Full Beam Ahead in Tulbagh and Swartland

‘The lights on their kop ligte are so bright that when the labourers talk they aim their beams sideways so they don't blind anyone. It cuts down on the chatter, so our productivity at night is pretty good as a result.' Nicky Krone, owner and winemaker at Twee Jonge Gezellen Estate, was pointing out a positive feature of miners' lamps during the Tulbagh farm's night harvesting.

Boasting South Africa's second-oldest family-owned farm dating to 1710, they also built the country's first underground Cap Classique cellar. They've raised their flutes happily in recent months as the bubbly category has shot up in popularity. With vaulted ceilings built according to sturdy Roman principles, 15,000 bottles per cove are riddled by competent female cellar workers at a rate of 5000 wrist twists per hour.

But it was the ‘Starlight Express' that appealed on this mid-February evening, a bumpy bakkie-towed system of open trailers carrying curious visitors in sensible footwear. I'd joined the aptly-named ‘Starry, Starry Night' dinner and vineyard evenings that Luke Krone organises weekly during harvest. As we approached, headlamps and occasional chatter lit up a dark patch on a windless night. Lumbering into vineyard rows lined with picking teams, the sound of rustling leaves and bunches hitting plastic boxes was magnified tenfold. 

The benefits of cooler temperatures are obvious when the objective is retaining flavours and acidity in a warmer area. ‘By harvesting at night we average at 18 degrees. Temperatures chill in the early hours to as low as 11 degrees,' Nicky explained. Serious business indeed, with 80 battery packs secured on workers bodies for nine-hour shifts, plus central recharging areas.

At Saronsberg Cellar next door with a mere four-year history, the cellar set-up couldn't be more different. Gravity-flow gleaming steel, sophisticated sorting tables accommodate 25 labourers during round-the-clock shifts. For visitors, a carefully decorated tasting area boasts an industrial-chic feel and upstairs gallery area to display the owners' art. It's no surprise that winemaker Dewaldt Heyns seemed more comfortable in the purple-splashed cellar as the last Merlot was put through the press. The forced cooling room is his South African first - high-capacity fans that chill huge palettes of grapes to four degrees in merely two hours to retain more flavours. This cellar harvested Sauvignon Blanc 10 days earlier than usual, and reds have moved at a good pace. ‘We expect the Cab, Shiraz and Petit Verdot all at once, next week. The rain and cooler weather will have brought a temporary slow down but it'll speed up madly now,' Dewaldt predicted.

Nearby in Riebeeck-Kasteel, Pieter du Toit of Kloovenberg reported that the region was cool but rain-free on February 15th. In his view, harvest was looking just fine. ‘Our Chardonnay was harvested before the late January heatwave. And although we have irrigation on the farm, last week's 25mm was good for the reds,' he said, hoping optimistically for lower 2007 alcohols. At Kloovenberg, Shiraz and Cabernet are the only outstanding grapes. ‘All the whites have been harvested in the Riebeek valley, and I'd say 60% of cellars are done with harvest entirely,' he said.

Further west in Darling, cellarmaster Abé Beukes reckoned he'd brought in 4,500 tons of grapes at Darling Cellars - two-thirds of the cellar's annual crop. ‘I'm in the vineyard now looking for Shiraz to pick next week," he said at 5pm on February 15th. A cold front had just brought rain, but he expected less than 5mm. This cellar started harvesting on January 15th, one day earlier than 2006.  Abé expressed huge relief that they'd processed a lot before the late-January heatwave. ‘I was optimistic about a great vintage then,' he quipped. ‘But we've got good Sauvignons. Chardonnay is also OK, because it came in before the heat. The worst hit was the Chenins.' Darling Pinotage is looking good, both as a Rosé and dry red. But will Swartland Pinotage pip Shiraz in quality in 2007? Not a chance, according to Abé. This cellarmaster is also confident that 2007's reds will improve on 2006, but 2005 remains his winning vintage.