Some further notes on how vintage 2016 is looking around the country, away from dryland West Coast farming. Let me just point out first, though, that it’s not just the old bushvines of the Swartland that are suffering – old bushvines everwhere are having a very rough time. Chris Alheit tells me that the vineyards for his famous Radio Lazarus wine, high on the Bottelary Hills in Stellenbosch, are in heartbreaking shape.
More cheerfully, harvest prospects seem pretty positive in the Breede River Valley. The team from the dynamic DuToitskloof Winery in Breedekloof are guardedly optimistic though, after a hot and dry spring and summer, “the water situation is becoming dire as we head to end-January”, and the water resources for irrigation are seriously depleted. “However, Du Toitskloof commenced harvest on 21 January – about the same as last year. The heat and dry weather brought flowering and berry-set forward, but everything was even – as is ripening.” Sauvignon blanc, their “signature variety” was picked already: “Superb quality, with phenolic ripeness showing at 19 degrees balling.” Meanwhile, “red varieties appear healthy, although bunches are smaller due to the hot weather and we will see a lower yielding harvest but good quality”. The grapes are all ripening fast, they say, “and we could see many varieties being harvested at the same time, placing pressure on the cellar”. I reckon they’ll cope with the plenitude, and gratefully!
Further down the Breede River is Lourens van der Westhuizen in the Robertson area, who is doing interesting and ambitious things for his own Arendsig label, as well as supplying good grapes to others (including Graham Beck for their bubbly: Grahame Back with grapes for MCC; the highest sugar delivered so far this year, Lourens says, is 19.5 Balling on pinot noir).
Very interesting. Lourens says: “Last season took me by surprise and it was a huge learning experience. So my vines were pruned to produce about 25%, less. I realized this would be the only way to get grapes on my farm optimal ripe at a lower Balling to produce still something close as possible to natural.” But, he adds, “if it was not for the magic natural source of water, it’s a hard task to keep your natural acids and get to optimal ripeness in the extreme heat conditions that South Africa has undergone”.
Fortunately, January has given him “a lot to smile about”, after earlier apprehension, saved by cooling wind. “Every morning over cast conditions, with a pleasant south Easter. There are short periods where the sun overpowers the clouds, but sun is not always a bad thing. Followed by our evenings that cool down.” Earlier this week, Lourens’s sauvignon was sitting at 19.5 Balling (“ready for fist selection”), Chardonnay at 20 Balling. “The grapes are busy getting optimally ripe and we are fortunate that its not baking hot.” Fortunate indeed.
Along the South Coast, things are also looking much happier than along the West Coast. Peter-Allan Finlayson, who makes wines from (mostly) Hemel-en-Aarde vineyards for his Crystallum label, and is also winemaker at Gabriëlskloof in the Bot River ward of Walker Bay, is guardedly optimistic – though girding his winemaking loins. “Vintage wise, we seem to be less affected than the Swartland, but I still think it’s going to be challenging. One of the reasons why 15 was so good was the reserves built up after a wet 14, which we don’t have this year. The vines look good, but the acids seem lower and ripeness is uneven in some vineyards due to the greater stress. I will definitely look to pick a little earlier this year to preserve as much freshness as possible. It looks like a vintage where a little extra attention given to picking times will go a long way….”
It’s interesting how many winegrowers are, in this generally complicated year, pointing to the crucial decisions that have to be made. In 2015, everything seemed so easy!
But Andries Burger, at Paul Cluver in Elgin, seems serene and not abnormally challenged. They picked their first grapes earlier this week (pinot noir for Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel). At this stage, he says “we are 5 days later than last year, which is still earlier than normal. I reckon we would have been closer to a normal season if we did not experience the warmer temperatures of December.” He is lucking being able to turn to some judicious irrigation to mitigate that heat – it has “a significant effect in reducing heat stress in the plant”
In fact, Paul Cluver estate has “a bigger crop than last year due to better fruit set and unlike other grape growing regions have not been negatively impacted by the dry hot conditions”. Little disease pressure in the dryer weather helps them to expect “an above average quality vintage”. While dryland farmers have been shocked by the weightlessness of their grapes, Andries says they “seem to have slightly heavier bunches” – though, significantly, “we have smaller berries, our berry volume and berry weight is lower than last year. “Overall we expect a slightly bigger harvest at Paul Cluver compared to 2015, mainly due to less wind during flowering.”
So – from anguish in the Swartland, to confident serenity in Elgin. And no doubt a lot of complications in between. The only single truth about the Cape’s vintage 2016 seems to be that generalisations are out.