Fifty Shades of Wine

During my research for a feature on micro-farming in the Mother City for Good Taste magazine, I met a French winemaker crafting wine in the city bowl. Now if you think that the French accent is seductive, spend an hour with Jean Vincent Ridon in the sun getting drunk on vineyards and views, then escape into the cool depths of a tasting room and wet your lips on a blushing Mourvèdre or Syrah.

This was one of those interviews that could have been transcribed directly into the pages of a novel. The Frenchman is passionate – he swears, he smoulders, he raises his eyebrows, he tells a full-bodied tale. His interview transcript was just too good to shelve and get corked. Here follows a few parts for your voyeuristic reading pleasure.

A bit of history…

My reason to redevelop the urban planting of vineyards is that historically Cape Town was the centre of the winelands. I found that Church Street had 3 wineries in the late 19th century. Leeuwenhof, the residence of the premiere used to be a 12 hectare wine estate. Welgemeend next to Jan van Riebeeck school where the netball courts are now, was covered with vineyards.

The first wine made in 1659 was from the Company Garden vineyards and pressed in the Castle. Woodstock had vineyards, part of Salt River had vineyards and cattle. The vines got a pest, a small bug called Phylloxera that landed in the country with American plantings in 1895. It started in Observatory and it wiped out all of the vineyards in South Africa within 5 to 10 years. At the same time the steamers arrived in Cape Town, so we needed more land for buildings. The vineyards never recovered from that blow. And the land was built on.

The vines have completely disappeared. I couldn’t even find revival roots. I did find in Observatory an old backyard with very old vines, but they were table grapes – you could see they were more than 100 years old. Only this one here (in Heritage square) has been protected. What is so funny with this vine, is that we didn’t know what it was. I actually sent it to France for DNA analysis because our labs are well-equipped to do that. I sent leaves, the science of deciding what vine it is is called empillography. Every leaf is like a fingerprint. The Heritage vine is actually a Chenin Blanc.

On flames of passion…

Vineyards and olive trees are one of the strongest plants on earth. In Spain, Greece, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, they use vines as firebreaks. I had a long talk with Cape Point National Park because I wanted to replace all the blue gums, which are pumping tons of water and killing the ground, and plant vineyards as firebreaks because they have less impact on nature, and you get a crop out of them with little maintenance. We’re trying also to do this next to Rhodes Memorial. I understand there’s this global patrimony for all of us, so the decision can take a very long time. They want to make sure they don’t fuck up. They don’t want to lose their jobs from bad decisions, so they don’t make decisions.

On touch…

I use hands-on equipment. Which means we fully destem all the bunches by hand. I keep on believing that in SA it is a social responsibility to try and de-mechanise the farming in order to provide job for people that have little training. You don’t need to be a rocket science to destem grapes, but it is better for the quality of the wine. There’s no machine that can do this as well as human fingers.

On foot fetishes…

We don’t stomp grapes with our feet just to be romantic. Not only is it good for the wine fermentation, but as a winemaker, when you put your body into the wine you feel the temperature. You’ll feel: here’s a pocket of warmth, its probably at 40°C so I should cool down my tank, but when I go down under the cap I feel the juice  is only 18°C, so I need to  mix it more otherwise temperature will be too warm on top and too cool underneath.

It gives precious information for winemaking. I know it’s difficult to apply in big, big tanks. I know many of my winemaker friends who have been doing it by the book and they think that when they take wine from the tap, that this is the temperature of the full tank – but that is just pure bullshit.

You have to get your feet dirty for this winemaking. And you get the usual question from the American tourists: Uh, do you wash your feet? But you know I’m not asking the ladybugs not to piss on the vines. Welcome to reality.

On S&M

Vines are survivors. They are extreme survivors. If you pull out a vine, it will grow from a piece of root left behind. That’s why vines make fruit, and so much fruit. That’s why we prune them. We hurt them so that the message given to them is okay, this is not a good place for you, try to make beautiful berries so that the birds will eat them and remove you to somewhere else. It’s sadism and vines. I could go pruning with my whip and black leather outfit. We could make a special tourism for that.

[My friend Lauren took this gorgeous photograph in the Kalk Bay vineyard. Vines in fishnets, ripening up the road from a bustling street of tinkers, tailors, soldiers, sailors, rich men, poor men, beggar men, thieves. And tourists. At night in Kalk Bay I’m sure you’ll find at least one pair of legs clad in fishnets and heels, ripe for the plucking.]