You don’t have to be a golfer to understand the nature of the addiction: whatever else they’re doing as they chase the little white ball around the course, golfers compete with themselves. Since the only perfect score for a round is 18, and since no one has even managed to get below three times that score, even the best result still comes with ample room for improvement. The better you do, the better you think you can still do. No matter whether you’re on a course for the first time, or you’re playing at home, every round is different. Every time you step up to the first tee, even the most familiar territory brings countless nuanced variations.
I’m not sure if there’s an accurate statistic showing how many winemakers are golfers, but I’d hazard a guess that the correlation between the two is disproportionately high. The activities involve the same madness, the same quest for perfection, the same theme of (wo)man-versus-nature. Unless, as a winemaker, you’ve slipped into the easy life of industrial winemaking, where almost any shortcoming (whether of God or of man) can be rectified by technology and a glib line or two (produced by a copywriter at an agency) on the back-label of the bottle, what gets you out of your bed in the morning is the next round of this endless pursuit of unattainable perfection.
Winemakers have to suffer one limitation more grievous than anything contemplated by golfers: in their entire lives, even assuming they work cellars in the northern and southern hemispheres, they never get to play more than a hundred times. Golfing obsessives can be out on a course 300 times a year, if they’re not interested in staying married for any length of time.
For the rest, the analogy runs even deeper: no golfer wants to play a course free of hazards. The charm is not in the easy amble down rolling fairways, with every hole the carbon copy of the one before, or the one to come. It is in the sand traps, and the lakes, in the sea breezes gusting in on a links course, in the thick gorse which makes a shot into the rough a costly deviation.
Some winemakers who approach their craft in the same spirit voluntarily give up the benefits of modern technology, choosing instead the primitive alternative of so-called “natural wine” – spontaneous fermentations, little or no sulphur, no chemical “fixes.” Charles Back, who runs one of the most successful family wine businesses in South Africa, has found himself drawn to ancient Georgian wine-making strategies which, together with his own self-imposed code of conduct, turns making wine into the vinous equivalent of playing a links course in the midst of a cyclone.
The fruit must come from ethically compliant farms, wines must be fermented in natural containers (old barrels or terracotta kvevri), no added yeast, no filtration and minimal sulphur (30mg/l maximum). These are pretty much the rules of all winemakers aiming to market their production as “natural” wine. Back’s Bloemkool range has two of these Kaalvoet wines, the white a slightly amber colour, unshowy aromatics but densely flavoured on the palate. The red is quite the opposite – bright coloured, intensely juicy flavours, forward and accessible. At under R200 a bottle they’re not cheap, but production is labour intensive and the risks are higher than wines made under a blanket of preservatives.
This is not the only way to make things a little tough for yourself: Waterford’s The Jem is made up from the best barrels from the estate’s best vineyards, with the blending exercise taking several months as literally hundreds of combinations are bench-tested over an extended period. De Toren’s Book XVII is made from a berry-by-berry selection to ensure that it has the polish and fruit intensity which has become its hallmark. Both these high end producers are approaching the idea of the “perfect score” in an equally arduous – if somewhat less rustic way.