Harvest 2006: Assessments and predictions

Three days into 2006, Bon Cap winery in Eilandia near Robertson harvested Chardonnay grapes for organic sparkling wine. On January 6, Graham Beck's cellarmaster Pieter Ferreira took in Robertson Chardonnay for Méthode Cap Classique. ‘It's textbook stuff with incredibly healthy, even ripening. We're harvesting more Chardonnay now, plus our first Pinot Noir from a younger vineyard,' Ferreira said on January 9. Tulbagh's Twee Jonge Gezellen Estate predicts their first bubbly grapes will come in after January 16.

Graham Beck Wines viticulturist Marco Ventrella reports a relatively cool, early 2005/2006 season for Robertson after a second dry winter and cooler conditions until mid-December. Heat set in during the festive season in Robertson, resulting in very quick veraison, specifically in early cultivars. Ventrella recalls five days of light rain and ‘uncharacteristically cool conditions' in early January. ‘Some guys towards the Bonnievale and Swellendam side would've had significant rain - 30 to 50mm.' Wind at the end of October/November 2005 flowering introduced looser bunches in Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot specifically, while hail in Bonnievale during that period wiped out entire stone fruit crops. Some vintners were affected.

Graham Beck's Franschhoek vines had a very wet 2005 winter - over 1.2m rainfall and five times Robertson's annual rainfall. Ventrella says Franschhoek and Stellenbosch experienced a cold, wet early season from budbreak through spring, with few good sunshine days and significant wind. Franschhhoek's heavy wind in October/November 2005 hampered vine development. Wind continued in a relatively dry, warm summer 2005/2006 in Franschhoek and Stellenbosch with cooler temperatures than previous seasons. ‘The South-Easter has been pumping and introducing vine stress, so creative management is required of vineyard managers,' adds Ventrella.  Warm festive season weather, little summer rain and wind stoked fires that damaged prime vineyards of Graham Beck, L'Ormarins and Thelema between December 29 and January 6.

Robertson's 2006 crop should improve on 2005 quantities. Ventrella predicts ‘awesome' Breede River Valley Chardonnay and fantastic Cabernets across the board, with Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon standing out. Singled out as promising are Franschhoek Petit Verdot, Merlot and Shiraz, and Stellenbosch Sauvignon Blanc. Cautions Ventrella: ‘Overall the 2006 harvest is up, but Shiraz across the board has been uneven so crops may decrease with more green harvesting. Shoots on all cultivars are ripening early and beautifully and 2006 quality is looking very good.'

Willem Botha, viticultural consultant for VinPro producers' organization in Robertson/Bonnievale/Ashton, says winter 2005 was cold and dry so farms without irrigation may have struggled. Budbreak was earlier than normal for Chardonnay, some Colombard and Chenin Blanc. Botha confirms uneven budding in Shiraz and some Sauvignon Blanc. ‘Uneven budbreak caused uneven veraison so we've found a lot of green bunches alongside more mature ones. Sauvignon Blanc, and possibly Chardonnay, should have lower crops in 2006. Red cultivars are looking normal, although Pinotage may be lower,' he predicts.

‘2006 crops should be slightly bigger than 2005 - small in Robertson - so expect maybe a 5% increase. Strong winds and cooler night temperatures in October/November meant bunches didn't set as tightly so we're expecting smaller berries but fairly disease-free vines,' predicts Botha. ‘The 2005 harvest was difficult with diseased grapes and other factors, yet some good wines resulted. So I'm very optimistic about 2006, particularly for reds.

Dirk Bosman manages viticulture and grape buying for Distell in Stellenbosch, Somerset West, Paarl, Wellington, Malmesbury, Darling, Durbanville and Philadelphia. They also buy from new coastal vineyards near Lutzville, and from vines near shark-cage diving town Gansbaai. Bosman recalls a fairly wet September/October 2005 with small patches of downy mildew. Crops are currently disease-free thanks to South-Easter winds and little summer rains. ‘Soils are fairly dry as we didn't get our usual December downpour. Vineyards are looking good, but water management is essential,' says Bosman. December/January 2006 temperatures in Stellenbosch, Paarl and Durbanville were fairly cool with some hot days. ‘Cooler ripening temperatures now are critical for quality - especially in Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot,' he adds.

Bosman estimates that harvest 2006 should be a week later than 2005 in most areas. He predicts quality 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinotage crops, compared to smaller 2005 quantities, average Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc quantities, and bigger Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc crops. ‘Berries should stay smaller - similar to 2005 berry sizes - if dry weather continues,' Bosman says. ‘There's uneven ripening in some varieties. If we avoid excessive January heatwaves, Sauvignon Blanc could look very good; Chardonnay too. But it's too early to put my name on anything for the reds!'

KWV viticulturist Kobus van Graan is upbeat about harvest 2006. Their vineyards are situated in Paarl, Malmesbury, Wellington, Stellenbosch and Somerset West; inland in Worcester, Tulbagh and Robertson; also Vredendal, Lutzville and Darling on the West coast, and Stanford in the Overberg. ‘If we look at 10 January 2006 compared to 10 January 2005 or 2004, it's looking very good,' he says.

‘Guys have suckered well, pruned well, and sprayed so we're not seeing downy or powdery mildew. Our irrigated vineyards are looking good, although Malmesbury worries me - if hot weather persists in January/February 2006, dryland vineyards will show symptoms of drought and stress.' Van Graan notes that a cool 2005/2006 growing season - compared with long-term averages - and strong winds have contributed towards smaller berries, specifically on Cabernet. He suspects Chardonnay crops may be smaller in Paarl and Stellenbosch.

Viticulturist Kevin Watt consults to small and medium-sized wineries in Cape Point, Constantia, Elgin, Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl. Watt reports good winter rains and a cooler season before the festive season, but very little summer rain aside from Hermanus (in the Overberg) and Elim. ‘My other areas haven't had much rain, so they'll be controlled only if they've got irrigation. I've never seen Elgin this dry,' he notes. ‘Until now, cooler weather has been favourable for acid and flavour retention. But warm, dry January weather and fires in the Franschhoek area, could take their toll.'

‘Official crop size predictions suggest 2006 will be 10% higher than 2005, but I'm seeing a similar crop to 2005,' says Watt. ‘On the whole, I feel bullish about the 2006 season if weather and water management play along. Of course, about 30mm of rain would be fantastic right now, particularly on the dryland vineyards.'