external cold room, where grapes are stored immediately after harvest. From there they are transferred into a satellite tank, which is mobile. It can simply be forklifted into the winery, where the load is then dropped through a manhole down into the press below.
For the red wines, we simply use a hoist to move the grapes from cold room to the fermenters. But in each case, the double-storey layout simply allows gravity to do the work. We never ever have to pump a single berry. And, for us, this is key. When you pump grapes, you have very little idea of the sort of friction and incineration that goes on in the pump. It’s tricky to know how that affects extraction, and, in fact, the entire process.
Some guys will claim that they have some idea of what happens, but then they will have to go and try to fix the wine with gelatin, or egg whites, or whatever it takes. I don’t want to have to do that with my wines. And the difference in the texture of the wine is obvious; you achieve a completely different sort of tannin; far finer, and smoother.”
There are many elements in the winemaking process scrutinised in the pursuit of the most minimal of interventions. Some folk profess to do little more than tap the grapes around like anaemic kittens with alcoholic balls of yarn. Others rely on vessels more neutral than Switzerland, and still others seem to resent that fermentation is even allowed to take place (heaven forbid anyone produce a wine over 10% ABV). But it is seldom that the topics of gravity, architecture and floor plans hold up the flow of opinions on the matter.
Which is perhaps why it is so refreshing to encounter a wine producer like Hermanuspietersfontein that manages to deliver genuine “wines of place”, with legitimate transparency, simplicity and honesty, without pretension or exclusion. They manage to embody the vanguard of the new world, while maintaining a rare level of classicism.