It is a very exciting period currently for the South African wine industry as it is harvest season! The first grapes for Méthode Cap Classique were harvested just over a week ago and the harvest should continue into April as fruit from the various regions reach optimal phenolic ripeness, dependent on varietal and terroir.
This period is trying as vineyard staff work long hard hours to bring the grapes into the cellars. This is a time which shows how the viticulturists have overcome obstacles over the past year and the grapes are handed over to the winemakers to nurture further and craft beautiful wines. I reached out to some our friends from the farms to find out how the harvest has started and what the future may possibly hold for the 2018 vintage.
Graham Beck in Robertson was one of the first to start on the 11th of January, and in usual style they kicked this off with their harvest parade – a tradition to bless the first load of grapes that is harvested as it is handed over from the farm manager to the cellar where Pieter Ferreira (his 28th and Graham Beck’s 28th harvest) celebrates the arrival of the grapes with sabrage. The harvest started 6 days later than last year. The vineyard is healthy and disease pressure has been very low due to the drought. They have 3 new interns assisting this year, from Mexico, Champagne and even Anthony Beck’s daughter Emma, from the USA. She is now the 3rd generation to work on this farm and it’s wonderful that the passion of winemaking is staying within the family.
The Stellenbosch region should start harvesting in the next week or so for still wine production, but a few estates such as Waterford have already started for MCC production, whilst the grapes are still acidic and sugar levels are low.
The vineyards of Graceland in Stellenbosch are healthy considering the drought. They have measured under 600mm of rain for the year, and 10% of that was from a flash flood last January, most of which ran off. They have had lots of thunder and lightning though which has assisted with fertilizing the soil with Nitrogen, without having to manually fertilize. Lots of wind has further dried out the surface, but this has helped to keep the vines dry and healthy and they have only had to spray twice this season. Graceland anticipate their harvest to start towards the end of February when they will first harvest their Merlot. All their berries are smaller than usual, an indication of the drought – but this should assist with flavour intensity and colour. The yield should be similar to last year, which indicates good water holding capacity of their soils and correct root stock selection.
Rust-en-Vrede (Stellenbosch) has reported that veraison (where the berries change colour) has only just started occurring, and this seems to be due to a late winter and cool spring. The vineyard is healthy and they have been fortunate to not have any damage from the drought, wind or pests. They are praying for a drop more rain to assist with the ripening of the fruit and they are hoping that if they can push the harvest later towards March then they should have a great quality crop.
Vilafonté with their vineyards in Paarl has seen reduced growth due to a dry winter and the low water reserves, hence they are predicting a smaller crop but they are very optimistic about the perceived quality. They have thinned out fruit which is behind in ripening, even on individual berries within clusters, which shows their dedication to only harvesting the best fruit, and this has helped to narrow down the ripening spectrum. Always meticulous in detail and data, they have reported that the berries are remarkably smaller than last year ranging between 0.7 – 1.1 grams per berry; last year they were around 1.1 gram each. The berries should have great concentrated and rich flavours. They expect to start harvesting at the beginning of February.
For Hermanuspietersfontein (HPF) in Sondagskloof it has been a dry yet cool spring and summer so far. They have had enough rain to keep the vines going, yet they have also experienced strong winds which have “man-handled” some of the Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. They are expecting lower yields this year due to the drought – but the quality should be fantastic.
Not too far from HPF in the Hemel & Aarde Valley, Newton Johnson has reported that although the last few years harvest has started earlier than normal, this year the timing seems to be back to normal. Due to the drought the conditions are dry and the crop is the smallest on recent record. Spring and early summer has been cooler than the last few years but this has aided in what is potentially looking like an outstanding vintage.
Veraison has only just started on the Pinot Noir for Elgin Vintners in Elgin, 2 weeks later than last year – this is also an interesting comparison with warmer areas such as Stellenbosch and Robertson which has already started harvest on this varietal for MCC production and shows how much cooler and moderate the climate of Elgin is. Elgin Vintners should start harvest towards the end of February. The crop is looking good, barring extreme wind they experienced in spring which diminished the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir bunches to half the regular size. They also experienced some hail which caused a bit of damage, but due to good vineyard management and sufficient leaf coverage this was minimized. The area has had good rain in contrast to the rest of the Cape, and Elgin Vintners could irrigate post-harvest during 2017, therefore the vintage should be consistent to previous years. The drought and warnings have encouraged the area to farm smarter and use water more efficiently and the consumption thereof has been massively reduced.
So as we wait in great anticipation for most of the harvest to get underway, there are a few common threads that are coming through from our friends regarding the vintage. This years’ harvest seems to be in line with the standard harvest period. Due to the drought, declining vineyard area, frost and hail the 2018 vintage is expected to be the smallest since 2005 according to VinPro. Yield sizes are down and berries are smaller. Due to smaller berries, we can expect greater intensity in flavour and colour. Numerous areas have experienced strong winds which have further dried out vineyards, but due to the drought, a cooler spring and wind, thankfully disease and pests have been low and not much has been needed to control this in terms of pesticides and sprays. So overall, although wine production will be lower in 2018 yet the vintage is promising and everyone is optimistic about the quality.
We wish our friends in the Cape well during this period, hopefully rain will fall soon, and good luck with the harvest!
What do you think the lower yields are going to do to the price of wine in South Africa? Will the price increase, or will the fact that funds were saved in terms of pest and disease control assist in keeping the prices down?