In the lofty halls of Quintay winery Jimbo Innes stands next to a row of huge silver tanks, stirring a vat of warm smelly yeast. “My clothes get incredibly yeasty,” he explains. “My trousers could stand up on their own--after one day's wear!”
Photo by Elaine Ramirez
A mucky but vital step in the great grape fermenting process, Innes must measure the temperature of the bubbling mixture carefully, adding just enough "superfood" and hot water to get the yeast activated. “F**k, I hope that was the right amount,” he laughs. This might have been a joke, but winemaking is clearly a difficult process--all the machinery, the many delicate stages, the responsibility and sheer mess make for an impressive task.
Innes is junior wine maker at Quintay, a brand new, fully functional winery in the Casablanca valley, working under head wine maker Vicente Johnson. During the March-April harvest both are slaves to the grape. They get to work at 8 a.m. and leave around 11 p.m.--sometimes even as late as 3 in the morning, and on weekends, too. The hours seem excessively long but are necessary since the grapes must be fully processed the same day they are picked.
Innes stoically stirs his yeast. Some find the smell comforting, like that of warm bread, but the sulphur and carbon dioxide coming off the fermenting wine in the tanks behind is far from it. Innes suggests we take a whiff to get a better idea--what a mistake to comply. “The other day Vicente got me to put my head right up to that pipe,” he says. "The smell of farts nearly knocked me out.”
Stuart Downes, export manager for Quintay and co-owner of Shannon Vineyards & Wines in South Africa, says he knows the pong all too well: “When I was starting out I had to sleep on a mattress on the floor of a room, literally just off a winery during fermentation. Imagine that.”
At least at Quintay the aroma is diluted by a steady breeze, since the hall is only half built and a whole wall is still missing. This wall will soon be erected, explains Downes, as will an entire second adjacent winery building, and a restaurant for visitors.
Prior to this construction Quintay wine was made in borrowed space at a neighboring winery. Then the shareholders of Quintay, who Downes dubs “The Casablanca Boys,” had the vision to expand and produce more wine to sell both domestically and abroad.
The Casablanca Boys are also all owners of the valley's vineyards that supply the Quintay winery. Downes understands what the valley means to them, hence what attracted him to Quintay. “For them it is an emotional and financial investment--they are tied to this valley by the umbilical cord," Downes says. "Men like these put their emotion into the vineyard, and therefore into the wine.”
The Casablanca Boys together own 20 percent of the land in the large valley. Their grapes are in demand throughout Chile because the valley heats up in the day, but is vitally cool by night. “Sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot and viognier can’t be taken seriously unless the grapes come from a cold climate valley,” Downes explains. “Hence Colchagua, a warmer central valley, buys our grapes.”
This also means Quintay has the pick of the bunch when it comes to buying grapes for their wines; Johnson has access to all the Casablanca vineyards and support from their owners. He and Innes go around in the mornings a few months before harvest to select the finest grapes.
Down at vineyard Mina Del Agua, shareholder and Casablanca Boy Alvaro Rencoret produces a large map of his land and invites us to walk around. Below the rolling hills, poplar trees and the higher mountains beyond, workers busy about hand picking, carrying buckets full of sauvignon blanc grapes to trucks and wooping encouragement across the vines to each other.
After more workers on top of the trucks sort the good grapes from bad, the grape-laden trucks are driven to Innes back at Quintay winery.
The green loads are then washed by machines before passing along conveyor belts, where workers sort them for a second time. They go on to be squished and cooled through another machine reminiscent of a massive metallic small intestine, and sticky grape juice manages to get everywhere.
Innes supervises all this, fiddling with the great tanks, stopping occasionally to sample one of the grapes off the conveyor belt or crouching to de-clog a drain on the winery floor, elbow deep in juice. Hundreds of wasps buzz around crates of discarded grape skins nearby, sitting acrid in the sun, waiting to be hauled off and dumped by another truck.
In this industry you can’t be afraid to get dirty, though the greater slog for Innes and Johnson will be over at the end of harvest. It's not all hands on even now; they must taste the young wine everyday to make sure the flavours are correct--not such an arduous task.
Sticking our heads inside the bottom hatch of a huge empty silver tank we tested for an echo. Not two weeks later, all tanks were full of sweet, cloudy wine in its early stages.
When ready, this year's batch of fresh, fruity, crisp Quintay sauvignon blanc will be bottled and released around the world in September 2009, and the extremely fine Quintay pinot noir in mid-2010.
Tasting it may be glamorous, but the real winemaking process demands hands-on hard work. It's far easier just to enjoy drinking it and leave the nitty gritty to the Casablanca Boys down at Quintay.