For many years I’ve known that if I wanted to take my wines to the next level, I needed to build layers into them. A great way to do this is to ferment juice from the same block of grapes in different fermentation vessels – clay (pots), cement (tanks) and wood (barrels) respectively. Each one enhances a specific characteristic and, when blended, creates a multi-dimensional portrayal of that particular vineyard site. I had the cement tanks and wood barrels in my cellar, but pots were lacking. But pots are expensive. Way too expensive for me. Then in October 2018, I got a call about some winery equipment that was possibly up for sale. A local farm had just been sold to a Joburg businessman and rumour had it that he wasn’t planning to continue with winemaking. And amongst all the stuff there were…. POTS! – eleven 330L pots and two very large 1600L pots to be precise. I knew if I didn’t act fast, it would be gone in a second – every winemaker I know wants pots.
The true origin of making wine in huge clay pots is in a country just north of Turkey and Armenia, called Georgia – arguably the oldest wine producing country in the world. They call the pots “qvevri” and bury them in the ground. The style of wines they produce are also unique. They throw everything in the pots: whole bunches of weird white varietals – stems, pips, skins and all. The product is tannic, natural and interesting – very specific wines – the modern Orange Wine for lack of a better description.
But my hopes were soon shattered when I called him up. He wanted to keep the winery intact as an additional asset to the farm. After I explained to him the intricate winemaking required when working with these pots and that it would probably just be better for him to use it in his garden for decoration, he told me to phone him in a week. Exactly a week later with fresh hope, I phoned and asked if I could meet with him – he said he would give me only 5 minutes. I arrived at the farm and distinctly remember that from entering his gate until leaving again, exactly 5 minutes had transpired. I had to put an offer on the table. When I logged into my bank, my balance was very clear about what I could offer but he just laughed and said I should triple it. I asked for terms and we had a deal. What followed was a week of snail-like driving between my winery and his, transporting these very fragile pieces of clay.
How was I meant to go about making wine in these pots? And do I risk putting my very valuable juice in the pots and hope for the best, when I already know the outcome in barrels? So I decided to start by searching for the potter. My only clue was a little stamp-like inclusion on the side of the pot stating “La France” and I started my hunt – on google of course. These particular pots have a very clever patent – you use a forklift to turn them upside down for effective cleaning – something I had never seen before. I searched for French pottery guys. NOTHING! Then one day my wife Aneen arrived at the winery and took a piece of chalk, rubbed it onto the stamp-like logo in the clay and gently dusted it off. The chalk residue to our amazement clearly revealed, not La France, but L’Estrange! Back to Google – again NOTHING. Finally I got hold of the contact details of the previous owner of the farm – the guy who commissioned the pots. Further disappointment and confusion: he didn’t want to disclose any information. However, during one of our casual conversations, one thing struck me. He mentioned something about the potter being in South Africa!
In the meantime, I started preparing the pots for harvest. In Georgia, the standard practice would be to paint these pots with beeswax as they exit the Kiln in the baking process. The melted beeswax gets sucked into the pores of the terracotta, blocking and sealing every possible too-porous cavity. So I thought it a good idea to do the same. But beeswax has a smell to it and in my mind a smell produces a taste. So I read up on wine made in beeswax and found basically nothing. The only info I got was that a transfer of taste was possible, depending on where the bees got hold of the nectar they use to produce honey from. For instance: if the bees lived in an Eucalyptus Bush, your wine could taste like eucalyptus. I then phoned the wax guy, but he couldn’t help me with the origin – he gets his wax from various suppliers, puts everything together and melts and sells off blocks of the mix. So I took the risk and bought some. I took the large pots (and by large I mean HUGE, the biggest I’ve ever seen – 1600 litre man-height clay vessels) and put it in the boiling February sun for about 3 days in a row. In the process the pots dried out and started to gain a captured heat. I then climbed inside with a pot of melted beeswax and a heat gun and painted the inside of the pot. I spent 7 (excruciatingly hot!) hours inside each pot, slowly heating the clay and melting the beeswax into the micropores of the clay and sealed them completely.
As I finished sealing the big pots, we picked a first for us – Palomino, a white grape varietal also called Fransdruif from a little 1965 bush-vine vineyard growing in Piekenierskloof, 550 meters above sea level. I took the plunge and chucked everything (everything meaning whole bunches, stems, skins, pips, juice) into the large clay vessel, washed my feet and then broke the berries with my feet by means of “foot stomping”.
During harvest I normally drive in the region of 13000 km in 3 months. So I had time to phone around and continue my search for a South African potmaker who has the capacity (size of kiln) and ability to produce pots the size I have. I stopped searching for L’Estrange and started searching for the kiln. I phoned random potters in South Africa, which brought me to the famous potter, Digby Hoets. As he was not available, I spoke to his wife. Again the same reply: Digby’s oven is too small. But just before she hung up, she casually mentioned: “If there is someone who has the capability to do something like that, it’s a guy called Andrew L’Estrange, but it wouldn’t be him because he stopped making pots years ago”. Now you can just imagine my excitement! “ But I’ve been all over Google trying to find someone called L’Estrange..” I replied. “ No”, she interrupted me, “Google wouldn’t know of Andrew – he despises technology and lives off the grid somewhere up north. You will never find him, but I can get a number for you. Just give me a couple of days”.
She phoned back and this story gets a whole lot more interesting. However, I am busy with bottling so this is the end of Chapter 1 of Searching for L’Estrange. The rest will have to wait until the new year. BUT the end product is in the bottle so….
Today I release the whole-bunch, clay pot, bees-waxy Palomino. The wine is true to it’s name – (L’E) STRANGE! It’s made from humble Palomino, which originated in the Sherry producing areas of Spain. The cuttings were brought to the African continent by ship and planted in 1965 on the mountain in Piekenierskloof, 550 meters above sea level. The 54-year old bush-vine vineyard, grown in African soil was made in African pots made from Limpopo clay, enhanced by the wax of African bees producing honey from African flora – meticulously guided, bottled and labelled by the colourful hands of the African people: Searching for L’Estrange…