Wine and democracy

Tim Cohen

My wife gave me five days hard labour on a wine farm for my birthday. We are still together.

As it happens, I enjoyed my hard labour very much, in the way that people who are bonded to their keyboards and computers can enjoy a time in a different place doing a different thing, even if it’s physically hard.

Most of the hard labour took place early in the morning, picking grapes, which sounds much more romantic than it is. All of the grape-pickers around me looked on my work in the way fathers tend to look at their sons’ first woodwork project. There was some grudging admiration for trying, but I think they thought things would generally be better if I got out of the way and let the professionals handle it.

Picking grapes, I discovered, is hard work. Why I should be surprised by such an obvious thing is a bit confusing to me. It reminds me of a mining executive who once said that anyone who thinks that swinging a pick and shovelling rock is “unskilled labour” should try it for a few days.

I think I just didn’t realise precisely how backbreaking it actually is. There is a difference between knowing something is hard work and feeling how hard that hard work actually is. Grapes sit on two rows of the trellis, which seem nicely positioned at waist high. But ripe grapes bend the vines down almost to the ground. The bunches hide behind great snakes of vine that shoot out in any direction like fireworks. You have to get your nose into the vines and dig around for the stem of the bunch and then manoeuvre your snippers into position.

Quite often you cut something other than what you intended. Hopefully it’s not your thumb. At the same time, the person next to you is moving at a frightening pace, tearing the grapes off the vine. Grape pickers get paid by the basket, and they actually run down the terraces to dump their loads into the waiting tractor-trailer rig.

The intensity of the smell is quite overwhelming; oozing grapes, cut stems and dust flood over you every time you come up for air – which I did quite a lot. The professionals tut-tutted about this intruder who seemed to spend most of his time watching the sunrise. The farmer who kindly let me practice on his produce eventually took pity on me and made me drive the grapes into the cooperative on the tractor.

Yet picking grapes and, I suppose, bringing in the harvest generally is such a wonderfully elemental thing. It’s like netting your catch. Suddenly it didn’t surprise me that there is so much folklore about harvest time. At the end of each day I phoned my wife and bragged about my purple fingers.

The wine industry is one of South Africa’s most remarkable success stories. Before the economic crisis hit in late 2008, wine farms were opening in South Africa at the rate of almost one a week. Since democracy in 1994, wine exports have doubled, doubled again and then doubled yet again.

In a remarkably short amount of time, South Africa wine was again available on British supper tables and even in Beijing restaurants, I discovered. To my palate it’s still generally inferior to Australian wine, but the catch-up has been stunning.

Technically it’s an old industry in South Africa. But actually, democracy made as much impact on local wine – its taste, style and quality – as democracy did on politics. Ever since coming to this realisation I have wondered whether there is some connection.

South African wine of the old era occasionally demonstrated high quality, but generally it was stolid and coarse, at least to my tongue. The freshness of foreign comparison brought new cellars, new styles, more adventurous winemaking techniques, different marketing processes and fresher, better quality wine across the board. The names of the old order are still around: KWV and Nederburg, for example, but they have been totally overwhelmed by newcomers, and are laboriously reinventing themselves too.

Since working for a week in a few vineyards and visiting many more, my initial suspicions about the link between politics and wine has been confirmed. The reason is simple. When most people think about wine, what comes to mind is the actual liquid; its colour, its substance, its smell and perhaps also the conviviality it brings to meal times or social occasions.

But wine is remarkable, perhaps even unique, because it’s the one agricultural product which shows its human face clearly. All agricultural products do this in a way, but wine really is demonstrative about its human heritage in a way many other agricultural products are not. Partly this is because there is so much more intervention in the process of making wine than most other agricultural products. Yet, ironically perhaps, some of the best winemakers are the ones that try to intervene the least. However, winemaking necessarily involves fermentation, so even with the best will in the world, people have their hands – and sometimes their feet – all over it.

One of the interesting aspects of my week of hard labour was the incredible number of young women who are taking the industry by the scruff of its neck. My host for some of the week was one, Anina Guelpa, who for a time made a brand called Anura, but whose academic prowess has been felt widely throughout the Cape wine industry.

I also worked for a day at the interesting small winery StellaKaya, sorting grapes, which was (no surprise) back breaking . There I met winemaker Ntsiki Biyela, whose Zulu background and non-wine drinking family have not prevented her from becoming the pinup for young black winemakers.

These women and the many others in the industry come from different backgrounds, but they share a number of interesting characteristics. Weirdly, they all love the Rhone varieties, what we call Shiraz or Syrrah. And, to be slightly indiscreet, it’s hard not to notice how gorgeous they all are.

Strangely, John Platter’s famous wine guide seems to pass over many of these efforts fairly dismissively. But to me, their wine is really beautiful – much better than the many more famous farms that surround them in the lee of the Hottentots Holland mountains and beyond the Du Toit’s Kloof pass.

In some ways there are two quite different wine industries in the Cape, as there are still in many ways two different South Africas: one young and unsure of itself and the other one old and struggling to change. But taken together, they demonstrate the strange power of renaissance; how imagination, experimentation and rejuvenation so often walk hand in hand.

Tim Cohen is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of South African publications. He is currently contracted as a columnist to The Weekender and Business Day, where he has worked for most of his career. He was the 2004 Sanlam Financial Journalist of the Year.