What is the traditional method of making wine?

Written by Clifford Roberts; Photography Johan Viljoen

Fermented drinks have been around for ages, so you may wonder what the traditional method of making wine is. What does this have to do with the festive season and the Swartland? As it turns out, more than you’d expect.

Natural fermentation and effervescence in wines – characteristics associated with the most ancient winemaking traditions – are territories Swartland winemakers have made their own.

The earliest evidence of winemaking was found in Georgia and dates to around 8,000 years ago. Of course, the wines barely resembled those today. They were generally oxidised and flavoured with ingredients like honey. But they fermented by naturally occurring yeasts. Later, when wines were bottled, winemakers discovered another phenomenon – the spontaneous occurrence of bubbles.

Old ways vs new ways of winemaking

These days, science has explained much of the mystique that was the traditional method of making wine. The benefit is that winemakers are now largely able to keep that which makes wine enjoyable and avoid what makes it bad.

These drinks also taken on different classifications depending on the techniques used to make them. Most of the styles are made in the Swartland. We’ve mentioned some before, here and here.

One of the categories for which the Swartland ranks among South Africa’s most prominent is natural sparkling or Pét-Nat wines. These are bottled while still undergoing primary fermentation, which occurs with the help of yeasts already present in the air, winery and on the grapes.

In the case of Cap Classique, the first step is to produce a base wine. Once bottled, the wine ferments and matures for at least twelve months. It is then riddled to shift sediment into the neck of the bottle so that it can be disgorged. The wine is then left to mature.

A third category one will encounter is often simply labelled “sparkling wine”, a style of wine whose bubbles come from carbonation. It’s a cost-effective option that makes bubbles very accessible and a good stepping stone into the category.

The ancient method of making wine

Among the Swartland’s most common premium bubblies are defined as “Methode Ancestrale”.

Like Fynbos Estate’s Dragonridge Supernova and Orion’s Belt, Leeuwenkuil also has a Methode Ancestrale whose 2023 vintage Chenin Blanc and Cinsault Rosé was recently released.

“This naturally classic approach to creating sparkling wine is famed to have been developed by French monks in the 1500s to produce celebratory wine for their monasteries,” says Leeuwenkuil marketing manager Kara van Zyl. “Cherishing tradition, the Dreyer family of Leeuwenkuil Family Vineyards keep the romance alive by crafting their own Méthode Ancestrale just as the monks did.

“Méthode Ancestral is the most natural way of making sparkling wine as no sugar or yeast is added for fermentation in the bottle. The wine is simply bottled with the natural grape sugar (at the optimal level) and wild fermented in the bottle; then left on the lees under crown cap before being riddled and disgorged.”

It is similar to a Pét-Nat in the very natural way it is made but different in that Méthode Ancestrale produces a full three bar pressure in the bottle,  the same as a Cap Classique, whereas Pét-Nat produces fewer bubbles at just below two bar.

Leeuwenkuil’s 2023 vintage was left on the lees for seven months, a little less than previous vintages “as we wanted to preserve the purity and vibrancy of Swartland fruit while building complexity, depth and a very fine mousse”. 

This is its ninth vintage of the limited release traditional sparkling wine.

Another Swartlander producing wine in this style is Donovan Rall, who released the latest vintage of his Cinsault Methode Ancestrale earlier this year. The wine is made from old Swartland bush vines. “I wanted a wine with complexity, so it spent a year on the lees,” he says.

Previous vintages were made exclusively for export but are now available from Donovan, his local distributors, and selected stores. Only some 1,000 bottles have been released.

The most famous of the traditional methods

Swartland has its share of stalwarts producing South Africa’s famous Cap Classique style. Among them is Kloovenberg. It produces a Grenache Brut NV, which is made from Grenache noir and spends four months on the lees; a Cap Classique Blanc de Blancs, made from Chardonnay in a single vineyard and that spent 16 months on the lees.

The region also has newcomers to the category, among the most recent being Schenkfontein. The winery’s very first Cap Classique is being finalised and will be available in the coming months. It is made from Chenin Blanc and spent 18 months on the lees. Excitement, says the winemaker, is at an all-time high!

From these examples, it’s clear that the traditional way of making wine is alive and well in the Swartland. The region has both a long history of winemaking close to nature, but also continuously producing something new. If you’re looking for a place to start exploring the traditional way of making wine, make sure you start with the Swartland.

• The Swartland Wine and Olive Route is a member organisation comprising the biggest representation of wine and olive producers of the Swartland region.

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