Harvest 2015 update (part one)

Extraordinary. It’s a word that even mid-harvest may be applied with some confidence, especially in relation to the early start. Hardly had winemakers returned from Christmas and New Year holidays than they had to don their winemaking gear, ready to receive the first grapes.

Why was the start so early? Manager of VinPro’s Consultation Service Francois Viljoen summarised the run-up to harvest 2015 in his presentation at the VinPro Information Day in January. “A good season starts with a good winter,” he explained, “and 2014 produced the third good winter in a row with sufficient rain to fill the dams and cold units in July to send the vines into full dormancy. A warmer than usual August saw the vineyards quick out of their blocks; bud break and initial growth were very even. This sequence accounts for the season being so early.”

Jordan Wine Estate’s Gary Jordan adds that in contrast to warm days, the nights were very cool, the temperature dipping to a low 6°C. Rainfall fell off dramatically from September; warm, dry weather and less strong wind than usual provided ideal conditions for good flowering and set.  Temperatures have remained moderate, with intermittent really hot days.

These positive conditions have resulted in healthy vineyards and healthy grapes, ripening evenly, albeit with lighter bunch weights; higher demand for water due to stress and a season up to three weeks early that’s likely to be short and sharp. The lighter bunches with small berries suggest the overall crop will be lower than in 2014.

The following reports have been received from individuals in the various regions since early February; in the meantime, the harvest rolls on. To keep up to date with news and photos, check http://socialtractor.com/saharvest2015.

As early as the harvest is, not everyone has started (or hadn’t at the time of writing). In Elim, Trizanne Barnard expects to start in the third week of February. She says things are looking good in South Africa’s most southerly vineyards: “Mild temperatures, no rot and no rain: looking great!”  Dirk Human of Black Oystercatcher has harvested fruit for his Cap Classique sparkling wine; Sauvignon Blanc for still wine should be ready by mid-February. “Yields are down by 10% but flavours are more intense and the grapes are very healthy,” he reports. Conrad Vlok, cellarmaster at Strandveld, agrees that Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon too are “very healthy with intense flavours”, adding that “all the red cultivars are also in good condition”.

The wind has been noticeable in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley but not in a negative way. Carolyn Martin of Creation Wines describes conditions in the run-up to the harvest as “drier and breezier than 2014. The sun and sea breezes have dried out any rains we’ve had. The afternoon south-westerly acts as a fan, keeping the vineyards cool. Chardonnay was the first and, at time of writing, the only variety harvested, 10 days earlier than normal; it looks to be great quality.” Martin does caution that her husband and winemaker, JC, being a farmer, “doesn’t want to count his chickens before they hatch”.

Further down the valley, Gordon Newton Johnson at the eponymous family winery recalls that, while guests were tasting the valley’s Pinots on the first day of Hemel-en-Aarde’s Pinot Noir Celebration (31 January), their prime Windansea vineyard was being harvested. Ten days later, the last Pinot came into the cellar; according to Newton Johnson it was, in one word,” immaculate”.

Moving westwards to the cool, high Elgin valley, I caught up with Richard Kershaw of his eponymous winery, in “freezing, snowy Bordeaux”. He was happy to report that “conditions from bud burst, flowering and set have been fabulous. It’s been warm and dry but neither too dry nor too hot; the harvest is about two weeks early.” Friday 13 proved lucky with the first, healthy Sauvignon Blanc (not for his own label) being picked. The only downside is “a little wind damage in some vineyards”.

Down the road, Koen and Hannelore Roose, owners of Spioenkop, recorded that rainfall for winter/spring 2014 to harvest was almost half compared with the same period the previous year, with winter described as “soft”, 0°C being recorded a few nights only. This was probably the cause of millerandage on the Riesling. Pinot Noir went through veraison during the first week in January, a phenomenon that usually takes place during the third week and suggesting an early start to the harvest. A few very hot days raised concern over loss of aromas in the Pinot. To counteract this, the sprinklers were turned on for half an hour during the hottest period to cool down the bunches. They feel positive this has worked. They are also positive about the harvest generally: “2015 can be a very beautiful, legendary vintage, if the winemaker takes the job seriously and thinks deeper on what he/she has.”

Moving on to the Cape Peninsula and Constantia, where some are well into harvesting, others still waiting. High up at the north end of the valley near Constantia Nek Justin van Wyk, winemaker at both Beau Constantia and neighbour Constantia Glen, reckons it’ll be well into the third week of February before they start. This is in contrast to Matt Day, winemaker at Klein Constantia, who picked Chardonnay for Cap Classique on 24 January, about a week earlier than usual. “But the huge eye-opener was Sauvignon Blanc,” says this young winemaker. “The first block came in on 29 January with a sugar of 23° Balling; that’s the earliest since the maiden 1986 vintage.” Day reckons that “…90% of Sauvignon Blanc will be in by 13 February. This compares with last year, when we finished with the same blocks at the same sugar levels on 18 March.” He’s excited at how amazing the single-vineyard Sauvignons are looking. Even in this wind-prone area, Day recalls: “There was no to very little wind, thus we had a really good set.” If he does have concerns it’s that with lower sugar levels there won’t be phenological ripeness, “so we’re harvesting everything on taste and not analysis”.

Around the coast to Durbanville, where Durbanville Hills cellarmaster Martin Moore, who already has Chardonnay in the cellar, foresees “a smaller harvest than the previous two but one ... of great quality. I also foresee much pressure and lots of tension in the cellar [as] the picking season is going to be short, punctuated by intense peaks.” For a cellar taking in 6 000 tons power is crucial but, realising that there will be an inconsistency in supply, they’ve reduced dependence on electricity wherever possible. There’s plentiful natural light since installing sunlight harvesters in the roof. There’s the obligatory generator, which can power most equipment during harvest, and cooling compressors, which are run only during off-peak periods.

– Angela Lloyd