Aftermath of the Southern Peninsula fire

Saturday 28 February was a perfect Cape summer’s day –blue skies, barely a breeze, a warm sun and bewitching scenery. Buitenverwachting’s spacious lawns were crowded with wine lovers enjoying fine wines from many of the Cape’s top producers and food from renowned chefs at the annual Constantia Fresh. No one had any idea that within 24 hours a fire, started somewhere on the mountains above Muizenberg, would be raging along the Peninsula mountain range, towards Noordhoek on the one side, Constantia Valley on the other, and with many wine farms in its path.

Summer had been particularly dry and the last major fire had taken place in 2000. In the ensuing 15 years, the fynbos had fully re-grown and was due for another burn in order to regenerate. But nobody wanted this inferno. Hundreds of volunteer firefighters fought the blaze, aided by helicopter pilots who water-bombed the flames. It took five days, 5 000 hectares of razed vegetation and some homes before this fire was contained (costs, as estimated by Cape Town City Council, will exceed R6 million). As if helping to prevent the fire from destroying vineyards wasn’t enough, harvest was in full swing. The one blessing was it was an exceptionally early year – much of the crop was already in the cellars.

As I write, it’s two weeks since the worst of the fire was contained (Wildfire Services advises that the burnt areas are likely to remain hot for at least another two weeks) and with the continuing dry, hot and windy weather, no one can afford to relax. As some semblance of normality has returned to the wine farmers’ lives, they recount the fire and describe how things look in its aftermath.

As Derick Burger’s photo of Cape Point Vineyards all too clearly illustrates, the whole mountain around the property burnt. Winemaker Duncan Savage reckons five to 10% of the vines were scorched but whether they’ve survived will be known only next season. “They’re tough little buggers,” he says,”‘even the fynbos kloof in the middle of the farm burnt but some of the vines survived!” Fortunately, the bulk of the crop was in the cellar, with just 25 tons of Sauvignon, Semillon and Chardonnay hanging.

On the other side of the mountain, JD Pretorius breathed a sigh of relief that Steenberg suffered “only a small amount of damage to the fence and connectivity; the fire stopped about two metres before the vineyards, leaving some scorched leaves. I don’t think this’ll have any long-term effect.”All the Sauvignon Blanc, and half the Semillon and Nebbiolo were in the cellar, leaving all the Shiraz and Merlot hanging but he remains confident of bottling top quality wines from all varieties, even if in smaller quantities than usual.

Steenberg is fortunate in their farm manager, Johann de Swart, who spent a number of years in forestry before farming vineyards: “He’s seen many fires so controlled the situation so well, knowing when to let the fire run its course and when to stop it.” Pretorius pays tribute to De Swart and the firefighters: “Without them, especially the chopper pilots, we would have been in very deep trouble.”

Constantia Uitsig’s winemaker, André Rousseau, mentions how the Constantia Valley community shows commitment to each other: “Because Uitsig was not affected, we spent most of our time at other farms. Some of my guys worked from 5pm on Tuesday to 7am on Wednesday, helping to fight the fire.” As one of the lowest-lying farms, Constantia Uitsig avoided any damage but Rousseau says 80% of the crop had been harvested anyway, with just Merlot and Chardonnay still hanging.

Things were less happy at Buitenverwachting, which was surrounded by the fire, leaving some scorched vines and “three hectares of newly planted Pinot Noir destroyed”, records managing director Lars Maack.  

Neighbouring Klein Constantia also lost some vines: “Probably around 50 completely burnt and between 1 000 and 2 000 scorched,” reckons winemaker Matt Day. “We’re confident they’ll recover. Time will tell.” Like Savage, Day is amazed how the vines acted as a kind of firebreak, slowing down the flames’ progress, while fynbos between the blocks burnt much more quickly. As with others in the valley, Day reflects on how lucky they were to have enjoyed one of the earliest harvests in 30 years: “Almost everything was in the cellar, only Muscat for Vin de Constance and two blocks of Cabernet remained but these are really far from the fire and I’m confident there’ll be no negative effect on the wine.”

Fortuitously, two weeks prior to the fire, routine maintenance on Groot Constantia had seen an area of about five metres cleared on either side of the top boundary fence: “Probably one of the reasons why were so lucky not to suffer greater loss,” says thankful winemaker Boela Gerber. Vines in the top vineyards were singed but Gerber believes they’ll be 100% after pruning and budding come September. Again, it was the indigenous forest sections which felt the brunt of the fire.

This historic farm probably has a higher proportion of red varieties than any other of the valley’s farms and the majority of these were still hanging when the fire blazed by (all the whites were in the cellar). At this stage, Gerber doesn’t think there’ll be problems from smoke taint: “Our red vineyards are on the lower-lying areas, close to the farm’s entrance and far from where the fire was burning.”

Eagles’ Nest was, of course, the phoenix (eagle?) which arose from the 2000 fire: “So we were incredibly well prepared,” notes winemaker Stuart Botha. “We have hydrants all over the property, specifically next to vineyards and houses. Plus, when the fire reached us, the wind was blowing from behind us into the oncoming flames.” The only damage was to the electric fence. Although almost all the red varieties were still on the vines, Botha says that so far there’s no evidence of smoke taint. “As I mentioned, the wind was very much in our favour during the fire, blowing smoke away from us.”

Interestingly, after the 2000 fire, Bill Mylrea, owner of Eagles’ Nest, started planting the Cape’s endemic silver leaf trees high on the mountainside above the vines (they are clearly visible in the photos). Botha says it was remarkable that there were massive flames 10 metres away burning wattle and other aliens: “We expected the silver leafs would go up just as spectacularly but quite the opposite happened as they effectively choked the fire, reducing it to a small wick-like burn.” Needless to say, more silver leaf trees will be encouraged to grow around the property.

At the very northern end of Constantia Valley, Beau Constantia, Constantia Glen and, just over the Nek, Silvermist avoided the fire altogether.  As Justin van Wyk, winemaker at the first two properties, puts it: ‘We were extremely lucky that the north-westerly wind blew for the two critical days.  The fire was coming from the other direction, so all the smoke was blowing back towards False Bay.” All at Silvermist were evacuated but, according to sales and marketing manager Tessa Melck, “no damage was done and for that we are extremely grateful”.

Constantia and the Southern Peninsula mountains weren’t the only areas to be hit by fires: Grabouw, Hermanus, Tulbagh and Jonkershoek/Stellenboschberg have all experienced them to one degree or another. From the wine side, all hope their effect on the excellent 2015 harvest will be minimal.


                                                                                                         Eagles Nest


                                                                                                          Eagles Nest

                                                                                           Cape Point Vineyards

– Angela Lloyd