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Peter Csizmadia-Honigh: Harvest diary from Chile

Published:  16 May, 2011

There is nothing like learning by doing. Quite true, I thought to myself when boarding the red-eye on Mayday in Santiago on the way back home after two weeks in Chile.

There is nothing like learning by doing. Quite true, I thought to myself when boarding the red-eye on Mayday in Santiago on the way back home after two weeks in Chile.

I am sure there is a long list of books, and tasting samples, I need to work my way through to better understand Syrah, but they cannot supersede the wealth of hands-on experience I had during the week I spent with Sven Bruchfeld of Polkura Vineyards in the Colchagua Valley and then travelling around in the most important wine regions of Chile.

The idea of doing a stage came about through a FaceBook chat with Sven earlier this year. A moonlighting proprietor and vigneron myself - at Royal Somló Vineyards in Hungary - I had been looking forward to my vintage experience at Polkura for the reasons that I had never made red wine before and neither had I worked in a winery other than my own.

Thankfully, it did not take long to convince Omar, my partner and a wine enthusiast, to be my travel companion for the trip.

It all started to become reality after an 18-hour flight from London followed by a 4-hour coach ride from Santiago to the village of Marchigue in the Colchagua Valley. The lush agricultural landscape of the Central Valley bordered by the dramatic ranges of the Andes to the East provided picturesque scenery for the journey.

Once in Marchigue, we got off the bus, which quickly rolled on leaving us in the centre of the village. Deserted as it was, it resembled the pictures of a Western movie. The prairie all around and there was one place open, the bar. Disguised as a wine restaurant, we decided it was best to order a beer whilst waiting for Sven to pick us up.

We drove to the heart of the 100-hecatre estate (27-ha under vine) to drop off our luggage at the newly erected log cabin then we went down to the winery straightaway.

We met Cristian, the leader of the core team of vineyard workers, and Brendan Carr, a young Australian winemaker in charge of the winery this year. A good international atmosphere in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere.

Brendan, a native of Margaret River, Western Australia, had arrived from the Okanagan Valley, where he had been making wine, via the West Coat of the USA, Mexico and other Central and South American countries. He was busy with plugging one of the containers holding the destemmed and crushed grapes, as we entered the winery.

They had already harvested Grenache Noir, Tempranillo and Syrah.

More Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were yet to come assuming there were day labourers to pick. Following the post-earthquake boom in the construction industry in Chile - apparently I slept through a 4.7 magnitude quake on the Richter scale one night during the week - there is hardly anyone who would be willing to work in seasonal agricultural jobs.

Worth the toil
Raising the day fee up to $50 - whilst an average salary is $500 per month - enticed more appetite for work among the locals. You may contemplate about its economic impact on the winery, but then again leaving the fruit hanging on the vine would cause over-ripeness or loss of yield.

Unless it is possible to machine-harvest, which was a out of the question on the slopes of Polkura Vineyards, some with 18% incline.

It also happened mid-week that the pickers walked out around 2pm after having filled some 420 crates with grapes leaving them along the rows of vines on a steep hill.

In such a situation, we could do nothing else, but dropped our work in the winery and went up the hill to carry the crates of grapes on our shoulders down to the bottom of the site where the tractor could crawl up to. Two hours of hard labour and the grapes were down at the winery. I had learnt to appreciate again the amount of work that goes into producing wine.

The days typically start early and finish late during vintage. Yet, they pass by quickly, as you are busy all the time. It is not helped by the fact that you also need to align your daily routine to the electricity metre, so as to avoid having any machinery running from the main between 6 and 11pm.

This is the peak period for electricity usage with the highest rate and the provider calculates the annual bill on the basis of the two highest measures of electricity usage in the evening periods during the year.

If a winery were to pay its bill on the basis of two figures obtained whilst running all the destemmers, crushers, presses, the heat exchanger of the temperature control systems and who know what else, you can imagine that retail prices were to soar.

I took my fair share of the work in processing the Syrah grapes that were picked during our stint. A rather strenuous work for the back, as you stand along the triage table picking all the unwanted leaves, stems and stalks out so as to avoid any green tinge or harsh tannins in the wine.

