Harvest Report 1 - Fires in focus

As sparkling wine producers kicked off the Western Cape harvest on January 3rd - 6th, high temperatures, south-easter winds and human negligence fanned flames towards prime viticultural land surrounding Franschhoek and Stellenbosch. 

Bon Cap in Eilandia picked their first Chardonnay grapes on January 3rd and Graham Beck Wines' Robertson cellar harvested Chardonnay on January 6th, both destined for bubbly. Between these dates, fires also raged past prime wine properties, from Franschhoek past the village of Pniel towards the crest of Banhoek on the Simonsberg mountains. 

Further fires were started in Franschhoek on December 25th and December 29th, and flames spread on January 4th near the Du Toits Kloof mountain pass towards Worcester. Damage to farms and vines aside, an estimated 32,000ha of indigenous fynbos vegetation have been destroyed by the Boland's uncontrolled festive season flames.

Gyles Webb of Thelema reports fire damage to about 100 Chardonnay vines between January 3rd and 6th. 'They're wilting, but we're not sure whether they'll die or will just be scorched. The fire affected Thelema only, not Tokara, and it was our highest vineyards,' he says. 'As I look out my window now, the Simonsberg looks pretty black and scorched. The fire started on the Pniel side and then whizzed around the eastern side of the Simonsberg.'

'Both Tokara and Thelema have quite serious firebreaks so we managed to retain it, but there's a lot of fynbos damage as well,' reports Webb. 'The only thing we don't know yet is the effect of smoke damage on grapes. We've got Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc up on that hill, and we don't know if we'll be able to taste it. In 2000 we chucked away 20,000 litres of wine because of smoky flavours. But veraison hasn't happened so maybe the grapes will be OK,' he says. Thelema expects to start harvesting in the second week of February.

Neil Moorehouse, who's taken over from Bruwer Raats as Zorgvliet winemaker, says they were very lucky to escape fire damage to top red vineyards. 'We had a close call. It came right to the edge of our mountain blocks, those in line with Thelema's vines. The vineyards in that area are at about 480m. The Cabernet Sauvignon was closest,' he reports. Zorgvliet expects to start harvesting in early February.

Winemaker Adi Badenhorst says Rustenberg had no early January fire damage to vineyards, although some mountain fynbos vegetation was burnt. They expect to harvest in early February, although they'll start sampling young Chardonnay blocks around January 15th. Boschendal is scheduled to start on 23 January, but winemaker James Farquarson says they may bring in bubbly grapes on January 16th. 'Boschendal hasn't suffered any direct damage to vineyards. The fires were more on the Stellenbosch side of the Simonsberg. Last Tuesday we noticed smoke where Vuurburg and Mountain Wood are situated and I joined a bunch of guys with buckets to help put it out,' he recalls.

Vuurburg borders Mountain Wood farm on the Pniel side below Delaire, Tokara and Zorgvliet. Sebastiaan Klaassen of Vuurberg Vineyards says unconfirmed rumours suggest the January 3rd fire started at the Johannesdal settlement near Pniel, before spreading to Mountain Wood and Vuurburg. 'James [Farquarson] and I were carrying buckets and then helicopters came and dropped about 3000 litres of water. It was amazing to get so much help. We had six helicopters, two planes and about 10 bakkies with people from surrounding farms. We lost about 5ha of fynbos, but no vineyards or irrigation pipes. Half our 11ha was planted in 1999, the rest planted three months ago,' says Klaassen.

Jan Schlieman and Katie Farringer of Mountain Wood weren't so lucky. 'We only have 1ha under vine and it was spared,' says Katie. 'But all the water supply lines and borehole pump and electricity lines were burnt, and it was really close to the house. It was fantastic to see the support from our neighbouring wine friends though: Miles Mossop, Gunter Schultz, James Farquarson and others. They were quicker than the fire brigade!' 

Graham Beck Wines in Franschhoek has a 30ha-section of vineyards on their Franschhoek property called 'die vlak'. Cellarmaster Pieter Ferreira says a fire on December 29th started from the Franschhoek side and was fanned by the south-easter. Some flames jumped along the Klein Drakenstein range towards the Simonsberg end of Stellenbosch. 'Some fire ran through a portion of our best Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards, but it was more of a scorching than burning of vines. Around 1ha got burnt before we managed it, with the help of fire fighters and helicopters,' says Ferreira. 

Bellingham's vineyards were spared, but L'Ormarins viticulturist Rosa Kruger confirms that late December fires burned on their eastern border with Graham Beck Wines. 'It scorched two of our highest Sauvignon blocks on that side and burnt most of the mountain slopes on the eastern side near the waterfall,' says Kruger. The fire raged for four days and nights from December 29th, and sporadic small flames continue to flare daily in warm temperatures and wind.