Growing & Winemaking


Extreme Wines on the Vine

January 2012
by Stephen Yafa
As a renowned neuroscientist, Dr. Mark Solms has spent much of his professional life attempting to connect thoughts, feelings and memories with the anatomical structure of the brain. Ironically, as a wine producer in the scenic vineyards of Solms-Delta Wine Estate in Franschhoek, South Africa, a splendid valley about thirty miles northeast of Cape Town, Solms has dedicated his energies for much of the past decade to artfully separating grape clusters from their nutrient source.

When Solms resettled in his native South Africa after more than a decade in England, and decided to revive the family’s wine farm, he studied up on viticulture and discovered that the ancient Greeks spoke of twisting the rachis, or stem, to strangle the grape cluster while on the vine. In concept, the desiccated berries would lose their water content, gain intense concentration in flavor and aromatics, and deliver the essence of their varietal character without succumbing to cloying over-ripeness.

By comparison, Amarone producers in Northeastern Italy today achieve similar results by drying the picked, ripe Corvina and Rondinella grapes in a chamber or on straw mats for three months. Like many noble abstract ideas, Solms’ strangulation method made perfect sense in theory and created a recipe for disaster when first implemented.

“We first desiccated both Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, in 2004—as well as Shiraz. We did it by crushing the stems with a regular pliers, then a long-nosed pliers about a week or so before picking. But Pinotage ripens earlier than Shiraz, and by the time we started to choke off the Shiraz stems, the Pinotage had developed volatile acidity. It was a nightmare; we had to get rid of the whole vintage.”

There were some blatant conceptual miscalculations to overcome. As many destitute late-harvest and ice wine producers have learned, desiccation evaporates dollars (or South African rands) as rapidly as water molecules, for those dried clusters produce only about half as much juice while demanding at least twice as much labor to pick and process. “We were daunted to put it mildly,” Solms recalls.

Colonial mentality
Solms-Delta makes “normal” wines from non-dried grapes, too, but by experimenting with new techniques, Solms explains, he was upsetting the natural order of things. “The South African industry has long suffered from a colonial mentality, which is: ‘We want to do it like they do it in the real countries,’ which has led to aping the great winemaking styles of Europe. But there has not been any emphasis on what is uniquely South African wine. What I’ve set out to do here is to shake that kind of emulating mindset. I want to make wines that embody this place and no other.”

Sitting on the patio of the Solms-Delta restaurant, Fyndraai, diners look out on the towering, jagged violet-tinged Groot Drakenstein mountain range that rings the southern vista of glistening, gently arching vineyards. Inside, Fyndraai’s interior glass floor covers the lit archaeological substructure of the 1740 wine cellar over which the restaurant was built.

To make a radical break, Solms began reading up on Mediterranean winemaking techniques. His prodigious quest for knowledge led him to ancient Greek viticulture texts. “What was said time and again was that there are two ways to make wine—this way, for the masses, as we conventionally make it now, and that way, for the aristocracy, by strangling the stem, killing the stalk, leaving it only physiologically attached to the vine so that it dehydrates and carries on ripening.” The result, Solms continues, is “a semi-raisined grape” that retains its acidity and sugar, and whose natural descendent is Amarone. According to an ancient Venetian saying that he came across, “A month on the rack is worth a week on the vine.”

The collected wisdom suggested to Solms that ancient winemakers actually preferred to leave the grapes to desiccate in the vineyards. They chose not to, he conjectured, because those luscious raisining grapes were prey to every animal and insect that could fly or walk. He expected a similar onslaught of predatory invaders when he first attempted to strangle his vines, but to his surprise the clusters survived unmolested—and they have remained undamaged through eight vintages from 2004 through 2011. “We’ve learned a great deal. Some varieties like Shiraz respond much more favorably than others. The thickness of the skin is crucial. Also, you don’t want a grape that ripens too late in the season. On the white side, we’ve had the greatest success with Grenache Blanc.”

Worker involvement improves terroir
Quite apart from enthusing about his innovative approach to harvesting grapes, Mark Solms is so passionately articulate about the need for social and worker-relationship changes in post-apartheid South Africa that his comments time and again veer sharply from rachis strangulation to these much broader concerns.

The shift in subject is not as jarring as it may first appear: apartheid and South African viticulture entangled one another for many decades, since the wine industry was built first on slavery and then on cheap black labor. During the period of trade sanctions, the government controlled production with no concern about competing in world markets and no incentive for making improvements.

Vast hectares of marginally drinkable Chenin Blanc blanketed the Cape Winelands. Freedom from the strictures of apartheid in the early 1990s was paralleled by freedom for winery owners to break loose from governmental control—finally rescinded—and to achieve wine quality and varietal goals never before attempted in the country.

Solms grew up in South Africa, but he abandoned that country for England as a young man when he and many other Caucasians found apartheid too oppressive to tolerate. He expected to live out his life thousands of miles from the wine farm that had been in his family for centuries, but when Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison after 28 years, apartheid abolished and non-racial elections held in 1994 for the first time in history, Solms decided he could again proudly embrac e the country of his origins.

