Looking forward.

There's an unprecedented universal enthusiasm about the approaching harvest. A happy farmer may sound like an oxymoron, but the indications are that the Cape's wine growers presently have little to complain about and if the quality looks good, so does the quantity. 

After two short crops (and despite uneven set in some varieties) a much-increased harvest is anticipated, especially in Stellenbosch, Paarl and the Swartland. For the meticulous, such bounty requires considerable bunch thinning to bring the vine into balance, but all else being equal, the results will be worth it.

The weather will doubtless fall into disfavour at some time before the last grapes are harvested, but there will be little room for poor performances this year as the stronger rand increases pressure on delivering quality. The currency's weakness over the past year has falsely valued South African wines. First prize in 2003, with a stronger rand, would be to hear from international buyers that not only are our wines better than ever, but that they also command higher prices and still offer excellent value. 

In the long term, this will serve our image better than success in competitions. With so many crowding the scene, producers are starting to question even the worth of competitions. The considerable costs involved, especially on those held outside South Africa, will increasingly determine which they enter. Given the confusing inconsistency of results, the future viability of many competitions will have much to do with effective marketing. The big question is, will any bite the dust in 2003?

Hopefully something more tangible than effective marketing will sort out winners in the current battle of the closures. In cork versus the rest, the cork producers are still pouring an awful lot of money into promotion and advertising, while still failing to sort out the TCA problem once and for all. 

Meantime, screw caps are becoming the decidedly sexy option with both producers and consumers. Sales of Tesco's screwcap range have soared since their April 2002 launch and, in its December edition, the US Wine Enthusiast, when voting New Zealand Wine Region of the Year, comments: 'Contrary to fears that these closures might cheapen the image of New Zealand wines, this willingness to innovate has struck a chord with American consumers. These wine buyers have come to recognize that the new seal is a sign of value. There is no longer a chance of getting a worthless bottle of corked wine.' 

Locally, Agusta and, importantly, Vergelegen, have already partially adopted screw caps. Until corks are 100% taint free, reason should overcome sentimentality. These effective and classy looking closures, at least on wines designed for early drinking, should become the norm.

That scenario would produce a rush in 2003, as many new red vineyards come on stream. Will winemakers resist the temptation to make anything other than tasty, honest drinking wines from them? I hope so. 

If there's a gap in the market, it is for dry white blends at the top end. Vergelegen's flagship barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon could set that ball rolling in fine style. This duo, plus current varietal darling Viognier, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc offer a broad palate of opportunities. After initial stellar improvement, Chenin's solo performance seems to be marking time. Hopefully 2003 will provide further inspiration and upward direction. 

But it's a downward trend that many wine lovers would like to see in alcohol levels. Is a return to the more moderate 12% to 13%, rather than today's exhausting 14%-plus blockbusters, a pipedream?

The next twelve months will tell.

Angela Lloyd for Distell News Service