2002: A vintage of fine balance

South Africa is experiencing one of the most interesting, yet also challenging vintages of the last five years. "Growers are nervous and this is a good sign - the best wines are made on the edge", says viticultural consultant Phil Freese.

The pre-harvesting season sparked comments comparing the ripening period to Burgundy, i.e. excessive rainfall, cool weather and overcast conditions. However, after a cool January, February has started with warm days and lots of the fresh South Easter wind blowing.

Compared to the last three years in South Africa, when wine growers twitched nervously at the slightest sign of a temperature rise, fearing the breakdown of precious fruit acid compounds, the current vintage has ample water supplies to support the vines in threatening heat stress conditions. The prolonged hanging period is conducive to the development of flavour intensity, as well as physiological ripeness. Many believe these conditions to be similar to the '97 vintage, which produced fabulous Sauvignon Blancs.

In the period January - December 2001 the Stellenbosch region had a total annual increase in rainfall of 393 mm, Elgin 239mm and Paarl a shuddering 543mm additional figure. In the Swartland district, the Malmesbury and Piketberg regions had double the rainfall, compared to 2000. But in the words of consulting Kiwi winemaker Rod Easthope, "This ain't rain, Mate, - in New Zealand this is considered to be relatively dry conditions!" And this after we've had 25% more rain in January than usual when dams are overflowing for the first time in four years and a village called Kuruman, in semi-arid Kalahari, measured the same millimetres in five days as they normally receive as rainfall in five years. The good news for harvest is that lower than normal rainfall is forecast for February and March.

The challenge for this vintage appeared in the form of downy mildew, which occurred during flowering. There were some isolated cases of severe loss due to the infection, however the South African viticulturist has evolved and the challenge was met with confidence. In fact in some areas with vigorous growth stimulated by the heavy rains, the downy mildew actually kept the crop in check and helped to prevented high yields.
The SA Wine Industry (SAWIS) figures, currently estimates the 2002 grape crop at 1 066641 ton. This represents a 9.2 per cent increase on the 2001 crop and is about the same size as the 2000 crop. It is expected that the 2002 wine crop will amount to 811,7 million litres at an average recovery of 761 litres of wine per ton of grapes.

Even though the total crop seems similar, the composition is changing as major plantings of predominantly red varieties during the course of the past 5 years, are gradually coming into production. Recent figures on the sales of bottled red wine show a steady increase of 21% from a total annual export of about 44Mil Litres in 2000 to 54Mil Litres in 2001. And with a total export figure of 111 Mil Litres in 2001, showing an increase of almost 18% on the 2000 figures, the market seems to be healthy and growing. However, "the focus should be on producing quality wine at sustainable price points", says WOSA CEO, Su Birch.

In Robertson, Abri Bruwer at Springfield reports a drastic change in approach to production. "Cooperatives have realized the seriousness of the game and they are dropping bunches in order to secure quality. The days of high volumes yielded from lesser varieties for the purpose of mass production and brandy distilling, are over." Robertson experienced similar growing conditions to 2000, but with a sudden rainstorm late in January that measured 65mm. Bruwer is of the opinion that wines of very high quality will emerge from the area.

In Paarl, the red grapes are about a week later. The cool weather during spring and flowering seems to have slowed down the ripening. Sudden warm weather during the first week of February contributed to the steady ripening of red grapes, which may result in all the grapes arriving at the same time, by mid February. The yields in the Paarl region are up on last year. David Finlayson of Glen Carlou is optimistic about his Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The consensus is that wines of very high quality will be made this year, in a vintage which will "separate the men from the boys", taking into the account the intense viticultural management the harvest has demanded.