Solms rescued the family winery from bankruptcy and resurrected and refurbished its equipment and facilities. With his newfound freedom of choice he planted acres of Rhone varieties and created a program to offer the black vineyard and winery workers, descendents of slaves who toiled on these Cape Winelands area farms in the 19th century, a share of ownership in Solms-Delta Wine Estate.

With help from his neighbor, American Richard Astor, he expanded the winery’s land holdings to purchase the farm next door and deeded it to his farm workers, putting his own farm up as collateral. He erected a free on-site pre-school for their children, and he built a museum on the property that traces the lineage of the nomadic Bushman tribes that once inhabited the valley and farm, inviting musicians to create and perform songs that celebrated and revived local traditional music.

Terroir, to Solms, goes far beyond soil and climatic conditions. It also includes the attitudes of the men and women who help to produce Solms’ wines. “On my farm, we realize unless something is done that brings all of us into a sense of ownership, our wines will be made with resentment and bitterness and despair. And that terroir will show itself in the bottle. We now all have a vested interest in making this thing work.”

Desiccation leaves acidity
By trapping the acidity of an early harvest at about 20° Brix, Solms-Delta vineyard workers desiccate the clusters without creating flabby wines that deliver unpleasantly jammy flavors; still, a sufficient sugar level ensures an adequate degree of phenolic ripeness. A single hard squeeze is applied to each rachis to damage the channels that communicate between berry and vine. On the following day a second team returns to the vineyard and re-crushes the same stems—but at a 90° angle to the previous day’s action, taking care not to sever the bunches. All irrigation is stopped. Dry, windy conditions accelerate the dehydration.

The natural acids are captured in the berries, along with the grape sugars; but during a period averaging four weeks, up to 40% of the water content evaporates. When the berries show the desired flavor profile, they are selectively picked. Special care is taken that no berries fall off in the process; in their fragile state, they can easily separate from the stalks. The yield is remarkably low—two tons per hectare. That pencils out to 0.8 tons per acre.

What Solms describes in detail is an exhausting process. I remark, naively, that crushing more than 20,000 stems twice each by hand with long-nose pliers must be enormously labor intensive. “It is!” Solms nods. “And massive unemployment is one of our major local conditions. I think it is a sin not to employ as many people as you can.”

Winemaker Hilko Hegewisch leads me through rows of desiccated Shiraz vines shortly before harvest in mid-March. As he is about to show me a cluster he pauses to close his eyes and smile into a steady breeze that fluffs our hair. “That wind is called ‘The Cape Doctor,’” he explains. “It sweeps away pollution, and it helps protect our desiccating grapes from mold and mildew.

“We thought, ‘How do we add value to the Shiraz?’ In our Mediterranean climate, if you don’t do anything to the Shiraz you can lose all its acid. You’re left with high sugar levels, period—not so if you choke off the cluster early. But there was much more to learn through experimenting. We started by cutting the canes, but with that method you cut off part of the producing vine and rob the vine of reserves it needs for the winter and next year. Now we crush just the stem, about four weeks before picking. The Shiraz goes into two wines, our Africana and the Port-style Gemoedrsus. For that wine we pick in two tranches (harvests). The first skins are distilled into grappa; then we ferment from the second, later picking in open oak barrels and add grappa to the wine on the skins to fortify before pressing again. The goal is to maintain the primacy of the fruit.”

Taste profile like no other
A Rhone blend, Hiervandaan contains 12% desiccated fruit, but the showpiece at Solms-Delta for this technique is the winery’s Africana, which boasts “smoky oak flavors,” according to the data sheet. After touring the vineyards, Hegewisch guides me to the tasting room and opens a vertical flight of Africana from 2005 through 2009. The dark, inky wine is 100% desiccated Franschhoek Shiraz. It arrives with its own press kit. Neil Beckett, a British wine writer, lists it in the book he edited among “The 1,001 Wines You Must Try Before You Die,” praising its fire-roasted chocolate and huckleberry flavors.

The wine I taste is nothing like any other wine I’ve ever encountered in more than 40 years of sipping. I thought I’d tasted every imaginable variety and blend. Nope. The desiccated ’05 packs intense power and coats the mouth with a kind of caramelized sherry and toffee blend. It should be too cloying to swallow, but it strangely also delivers enough acid to counter these opaque, unctuous notes. Later vintages are less integrated, but they become immediately and distinctly recognizable in flavor and aroma. The wine is heavy without becoming syrupy, thick yet reasonably balanced with tannic structure to support the dark, mocha-layered fruit. Not a picnic wine, a cigar wine.

Above all, the Africana is a wine that defines Mark Solms’ personality: It’s a wine with gravitas, there’s nothing glib about it. And it’s a wine that only a man with the courage of his convictions would attempt to make.

Stephen Yafa lives in Mill Valley and makes his wine in Sebastopol, Calif. He is the editor of the digital magazine Uncorked by Apple Nomad and is the author of “Big Cotton.” Learn more at

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