Harvest Report 2: Robertson activity is speeding up

Mid-way through January there's a nervous tension in South Africa's wine areas. Cellars are scrubbed, equipment is checked and grape rows are regularly assessed for ripeness levels. While the majority of viticultural areas haven't sent out tractors with lug boxes in tow, Robertson cellars are springing into action for early white and sparkling wine varieties.

Bon Cap kicked off SA's harvest by bringing in Chardonnay for organic MCC on January 3rd, with Graham Beck sparkling wine production starting three days later. Viljoensdrift is having a go at Méthode Cap Classique (MCC) production in 2006, with Fred Viljoen harvesting the first Chardonnay for a Blanc de Blancs on January 9th. 'It's fermenting and the analysis is perfect - I hope it's going to sell. We started bringing in Semillon [on January 17]. We wanted it a bit greener at 18.6° balling. I'm going to take it to 21° balling then blend it with Sauvignon Blanc,' says Viljoen. 'I'll probably pick Sauvignon on January 23rd if rain doesn't get in the way. The crop looks lower - my Semillon is 38% down - but quality looks better.'

Philip Jonker put tanks into action at Weltevrede on 11th January with Pinot Noir destined for bubbly. He's expanding from a Blanc de Blancs to include a Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend. 'I might also do a limited edition MCC that I'll leave on the lees. I harvested grapes yesterday [January 18] with that in mind, and it'll probably be 100% Chardonnay,' he says. 'Grapes are looking good with nice flavours and small berries. It seems as if the crop is smaller, as the first Chardonnay vineyard was 25% down on 2005. But it's looking OK so far.' Le Grand Chasseur has started 2006 sparkling wine production, and it's rumoured that Helaine Louwrens, wife of Robertson Winery winemaker Lolly, is having her first bash at MCC too.

In still wines, Rietvallei, Clairvaux and Cloverfield all started Sauvignon Blanc this week. Sauvignon also came off vines at Arabella, a new venture owned by Stephen de Wet and son Jamie. Stephen was in business with brother Freddie de Wet at Excelsior until late 2005. Now Freddie and son Peter have kept the Excelsior brand and property near Zandvliet on the R317, while Stephen and Jamie farm on Arabella, between Robertson and Ashton on the R62. Rented space will produce Arabella's first harvest while a cellar and tasting room are constructed. Some of the De Wets' original Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz vineyards form part of Arabella, as do Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. Excelsior owns some original red varieties, and Chardonnay vines in whites. 'We started with Sauvignon Blanc on January 12, and we're still bringing that in,' says Stephen. 'It's looking beautiful, clean and healthy. Not a touch of rot.'

Jacques Bruwer of Bon Courage is pleased about cool weather brought by a continuous south-easter wind. 'So far everything looks promising; flavours in the cellar too. The crop is a little lighter, especially Chardonnay. We started on 11 January with Pinot Noir, then Chardonnay for MCC,' he reports. Bon Courage is also bringing in Sauvignon Blanc.

Sauvignon is not being neglected at Springfield either, provided Abrie Bruwer's harvest dates suit his weekend fishing expeditions at Struisbaai. 'My grandfather said you're a bad organizer if you can't take a holiday during harvest,' he quips. Springfield brought in an old block of Sauvignon for 'Life from Stone' on January 11, and they continue with Sauvignon for 'Special Cuvée'. 'It seems an early year. We've had a day or two of 34 - 35°C temperatures but otherwise it's been very cool and mild. I'm very happy. It's looking ripe for a very short season, unless we get a lot of rain,' Abrie says. Springfield should harvest a few Chardonnay blocks in the last week of January. 'Cabernet Sauvignon has the smallest berries I've ever seen - very nice quality but a smaller crop.' 

Bussell Retief of Van Loveren reckons 2006 grapes are the nicest he's seen in five years. Van Loveren kicked off with Semillon on 11 January and has 450 tons in tank to date. 'We've brought in white Muscadel, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. It's looking very good, but the crop is probably 15% down on 2005,' he reports. Van Loveren should harvest 100 tons over the next 10 days; the balance being red and white Muscadel grapes destined for 'Four Cousins' Rosé. 'It's one of the best-sellers in a bottle in SA, with 80g/l residual sugar,' says Retief. 'We usually start harvesting Sauvignon from 2am - 8am, and then harvest Muscadel during the day.'

Mervyn Williams of De Wetshof's winemaking team confirms that Pinot Noir damaged by November 2005 hailstorms came into their cellar on January 16th, but says Pinot proper is expected on January 23 or 25. 'We'll probably bring in Sauvignon Blanc on Friday [January 20th],' he predicts. 'Our Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc on the cellar farm are looking just fine.'