Selective sorting but jumbled vintage for Wellington, Paarl and Swartland

The crickets are acting weird out there. Jim Morrison had that old album full of poetry, with that line. Well it's a bit like that in here,' says Anthony de Jager, speaking from Fairview's Paarl cellar. Unpredictable and rather higgledy-piggledy, seems to be a dominant feature of harvest 2004. 'It was looking like a later vintage than previously, then a heatwave in early February pushed sugars through the roof. It was mal, a major rush to get that stuff in, now today we're doing nothing again!' he exclaims.

De Jager says the dryland vineyards they source from in Agter Paarl, Malmesbury and Wellington, are of biggest concern. 'They're not looking very smart at all. Vines are taking strain, losing leaves, getting sunburnt. You've simply got to pick them. Those farmers who saw it was going to be a dry year, and reduced crop levels before veraison in December/January - their vineyards look wonderful. So 2004 is about management to a certain degree. But if you've got poor soils without moisture, you're buggered.'

Fairview has brought in all their Pinotage and Merlot; their Shiraz is halfway, but they've had no Cabernet Sauvignon in yet. 'I like the tannins I'm seeing in the Merlot and Pinotage - the skin to juice ratio is good. In Shiraz it's too early to say, but we got our Beacon Shiraz from Agter-Paarl on 18-20 Feb and it's looking fantastic. We haven't taken in Stellenbosch fruit yet, but the flavours in the Merlot are looking good.' Fairview will be busy for some time - De Jager expects his last batch in April, from a new vineyard 700m above sea level in the Langkloof, near Uniondale. 'We've got Cab and Shiraz, second crop vines, that we're buying. So I'm not making any surfing plans for April just yet!'

Werner Engelbrecht left Vinfruco for Paarl's boutique Avondale cellar in December 2003, and he talks a similarly concerned tune. 'I'm in the dryland vineyards in Malmesbury, and the reds are taking a lot of punishment from that heatwave. They're fairly dry and stressing. Merlot and Shiraz are coming in this week. The sugars were slow last week, but they're picking up now.'

Avondale buys in Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon from dryland vineyards in Malmesbury and Darling. They brought in Sauvignon Blanc during the February 9 week, from Malmesbury, Darling and Stellenbosch. 'In general the Sauvignon is showing very uneven ripeness, with ripe and green berries on the same bunch,' Engelbrecht reports. Avondale's own Paarl Chardonnay ripened more evenly and looks good - all their Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc is harvested though. Engelbrecht says reds are faring better, as they evened out bunches with green harvesting. Their Cabernet Sauvignon - from Darling, Malmesbury and Stellenbosch - should come in during the first week of March. 'In general, harvest of reds seems a week or two later, which is frustrating for the farmers.'

At Wellington's Mont du Toit, Pieter-Niel Rossouw predicts he'll be finished by March. His order of ripening has been upside down, and the last Cabernet Sauvignon is already coming in. 'My Merlot was in by mid-Feb, so it's still fermenting but looking OK, with no rot. There were a lot of green berries but we took them out on the sorting tables. I harvested Shiraz on about 20 Feb, at 25° Balling, yet some of my colleagues in the area only had Shiraz at 22/23° Balling at that time.' Like many quality-focused winemaker counterparts in 2004, Rossouw did a thorough green harvest. He'll finish off by harvesting 5-year-old Alicante and Tempranillo, as well as a first crop Petit Verdot, in early March.

Andrew Barns of Mischa in Wellington reckons 2004 will shake up the 'somewhat homogenous character of wines tending to come out of South Africa these days' - he predicts more variation between regions and even cellars for 2004, surely a positive effect. 'The biggest challenge in 2004 is uneven ripeness, so with attention to detail it can be as good as any other vintage,' suggests Barns. At Mischa, the picking order of Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon has been juggled around. Weather patterns of warm, followed by cooler weeks, mean that 2004 has gone the other way - Cabernet is in first.

'I'm happy with quality so far, but it's because my pickers have done a very serious selection in the vineyards. This year, the guys with trained pickers and sorting tables are the business.'