Harvest 5 - Picking and Pressing at Height or Unlikely Places

Jean-Vincent Ridon is more than halfway through his second vintage at Signal Hill cellar in Cape Town's CBD, and his tanks and barrels are finally free of construction noise and dust inside the recently completed Mandela Rhodes Place complex exterior. Pumps and presses may be in a day's work for winemakers, but it's not everyday that corporate suits can pace a gritty city pavement past glass-fronted stainless steel tanks spewing fermentation aromas. Jean-Vincent's takings include Syrah from their Clos d' Oranje vineyard (0.2ha in Lincoln Street, Oranjezicht), and Cabernet Franc from a 0.2ha suburban Kalk Bay vineyard, and alcohols for both are low. The bulk of the grapes are from Constantia and Citrusdal. ‘My own vineyard is in Somerset West. It's 1ha of Pinot Noir, and naturally it's all in,' he says. 

Judy van Niekerk lives in a more rural location in KZN's Nottingham Road, but it gets its fair share of tourist traffic as part of the Midlands Meander. She runs The Stables Wine Estate, KZN's only wine cellar, with husband Tiny. Their bottles are appearing on KZN restaurant tables. Why winemaking? ‘Tiny and I had a passion for it for many years,' she says. ‘We were going to start a winery in the Cape, but figured there was too much competition - and experience.' They came across the Midlands by accident.

‘The climate seemed similar to parts of France, and after monitoring weather stations for a year we discovered we're in the same heat and climate zone as Burgundy,' Judy observes. Two hectares of Pinot Noir was duly planted, and 2007 is the first year they'll produce a wine from this cultivar. KZN's first traditional-style bubbly is also on the cards, but names are proving problematic. ‘We're allowed to call it Méthode Cap Classique but it's a proudly KZN product, so there's not a chance of a ‘Cap' going on that wine label!' exclaims Judy.

The Stables expects nearly 100 tons of fruit from assorted cultivars, which is managed by viticulturist Diederik Le Grange. ‘We started with Pinot Noir on Jan 12th, brought in Sauvignon Blanc on Feb 10th, and Pinotage a few days later,' says Judy. The Shiraz is taking longer; the Cab is ripe now. We're bringing it in next week. They also bought 19ha vines from nearby Greytown, but they're keeping those batches separate. 

How is harvest 2007 shaping up? ‘Yeah, we've had heat waves, as in the Cape. But for us a heat wave is about 30 - 32 degrees - normal temperature's would be 25-27,' explains Judy. ‘We've had practically no rain this summer, so there's no rot. Our big problem is rietbok and duikers eating our grapes, so our vineyards are fenced to keep them out. We practice dryland farming and spray for downy mildew. Usually our rain is in summer, so that's our biggest challenge in harvest. But this year we haven't had any rain, so we're expecting a fantastic vintage.'

Havana Hills owner Kobus du Plessis devised what some might call submarine oenology. Aside from making wine conventionally in Philadelphia, his winemaker Paul Engelbrecht makes Kobus' Virgin Earth label under entirely different circumstances. The name stuck because grapes are sourced from a section of the Klein Karoo with no viticultural history. Kobus' Waterkloof and Pendooring farms in the Klein Karoo total 14,000ha. Only 25ha is planted to a mix of varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, some Viognier, Semillon, Nouvelle, Cabernet, Shiraz, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Barbara. Some cultivars are only coming into production in 2008. 

‘It takes about five years, as opposed to the usual three, to establish vineyards at these farms because of the arid, rocky climate. The vines take longer to develop their root systems,' explains Paul. ‘There's a fairly large variance between night and day - it's only 16 degrees at night. The Sauvignon vines are in a cold pocket, about 300 - 400m above sea level. We've harvested most of the whites. There's a possibility that the Shiraz might only come in a week after Havana Hills. Two weeks ago the Shiraz was still 20 degrees balling, which is crazy.'

With two waterfalls on the farms, vines can be irrigated. Game species such as black wildebeest, gemsbok and eland dominate. As in KZN, duikers are particularly fond of the growing tips of young shoots. But Virgin Earth red grapes are matured in barrels inside cargo nets underwater, in a big dam behind the cellar. It's a cooling technique developed by a lack of suitable facilities.

‘Oom Kobus likes to think out of the box, and using the dam was his suggestion. The water probably won't seep in more than 5mm max. Wine usually penetrates 5 - 8mm into the barrel stave, because of the alcohol content. So effectively your barrel will be sealed off in water,' Paul explains. ‘The High Five 2004 was matured that way and it's fine. We're building another dam - 350m long by 250m wide, 16m deep. So we'll put about 100 - 150 barrels in. We're thinking of using railway tracks with wagons containing barrels, and pushing them via a track into water.' Virgin Earth wines are available in export markets, but trading in the UK is becoming a little sticky because a certain Mr Branson doesn't seem happy about the brand name. Zoom in for an aerial view of the cellar building and dam on google earth at coordinates 33 55 20.97 S and 21 24 15.94 E.

Lord's Wines near McGregor may not be out of the way, but the property established in 2006 has the highest vineyards and cellar in the Robertson Valley, and they're going ape about Pinot varieties. Newish vines are planted at 500m above sea level, on the McGregor side of the Riviersonderend mountains. Winemaker Newald Marais says the name came about because the original owner is a huge cricket fan. The 12ha planted is now owned by 12 local and international shareholders. ‘We're growing Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah at this stage, but my suggestion has been to convert the whole farm into a Pinot farm. It could be Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Grigio in the near future. It's high up and it's cool,' says Newald of his theory.

The small maiden 2006 vintage only produced regular and organic Sauvignon Blanc - all sold out. Lord's Wines harvested Pinot Noir last week - 23.5 degrees brix - and their crop of normal and organic Sauvignon is similar to 2006. ‘We picked our first controlled crop of Chardonnay yesterday - probably only 2.5 tons per ha. So I can't really offer a harvest report because all of ours are young vineyards,' confesses Newald. ‘But I travel regularly from Bonnievale to Worcester, and what amazes me is that our valley has always chilled from 2 or 3 o'clock in the afternoon. I'm not shooting the others down, but because of our height there is a difference.'