Producers Dreams Go Barrel Up

A successful harvest is usually part winemaker and viticulturists' inherent skill, part favour by nature, and part good luck. When the MSC Napoli container ship carrying South African-bound cargo was deliberately run aground near Sidmouth off the English coast, luck ran out for a number of South Africans.

The ship from Le Havre was carrying valuable containers of wine barrels when it was run aground after bad storm damage on January 18th. Most were destined for barrel-fermented 2007 white wines. Washed-up containers were looted by local crowds over the weekend at Branscombe beach, despite protests by the ‘receiver' of the wreck, the English Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

Christophe Durand makes Vins d' Orrance wines in boutique quantities, and imports Gillet barrels from Burgundy. One of the importers most heavily affected by the ship being run aground, he estimates a loss of Euro 150,000 from two containers carrying 130 and 163 barrels respectively. ‘We are insured, but it takes up to a year to get the money. The worst is we need to re-ship the barrels, and a lot of my clients won't wait. For Chardonnay they need it in about two weeks,' he says. A container journey lasts about three weeks after orders are placed. Some positive news for him at least, is that the Wine Spectator February 2007 issue awarded 91 points to Durand's Vin d'Orrance Cuvée Ameena 2004.

Experienced winemaker Nicky Versveld has had his job description re-titled to brand champion at The Company of Wine People, which means the Kumkani wine brand falls under his care. He expected new barrels for Viognier, Chardonnay and Chenin. ‘We've been affected, but not in a big way,' Versveld reports. ‘We ordered 25 barrels and lost 16 on that container from one of our suppliers, but we didn't have any problems with our other suppliers. We're now ordering from suppliers that have existing stocks.'

Versveld started bringing in Pinotage bushvines in Somerset West on January 24th, earlier than during harvest 2006. ‘They're looking good,' he reports of the grapes. ‘We had a fairly cool December and early Jan, so it's only these last few days that the heat has been intense. It will enhance the sugar levels. 2007 is looking very different to last year, which was rather late. We're also taking in Verdelho for Kumkani VVS. ‘

Bertus Fourie, senior winemaker at KWV Limited, won't receive ordered barrels from a few suppliers. ‘We've lost Saury, Boutes and Sylvain on that boat, but it's the 40 lost Gillet barrels that really puts us under pressure,' he laments. ‘That was really terrible news, as those were really crucial for a specific block of Chardonnay. We wanted to experiment with 500 and 300-litre barrels specifically. We can only get those new barrels by the end of Feb. It's too late, especially if this heat continues.'

Fourie kicked off harvest with sparkling wine grapes on 15th January. ‘It's been quick out of the blocks this year. Usually when we start, it's in dribs and drabs. But by the end of this week we'll be close to 700 tons. We started seriously with Chardonnay, Pinotage for rosé, and Sauvignon Blanc on Monday, from the Paarl, Riebeeck Kasteel and Stellenbosch areas.' 

Fourie expects a total of nearly 4000 tons in whites and 8000 tons in reds. ‘Our Sauvignon from Bottelary was 22 degrees Celsius. Temperatures have been in the 40s. The shocking thing is the night temps haven't cooled much. Our saving grace is that the vines have had a good rest, and canopies are looking healthy. I just hope we get some south-westerly winds before Sunday [January 28th].'

Eben Sadie spends two-thirds of a year in the Swartland, and the rest making wine in Spain or travelling. ‘I lost two 500-litre oak vats that I brought in from my winery in Spain. But they weren't essential, so I'm covered,' he says. Losing a press from the container boat for his new cellar on the Sadie Family Wines property was more problematic. ‘I've managed to borrow a back-up press from Fairview, so I'm getting through it. I've got my barrels so I can put my wines wherever,' he says. ‘I heard about 10 containers were washed off, and they were mostly destined for Chardonnay. So that's where the gap will be in the market.'

Sadie was expecting a textbook harvest for 2007, but now he's less optimistic. He'll start picking dryland Viognier in Malmesbury in early February. ‘With the heat pervading at the moment, I'm not sure how much will be left to harvest. If we didn't have a heatwave of the last while - high 30s and peaking into 40s - 2007 would be the harvest of the decade because we had the coolest November and December in ages,' he says. ‘With this heat, the vineyards have experienced 16 days of life over three days. It's like when you go to Las Vegas for a long weekend and cram everything in.'

Wynand Hamman is more upbeat about harvest 2007, consulting in the Perdeberg for new producer Annexkloof. ‘I'm bringing in Chardonnay now, and have already picked Sauvignon which I'll press on January 25th,' he says. Pinot Noir for Hamman's own Fryer's Cove Vineyards wine will likely be harvested in two or three weeks' time. ‘It's not even close to ripening yet in Bamboesbaai [on the West Coast]. It's been so hot in Vredendal lately - about 42 degrees Celsius - yet my grapes have been sitting at 22 degrees, only 20km away, along the coast.

Hamman imports Boutes barrels. ‘We lost one container - 132 barrels. It's mainly for clients such as Distell and Backsberg. There is insurance to cover the barrels, so that's not a problem,' he says. ‘But the customers are affected, and wouldn't normally insure for that sort of problem.'

‘The other problem is that we manufacture barrels according to specs for these guys, so replacing them exactly isn't possible. They have to be custom-made. We're looking at minimum six weeks before we can get more, as the cooperages are manufacturing for all the southern hemisphere countries now.' Hamman sounds cheerful enough about the future though, not realising the irony of his words when he states: ‘We'll keep afloat.'