As a guest worker for a week I was at liberty to desert my position at the triage table so that I could make myself useful with other jobs. For example, Brendan trained me in additions and calculations. The first one was to get my head around the amount of potassium metabisulfite added to the must bled off from the Syrah juice and later sold off in bulk.

Another job of mine was taking the temperatures and the sugar levels of the cold soaks, which were between 10 and 12°C and 25 and 27 Brix respectively.

Fermenting skills
There is much talk about spontaneous fermentation with wild yeasts as opposed to inoculating with commercial yeasts. As Polkura's winery building was new, construction finished just in time for harvest earlier this spring, Sven decided to inoculate with BO213 Saccharomyces cerevisiae strain of commercial yeast.

The yeasts were fed with added nutrients to avoid stuck fermentation. Once a sufficient level of yeasts build up in both winery and vineyard, his intention is to gradually move to wild ferments. Such issues have shown me how theory becomes everyday practice in terms of managing fermentation and how choices translate into pragmatic decisions when you are a small independent winery, who cannot afford to wipe off a vintage because your wild ferments go wrong.

Having constructed his own winery, Sven could now afford to experiment with picking Syrah in three different stages so as to have wines of a variety of characters when making the final blend. The first picking had finished fermentation and was macerated, it showed a lean body, which he called a bit green, though I would not have said green, just very lean, fresh and crisp.

The second picking showed more body due to heftier alcohol, more generous tannins and riper fruits, whilst the third picking was coming from one of the best plots and it was truly fragrant and scented with berries, violets and paprika as well as a lovely soft bunch of tannins, full body.

We had worked hard, but also had great food. Most of the time we cooked our own lunch and dinner in the log cabin. Our meals were a true combination national cuisines suited for Passover and vegetarians too. For example, one lunch time I mocked up paprika mushroom, the veggie version of Hungarian paprika chicken, with Chilean Merken Mapuche spices (roughly ground chilly and cumin mix) and cream.

Omar steamed spinach with garlic and cream, a typical Dutch dish, and some crispy potato fried in a casserole.

All accompanied by Royal Somló J 2009 from Hungary and Aylin Sauvignon Blanc 2010 from Leyda and San Antonio Valley in Chile. A delicious combination of international food and wine it was.

The other day we went out for dinner, so all of us got washed and orderly after the day's work at the winery.

Half an hour's drive and we arrived at an old farmhouse, which functioned as an Italian restaurant just on the outskirts of Santa Cruz. A hospitable Californian voice welcomed us. The voice belonged to a charming American lady, who had been living in Chile for a long time, as she preferred to put it instead of giving the number of years.

A pisco sour, the traditional drink mixed from Pisco, crushed ice and plenty of lime juice; set the dinner going. It was followed by a selection of lovely anti pasti, various mains and a bottle of Carmenere.

That evening we got back to Polkura around midnight and finished the night off with Királyudvar's 2006 vintage 6 puttonyos tokaji aszú and Pendits 2000 vintage tokaji aszú essencia.

Both wines impressed Sven and Brendan putting my mind to rest that people of taste do appreciate tokaji wines no matter where in the world you are.

Travelling further afield
Once we did our stint of winemaking at Polkura Vineyards, we spent the second half of the fortnight-long stay in Chile with visiting wineries in the Maipo, Casablanca, Leyda, San Antonio and Aconcagua valleys.

We learnt that generally speaking harvest was two weeks late this year due to a colder spring, which pushed the whole cycle back. Some wineries, such as Vina Mar in Casablanca, had already finished their Sauvignon Blanc ferments giving them a lean, fresh and crisp style, whilst others were just starting picking, as it was the case with Garces Silva, who aim for a riper and exotic style with serious concentration.

Timing of picking will prove crucial with the 2011 vintage in Chile not only because of the later ripening, but because in some areas there were rainy days during harvest.

The timing of the harvest allows for managing the desired level of concentration, a delicate game, and will determine the character of this year's Chilean vintage.

I am much looking forward to tasting the wines from the 2011 vintage when they get to the UK, as I expect some brilliant stuff to be had.

It will also be pleasing to see that our week's effort transformed into bottles of wine, of course, with the lion's share of the work having been done by the team of Polkura rather than me.