Harvest Report - Fires singe Southern Cape vineyards as February turns on the heat

Devastating fires spread through an estimated 80km of agricultural land along the Southern Cape coast towards Agulhas in the first week of February, claiming massive natural and commercially farmed indigenous fynbos vegetation, as well as buildings and luxury lodges. The fires moved between the towns of Stanford, Gansbaai, Elim, Napier and Bredasdorp, causing many areas to be evacuated.

Most reports indicate that wind-fuelled fires started on Monday January 30th, but a separate fire affecting premium grape vineyards started 10 days before in rural areas in the vicinity, affecting Raka and Flagstone.

Dreyer says the fire came at full speed towards his Klein River vineyards east of Stanford on Saturday January 21st. 'It ran alongside the road and nipped the Pinotage. We stopped the fire at our winemakers' house then it nipped over the Klein River Berg. My overhead sprinklers are a no-no in viticulture where drip irrigation is preferred. But I know this mountain and had my sprinklers going. It really blocked the fire. My neighbour farms fynbos flowers and it was destroyed,' he says. Raka started harvesting Sauvignon Blanc on February 4th - two weeks earlier than 2005.

Flagstone buys in grapes over a wide geographical area, but was planning to supplement with vineyards coming on-stream 20km from Napier. Vines about 8km from Raka as the crow flies, were severely damaged on Sunday January 22nd. Jack estimates that around 50,000ha in the Napier area was affected - including 14 farms and a lot of mountain fynbos. 'It was a firestorm so came through very quickly. Damage was from a combination of wind and fire. We had about eight or nine varieties planted - all under three years old,' he reports. 'On the plus side, it's given us the opportunity to rectify our mistakes in a pioneering area, and we'll see the regeneration of fynbos on the Akkedisberg.' 

Jack commends the local wine community for their support. 'Three teams from the Elim area came to help: Black Oystercatcher, Agulhas Vineyards and Zoetendal Wines - we would've lost 100% of the vines if it wasn't for them. It reconfirms your belief in humanity,' he says. Jack is otherwise upbeat about vintage 2006. Flagstone kicked off harvest with Merlot in Tulbagh in early February. Since February 6th they've brought in Elim Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Pinotage from the Perdeberg, and Helderberg Chardonnay.

Kobus Gerber makes Lomond wines (and Fleur du Cap whites), the maiden 2005 release of single-vineyard Sauvignon Blanc wines from a 100ha farm situated inland of Gansbaai. Distell viticulturist Johan Wiid visited on February 3rd, just after the fire. Surrounding fynbos was burnt and a few rows of Syrah were singed. 'The grapes seem fine, although we're wondering about the effect of thick smoke on resulting wine flavours in the Shiraz, and even single-vineyard Sauvignon Blanc,' he reports. 'But we expect to start harvesting Sauvignon in a week or so.'

Gerber has harvested 6000 tons from Stellenbosch, mostly for JC le Roux's MCC. He's also brought in 60 tons of Sauvignon Blanc for Fleur du Cap from Bottelary and the Helderberg. 'Dryland vineyards are really struggling after the recent hot days, so I'm picking a bit earlier and getting grapes into the cellar before 10am. I'm seeing very small berries because of the drought but fruit is very concentrated,' says Gerber.

Bruwer Raats harvested his first Chenin Blanc grapes on Tuesday February 7 in his first vintage of flying solo with Raats Family Wines. He reports good acidities and lower pHs than 2005 from Simonsberg grapes destined for Raats Original. 

Chris Kelly left Omnia Wines for the smaller volumes of Hidden Valley. The outcome? 'Hectic, but really good! Today, apart from harvesting Pinotage, I've got visitors from Japan, Germany and then Holland. I'm expected to give them a tasting and we don't have any facilities - we bought a picnic table last week,' he laughs. 'We're harvesting in about five different cellars - three in Stellenbosch plus we're trucking our Elim grapes to cellars in Hermanus and Elgin.'

'Last week's heat brought things forward quite a bit. Beautiful Stellenbosch Sauvignon Blanc came in on February 6 from Faure, really good Pinotage today at about 24.5°B from the Devon Valley farm. Then we looked at our 16ha of Elim vines last week. Our Sauvignon should be 10 days behind Stellenbosch but fire heat in the vicinity seem to have sped things up, even though they were 20km away. We expect to harvest on February 9th. Quality-wise, things are a bit better than 2005, but harvest dates are similar. '

At The Winery's Helderberg cellar, the roof is being welded on as grapes are being received. Alex Dale explains their decision to change the grape sorting area configuration, but it should've been completed by December. Builder's delays... The bottling line has also been broken for three weeks - par for the course during harvest. They've taken in Chardonnay from Faure and Helderberg on February 3rd, 6th and 7th, and are starting with Chenin Blanc. 'We had a string of 35°C days last week and it peaked at 40°C on Feb 1st. Natural acidities are quite good, and pHs are fabulous, which is surprising with that heat. Less than 1% was thrown out on the sorting table. February is traditionally the hot month, and this hot weather was three days earlier than in 2005, which was considered a hot year.'