Dutch importer Udo Göebel asked me to write a bit about the current harvest, to give him a better idea of what was going on behind words like “drought”, “heat”, “wind” and “fire”. Well, you don’t have to be as far off as wintry Zaandam to want more of a feel for the progress of harvest (even if they’re not even thinking about it with much urgency yet in such cool places as Elgin and Ceres), so I was pleased to ask around for some comments. The first instalment I posted yesterday on winemag: the depressing tale of drought- and heat-struck Swartland (and, by implication, dryland vineyards in other hot parts of the country).
Happily, far from all of the Cape is suffering like the West Coast – though yields are expected to be down in most parts, while they’re up in the Northern Cape and the Klein Karoo. It’s already clear that this will be a vintage in which making country-wide generalisations is going to be an even sillier exercise than usual (and of course it would be even sillier to make generalisations, or confident predictions, when, for example, cabernet in Stellenbosch is still so far off picking – and viticulturists are rather nervous of February heatwaves).
On which note, a remark of Francois Haasbroek (maker of the Blackwater range and a consultant here and there, and generally a man with an astute ear to the ground) is relevant. He’s worried about the vintage marking a return of “old school 1990’s red wines; green astringent phenolics without tannin development and depth, but with a whack of alcohol”. “If the heat doesn’t break soon and sugar increases slow down,” he says, “we are in for higher alcohol levels and / or underripe (phenolic) wines. Should we consider lowering our extraction protocols, cooler fermentations, less oak, earlier drinkability; generally just embracing the vintage for what it is, rather than what we wanted it to be?”
“Seeing red-grape blocks already turning yellow mid-January says it all”, says Francois – though he bravely avoids thinking it all “doom and gloom”, while being equally confident that it will be “the single most tricky vintage to make wines that really stand out since 2002”. Actually it does look like the vines are generally much less stricken by disease and rot than they were in 2002, which is something: vineyard health is a point made Francois Viljoen, manager of the VinPro Consultation Service. Also looking on the bright side, while wary of further heat, the latter Francois adds that “the heat and drought bring about lighter bunches and smaller berries […which] may also lead to good quality due to concentrated flavour and colour, should the berries ripen at an optimal level.” Ah yes, if they indeed “ripen at an optimal level” – the point that Francois Haasbroek worries about.
Looking at the background to the present state of affairs, Francois Haasbroek mentions the generally dry and insufficiently cold winter (but again this was not universal, and winter was good in Robertson, for example). “The dry winter was amplified by an absurdly hot November and December, reaching heat wave conditions. Vineyard practices needed to adjust. If you have irrigation, lots of money for electricity …. then open the taps.” The story of what has been happening in the dryland Swartland shows just how significant irrigation is in conditions like this. However fine and terroir-reflective dryland farming is, and it is, there must have been few West Coast farmers who wouldn’t have loved to trickle a little water onto their suffering wines this year, as the sun continued to glare down from an implacably blue sky.
But even elsewhere, says Francois, “obviously crop load is down substantially from flower time till now. That could be the result of dropping fruit on purpose to help save the vine, or enable the limited vegetation to ripen the remaining grapes. Sunburn is another issue leading to low crop-load, due to dehydration or desiccation of grapes due to sun damage.”
Rather ironically, I’m relating these tales of heat and drought in the middle of a few days of respite, with lower temperatures and a little widespread rain. Even the Swartland had around 25 millimetres of rain on Monday, which is, Eben Sadie said to me, “an absolute game-changer!” Let’s hope it is; perhaps he can pick the rest of his white grapes in these pleasanter conditions, but the heat looks set to return for the red-wine harvest in the Swartland. The truth of picking for Stellenbosch will be finally determined over the next month or so. Let’s wish those farmers well, and wish the winemakers wisdom in their vinification decisions. While not forgetting the sadness of the vineyards damaged in the fire – and the still open question of the degree of smoke taint at the wines of some of the Cape’s grandest properties resulting from the fires: we can hope that perhaps the wind that fanned the flames will also have quickly enough blown away the smoke.
This piece is already too long. I’ll have some more specific harvest news and prospects from a few regions tomorrow.