Crystal ball gazing

Listening to Cornish chef and keen South African wine importer Ben Prior of VinoSA tell an amusing tale of how his enthusiasm sometimes leads him astray, had my thoughts turning to the impending 2023 harvest.

What kickstarted it was Prior’s anecdote of joining John Seccombe of Thorne & Daughters Wines on a grape sampling trip. “I’ve always wanted to know just how winemakers know when the grapes are ready and decide to pick,” he said. “So one year I asked John Seccombe if I could tag along…” Well, that entailed a five hour drive to a far-flung vineyard to drop off crates in preparation for picking. “We spent about 10 minutes walking through the vineyard. John gave me one grape and said it’s ready – but then gave me another and said it was still a bit unripe and needed another week. Then we got back in the car and drove another 5 hours back to Cape Town! I couldn’t believe I spent 10 hours – essentially a whole day – to basically taste two grapes and have him say “nah, not ready, mate!”

Top image: Chef Ben Prior in his happy place – manning the braai and drinking wine.

VinPro’s viticultural consultant Conrad Schutte hedged his bets when he released the first of four harvest forecasts for the 2023 vintage during the first week in December.

While stating that the 2023 grape harvest would be somewhat smaller than usual, growing conditions had been good after a dry, healthy season – except for the Northern Cape which experienced some challenges, namely flooding of vineyards by the Gariep river.

“The season looks promising, but a lot could change leading up to the harvest,” Schutte said.

Just a week later – mid-December – and the proverbial heavens opened with Paarl receiving 79mm of rain, Stellenbosch mountains 62mm, Somerset West 62mm, Elgin 51mm and Robertson 37mm. There were more than a few fervent prayers said as the Paarl deluge was accompanied by hail – at a time when grape farmers really didn’t need the stress! Producers in Worcester and Robertson also reported hail with some sporadic damage to bunches of grapes and foliage.

“The weather conditions of the past few days, with rain showers followed by hot, humid conditions, were favourable for the primary and secondary infection of especially powdery and downy mildew in vineyards,” Schutte stated in a media release. He also mentioned that the impact of timely fungicide sprays would only be seen in a few weeks. And with harvest starting in January and February – depending on the style of wine – that didn’t leave much wriggle room

So, sadly a few farmers had to haul out the spraying rigs and hook them up to tractors or quad bikes just when their thoughts would normally be turning to long days spent holding a fishing rod on a sunny beach. Overall, however, VinPro’s assessment was that the rain was more of a positive than a negative. Such are the vagaries of playing poker with nature …

Fiona McDonald