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How wine defies gravity

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Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Gravity-fed wine cellars are becoming more common in this market and today, gravity flow is a new topic of discussion amidst the ranks of winemakers worldwide.

Contrary to what you might think, gravity-fed cellars are in fact nothing new. A traditional technique employed to create wine by hand, the process has been in existence since the 19th century and is particularly noted in the history of the wine industry in Australia, where it has been in use since approximately 1800. When it comes to contemporary viniculture, we’ve indeed come full circle, with modern wineries reverting to this time-tested process is in order to produce optimal results for the future.

The first South African winery to make use of a gravity-fed cellar is De Toren Private Cellar in Stellenbosch. Located on the sea-facing Polkadraai Hills, De Toren was established in 1994 and all of the estate’s meticulously hand-crafted wines have always been made using the gravity-fed method. The winery’s signature tower (“De Toren” means “the tower”) atop the cellar is both emblematic and highly functional – it houses the various levels required for the gravity-fed mechanisms.

How it works is relatively simple. Global wine authority Wine Spectator explains the process as follows:

“Gravity-fed, or Gravity Flow, refers to a winery operations system that uses gravity to move wine through various phases of production. The terms aren’t regulated, but typically a gravity-fed winery is built on at least two different levels or floors, perhaps on a hillside.

If the entire winery is on a single floor, every time wine is transferred between tanks, barrels, crushers or presses, it has to be moved with the use of pumps or some other such mechanism. A gravity-fed process lets gravity do all the work, which is more energy-efficient as well. Moving wine “downhill”, so to speak, is also typically a gentler process, and the more force required to move wine from one place to another, the greater the chance that the wine becomes overly tannic, over-extracted or oxidated.

There are different designs for a gravity-fed winery, but the easiest way to imagine it is to picture the grapes coming in from harvest on the top floor and then travelling downward, pulled by gravity, as the wine goes from crush to fermentation to aging and bottling.”

The global wine industry – which, according to Statista, was valued at $354.7 billion US Dollars in 2018 and is projected to grow 21% by 2023 to be valued at over $429 billion US Dollars – is not shy of making use of gravity’s power to enhance its output.

De Toren’s ambitious mission, while not a space mission to Mars per se, is to make some of the best wines on earth. Its gravity-fed cellar is one of the keys to the estate continually achieving stellar results in global wine competitions. It is also in line with the estate’s certified organic and artisanal approach. Gentler, energy-efficient processes make for fine, collectible wines that tread lightly on the earth.

Says De Toren’s cellar master Charles Williams: “Here at De Toren, we focus on trying to create the world’s most luxurious wines. Everything is done extremely carefully by hand, from individually manicuring the vines, to picking the grapes, to sorting, to fermenting, to maturing the wine… The reason we use a gravity-fed cellar is because this softer way of making wine preserves its flavours and aromas. We aim for minimal intervention with maximum impact leveraging the forces given to us by the universe.”

And who knows, one day, perhaps De Toren’s globally ranked, gravity-fed wines will be the first to be sipped on Mars.

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