In the latter half of 1994 I’d been in the wine trade for a little more than a year, and had acquired a reputation amongst wine producers as a means of shifting bin ends or odd lots. I was offered about 20 000 bottles of Méthode Cap Classique (Champagne-method sparkling wine) that were still on the lees, at a price that covered only the cost of the bottle and a nominal bulk wine recovery. Shortly thereafter another winery offered me multiple vintages of their bubbles (in the same state), totalling some 80 000 bottles. I remember a cost of just over R4.00 per bottle, which looked very interesting to me when related to the R20 retail price of the established brands.
As with all bargain basement deals there was a catch. In this case much of the production process remained to be done. Firstly, the process known in Champagne as remuage, whereby the bottles are inverted (sur point), with the lees (dead yeast cells) collected in the neck of the bottle. Those with time and space on their hands follow the traditional method of using a purpitre (riddling rack); two wooden boards hinged into an a-frame. The boards have holes that the bottles’ necks are stuck into. The bottles start off horizontal and through a process of half-turns end up inverted. The relevance of this time-consuming process (it can take a month) is that the lees are very fine, and need to be coaxed into the mouth of the bottle (it does sometimes happen that the lees stick to the glass).
The less labour-intensive method is to use gyro-pallets. Their name is probably self-explanatory, but I had neither gyro-pallets nor riddling racks. Assuming I’d managed to reach this point, the next stage requires the bottles to be chilled to a couple of degrees Celsius, and for the necks to be frozen in preparation for disgorging – the crown cap that seals the bottle during second fermentation is removed and the frozen plug of lees and wine pops out. The sweetening dosage is added, and the bottle gets sealed with cork.
From this point it would have been a comparatively simple exercise to label the bottles in preparation for the market.
So, in addition to finding a cellar that would do the production for me, I needed to find a way of funding the project. I wasn’t making any progress on either front, and eventually – after a night of not one wink of sleep – I decided it would be better if I walked away. As ‘luck’ would have it, a potential investor came through the following day, and I signed on the dotted line. I was now committed to purchasing what amounted to 10% of South Africa’s annual production of bottle-fermented sparkling wine. This person disappeared as miraculously as he’d appeared, so I needed to start that process all over again.
The one thing I did have was a customer, in the form of a supermarket group that was going to take the majority of the stock. Eventually I managed to badger friends and family into supporting the exercise, but I had to declare myself stumped on the production side.
With November almost upon me I switched to Plan B, and set about assembling my own production line. I rented a refrigerated shipping container for chilling the bottles, and was lent the device for freezing the necks (it turned out not to work), borrowed a corker, as well as the machine that applies the wire cage (that keeps the cork in place), and the machine that shrinks the foil onto the neck of the bottle. I got a short lease on a warehouse adjoining my premises, and then assembled the motliest crew of workers that have ever handled sparkling wine bottles (I suspect that several of them were no strangers to the insides of prison cells).
Finally, at the beginning of November, we started our work. With Christmas upon us time was of the essence. Lacking riddling racks or gyro-pallets we merely shook the bottles and inverted them. Fortunately this worked well enough as far as the lees was concerned, but as we were working in a 30-degree warehouse the six-atmosphere pressure of the contents became more of a hazard. One batch of bottles had production flaws, in that the glass was not an even thickness all over, with the result that several of them exploded. I shudder to think what the consequences could have been.
We worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week, energised by the workers’ choice of radio station (played at maximum volume). Other than having the use of a few critical pieces of equipment, every single part of the process was done by hand. For visitors familiar with the romance and prestige of Champagne it was incongruous to witness our make-do operation.
Probably the most epic part of this Heath Robinson affair was the initial opening of the bottle. Under ideal conditions – with a frozen plug of wine and lees in the neck of the bottle – it’s a straightforward exercise. However, in the absence of a functioning piece of equipment, we had to do this ‘on the fly’. The person doing the disgorging would slowly turn the bottle from inverted to horizontal, all the while watching the little pocket of air making its way up the bottle (same principle as a spirit level). Using a special tool he would then need to whip off the crown cap just before the air pocket reached the top. Leave it too late and the lees would end up back in the bottle, rendering the wine unsaleable. Do it too early, and a substantial quantity of wine would be lost. The moment needed to be timed to perfection. Fortunately, the three of us doing this (the other two were Garron Elmes, who is now making wine in Canada, and Stuart Downes, the Export Director of San Pedro wines in Chile) had quite a lot of practice!
The final part of the process – labelling – could also have done with a machine, but we had to settle for doing this by hand as well. The people doing this work (the main one worked as a minder at a printing press by day) worked with amazing accuracy at a remarkable speed.
It should also be mentioned that for a few weeks we became the local supermarket’s biggest customer for sugar, which was then mixed with wine to become the sweetening dosage added to the bottles after disgorging. I thought it quite appropriate that in a few weeks we’d be delivering the sparkling wine to the same supermarket group.
The corker provided its own challenges. It was impossible to get the setting just right, so the corks either went in too much, or too little. The latter option was a problem, because then the wire cage wouldn’t fit. One of the features of corks in champagne bottles is that they slowly lose their elasticity over the course of many years in the bottle. Given the timing, Mystery Reserve Brut was going straight onto the market, so these overly-inserted corks were occasionally very difficult to get out.
We launched at R9.99, which then was an important price point for still wines (the popular Buitenverwachting Buiten Blanc retailed at that level). Customers streamed in to buy it, journalists wrote about it, and the story eventually had a happy ending
A few weeks later (Friday the 13th of January to be precise) we served Mystery Brut at our wedding, on the lawns at Buitenverwachting. It was a magical summer’s evening, and as the ‘I do’s’ were being exchanged we could hear the sound of the corks popping in the adjacent marquee in preparation for being served immediately afterwards.
The fruit of one’s own labour is sweet!