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A pre-harvest Q&A with Alex Starey of Stellenbosch star, Keermont

Newly appointed member of the prestigious Cape Winemakers Guild, he's the winemaker that Neal Martin famously once said that he was 'considering asking the South African authorities to do a selection massale of Alex', in order to create new winemakers like him that could be distributed across the region. Now, hear from him about the emotions and excitements ahead of vintage 2022.

Swig: "Hey Alex, what vintage will this be for you at Keermont and how are you feeling about it?"

Alex: "Quite amazingly, it's my 18th vintage. I've been making wine here since 2005. It's a really wonderful time of the year - my favourite, even with all the hard work and stress that it brings being a farmer-winemaker, or vigneron, because you can finally see all your work come to fruition right in front of you. For sure, you have to roll with the challenges that come in every day. It's a time for heightened senses too - with all the colours, smells and sounds. You're out early in the morning before the sun comes up when the grapes are fresh and with dew on them, and it's a beautiful time in the morning, and then you step inside the winery, into almost this different world, with the sounds of ferments bubbling away, lovely fermentation smells, and the incredible colours you get off the reds too."

Swig: "What do you consider as your ideal harvest season?"

Alex: "The ideal harvest season for me at Keermont is one that once the grapes start ripening, we don't have too much heat, and there's sufficient moisture in the ground too, for the grapes to ripen slowly, with good hang time. That enables us to pick blocks or little sections of them over a week or a couple of weeks, and we can do smaller fermentations and experiment a little more, and nail the ripeness of each block too. We might pick the upper section of a vineyard where there's more exposure a full week before the lower section. When things ripen too fast, the most important thing is to get all the fruit in, which scuppers all plans for picking steadily and micro-vinifying. 2021 was a really good vintage for this, and 2012 stands out too as a particularly good one for slow ripening - we picked over a longer period and were able to be really selective too."

Swig: "Anything out of the ordinary for V22, and are there any vintages so far that you can compare it too?"

Alex: "It's looking very good at the mo. We had a very wet winter and spring, and a cool, wet early summer and now all of a sudden, since Christmas, the heat has been switched on - very hot and dry! Similar to 2014, which ended up being very nice quality. It's looking good overall. Some small issues with mildew, but nothing that we can't handle. The only thing that's different is our volumes are increasing, which is a challenge in itself. This vintage will also be the first year that I make a wine for the Cape Winemakers Guild, having become a member at the end of 2021. I will be experimenting with a red blend, and a block of Chardonnay I think."

Swig: "What's the worst thing that can go wrong?"

Alex: "Any number of things can go wrong, that's for sure! For me, as we make wines pretty naturally at Keermont, one of my biggest challenges is losing freshness and natural acidity in our grapes and that happens when grapes get overripe. My biggest fear is falling behind the curve and let the grapes go that way. Once we start picking, things tend to fall into place, and one block ripens after another, so you don't want to fall behind schedule. To be prepared is key, and once things get going, to stay ahead and not miss the perfect opp to pick at prime ripeness. That's something I can control, but there's a whole host of matters that you can't control during harvest. In the past, we've had really bad winds, which caused significant damage to the berries on bunches just pre-picking, and drought has been a recent problem for much of the Cape too. I guess a great challenge too is to roll with the punches and adapting when things do go wrong, say if a bit of machinery breaks, or grapes arrive very late and you end up processing late into the night, or coming up with an alternate plan. Rolling with the punches is key, for sure!"

Swig: "And what's your funniest memory or moment during any harvest?"

Alex: "Harvest is a lot of work, out in the vineyards in the hot sun, picking (pretty back-breaking work, particularly on the bush vines). You get burnt, you cut your fingers, it's very physical and very full-on, and so it tends to become a bit of an exhausted blur, but it's really important to me that the team are having fun. We have music pumping in the cellar the whole time- lots of reggae, as it's a great rhythm to work to - Burning Spear, Bob Marley to name a few, then there's always a lot of Dave Matthews, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd too. Gotta keep morale high and everyone motivated! A few years back, we had a French guy from Tahiti interning for us and he just loved how we did things in such a natural and old school way- foot-stomping and basket pressing everything, as we still do now. One day, he asked if he could take almost all his clothes off and throw himself into one of the ferments (around 30 degrees). I came back to find him luxuriating in one of the small tanks, glass of wine in hand, like a normal person would chill out in a jacuzzi!"

Swig: And in the long term, what do you see as the greatest concerns for the future?

Alex: "Climate change is definitely real, but it's hard to know where to go with that. We've had hectic droughts previously, so we've planted vineyards making provision for less water for the future, and then last year, we had our wettest year in 100 years. I think there are big pressures in regards to more natural styles of farming, which certainly make sense to us. It's always been a priority for us to protect the amazing natural beauty of this place, but we'll be stepping it up in the future even more. Overall, the big challenges in the Cape are vine disease, like leaf roll and eutypa, a wood rot disease. The vineyard is just starting to reach maturity, and so to see disease appearing is very frustrating and concerning too, so we'll be working hard on these.

Best of luck to you Alex!

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