Mixed emotions - and ripening - over Stellenbosch harvest

Stormers fan De Wet Viljoen hopes to be fit when Stellenbosch University rugby makes their team selection in April. Rugby is strictly a spectator sport for Viljoen, since his fall down a flight of stairs two years ago while carrying a wine glass. The tendons in his hand were cut, making a fist impossible. The break from sport has had some advantages though, allowing him to direct his considerable energy towards winemaking after joining Neethlingshof Estate in June 2003. 

Harvest 2004 is 60% completed at Neethlingshof, with the last batch of Chardonnay in on March 5 - a smaller yet concentrated crop as some rot had to be removed - and all Sauvignon Blanc in during February. The final Pinotage tanks are fermenting - colour and tannins look good. Merlot, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are still on the vine, and Viljoen believes the cool first week of March should contribute positively to later varieties. 'I'm not worried, it helps them ripen. Sugars on the Merlot and Shiraz are stuck but the rain has started a whole process in the vine again. It's preserving acidity in the berries and not allowing stress. My only complaint with 2004 is the high pHs we're struggling with, which means we have to add acid.' 

Warwick's Louis Nel is less upbeat about 2004, and his concerns are shared by Simonsberg neighbours. 'I don't know what to make of this harvest; I can't compare it to any other vintage. We're three weeks later than 2003 and there's uneven, late ripening. The colour analysis in reds seems lower yet the grapes don't look lighter. I've even found brown pips in Chardonnay! Luckily we've got sorting tables, and we're sorting in the vineyards,' says Nel. 'But it's slow and I'm bored. We didn't harvest during the first week of March at all!' Nel says Sauvignon Blanc brought in during the first week of February looks good, but March rain sped up Warwick's Chardonnay picking. Nel is concerned that cooler temperatures could delay proper ripening of virus-infected reds. 

At the Simonsberg's other end, Thelema and Tokara winemaker Gyles Webb hadn't started harvesting reds in the Helshoogte by March 6. Thelema's Chardonnay is all in tanks, but Tokara's Sauvignon Blanc is still hitting the sorting tables. '2004 should be healthy with decent volumes, but no great concentration in reds. It's unlikely to be a cracker year,' predicts Webb. 

Martin Meinert says it feels like early stages of harvest in his Devon Valley cellar. Helderberg Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc for dry wines are in, while Merlot came in two weeks later at the end of February. Chenin destined for noble rot is still on the vine. 'I'm busy rehydrating yeast for some new Grenache Ken is bringing in from high up in Citrusdal. It'll probably go into the Ken Forrester Grenache/Shiraz, but we might even keep it for a lone bottling,' he says. 

Describing 2004 as a 'difficult' harvest, Meinert says it should be good without reaching the heights of 2003. March rain and cooler temperatures are worrying for their potential effect on red ripening. Uneven ripening within bunches and shorter ferments due to green pips, are common. 'What's encouraging is that we introduced irrigation in Devon Valley so there's been no berry shrivelling. Also, we seem to have eliminated most green flavours during green harvesting. We've also brought in grapes at slightly lower sugars, so potentially we're looking at lower alcohols of 13.5 to 14%, which I'm really happy about,' says Meinert. 

At Vergelegen in the Helderberg, Andre van Rensburg was too busy harvesting to take calls, but neighbour Marius Lategan was calmly waiting at Morgenster. 'We're doing a lot of spot picking from blocks this year because of uneven ripeness. We started picking Merlot on 24 February - three weeks late. We had four Merlot tanks by the end of Feb, and we managed to bring in one block of Cab Franc before rain on March 3,' outlines Lategan. '2004 is about patience, patience, patience ... Phenolic ripeness is just not there. Easter weekend is looming on April 10 but we're resigned to the fact that we'll be in the cellar with Cabernet Sauvignon.'