Harvest 2015 update (part two)

From the coast to further inland. Do things change? Happily, no. Andrea Mullineux of Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines in the Swartland kindly took off a few minutes from late-night pressing and filling of barrels to confirm that the harvest is “fast and furious”. “The harvest’s not just early, it’s compact,” she explains. “We started two weeks early but will finish three to four weeks early too!” The last grapes came in on 12 February. The fruit is concentrated, healthy and ripe at lower Balling levels. Skins of white varieties are slightly more phenolic; reds have thick skins and big tannins. Juice recovery is lower. She attributes all to a dry spring.

In Robertson, Graham Beck’s cellarmaster Pieter Ferreira started the cellar’s 25th harvest by bringing in Chardonnay for bubbly on 8 January; Pinot Noir from Stellenbosch followed the next day.“It is definitely the earliest harvest in Robertson for 15 years,” he confirms. “Also the first time we’ve completed our bubbly grape harvest by 30 January.” His view on quality so far? “This is the harvest to look out for ... truly spectacular,” he writes. “The look, the berry size, the taste of the grapes, all are sublime.”

John Loubser, whose Silverthorn grapes also come from Robertson, is equally enthusiastic: “Chardonnay base wines look great with low pH and good acidity.”

Turning to Breedekloof, Leon Dippenaar, VinPro consultant for the area, offers some opinions. He believes the warm, dry conditions from November 2014 to January 2015 have resulted in more balanced canopies with less vigour, while the excellent colour in reds could be attributed to the marked fluctuations between day and night temperatures. Dippenaar says it’s difficult to single out particular varieties because “everything looks so awesome”, but describes Sauvignon Blanc as having “very good flavour, more to the tropical side; Chardonnay ripe at lower sugars, which should produce more balanced wines; and Chenin Blanc, very fruity and healthy – a healthy Chenin Blanc year is always a good Chenin Blanc year!” If it’s too early to form judgment on reds, Dippenaar advises to “look out for Cabernet Sauvignon; it’s a small harvest but big on concentration and fruit flavours”. His parting words: “A real gooseflesh year for SA and Breedekloof?”

The views of Shawn Thomson, winemaker at Du Toitskloof Winery, echo Dippenaar’s. Fans of the cellar’s popular Sauvignon Blanc will be pleased to hear that Thomson reckons it “looks very nice, beautiful colour juice, nice analysis, extremely healthy”. Just one thing spoils this rosy picture: “Eskom, the power supplier, is a total stuff-up,” Thomson sighs. “We used 400 litres of diesel to cover 3.5 hours of load shedding. Extremely expensive and chasing up cost of production!”

Over the mountains in Paarl, KWV’s viticulturist Marco Ventrella is more than grateful that the vintage “seems to be proceeding in a very relaxed and orderly manner”. That’s after the more than challenging 2014 harvest. Ventrella’s responsibilities extend way beyond Paarl, so his views reflect the state of affairs throughout the winelands. He summarises varieties picked so far: “Sauvignon Blanc has text book analyses – pH levels of 2.9–3.1 and TAs of 10–13. Even from warmer regions, like Stellenbosch, Chardonnays have brightness of fruit and darn it, even chalky minerality, with awesome analyses. Chenin has forgotten how to lose acidity, get sunburn, rot or generally do anything it normally does. Early Pinotage and Merlots – yes, even Merlot – are looking fabulous.” Any spoilers to this party? “Rain or heatwaves; Eskom load-shedding could cripple harvesting volumes/speed and therefore impact on quality, which is the best I’ve seen in my time – yes, including 2009,” Ventrella concludes.

Wind has been a feature for Arco Laarman at Glen Carlou, “resulting in the vineyards drying out more than normal”. He also reports on a crop down 25–30% on 2014, explaining this against that year’s “bumper crop”. Otherwise, he believes, “reds are looking good with great physiological and phenolic ripeness”.

So to Stellenbosch, where Gary Jordan of Jordan Wine Estate keeps the good news rolling. “The earliest harvest in history at Jordan!” he announces, although starting two weeks later than most of Stellenbosch was nothing unusual. Jordan says the dry, warm growing season and little disease pressure have seen “virtually every berry set, so bunches are extremely tight and full”. Regarding crop levels, Jordan says both Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc are down about 25% on 2014, which leaves Sauvignon near normal. He’s relieved that “Chardonnay is 30% up due to more and fuller bunches per vine. I’ve never seen such perfect, unblemished berries before.” Merlot for rosé also has intense berry fruit and great acidity; other reds have good crop load but still have a way to go. Apart from the load-shedding concerns shared with others and the considerable expense of buying a second generator, Jordan thinks ahead to post-harvest, “when we’ll need to irrigate sufficiently to ensure reserves are built up for next year, as vineyard stress levels are already fairly high”.

“Rush hour since the start,” says an amazed Tertius Boshoff at Stellenrust. “I thought I’d be just checking whether we have all systems ready for the massive influx but on 20 January, 10 days earlier than usual, sugars on Pinotage were around 22° Balling and we harvest almost 600 tons of that variety.” What also shocked Boshoff was that such a decent rosé colour was extracted from the Pinotage without any skin contact. Another surprise was their 32-year old bushvine Chenin block ripening, with amazing analyses, a full 24 days earlier than 2014. Rush hour indeed! That’s one area of concern, “that we don’t get a bottleneck where suddenly everything is ripe”.

Just in case readers believe winegrowing happens in the Western Cape only, here’s what Laurie Smorthwaite has to say about the 2015 harvest on the family farm, Abingdon Estate, in the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal.We are in a hail belt, where dramatic summer thunderstorms, 40°C heat followed by 10°C cold fronts occur,” Smorthwaite recites local summer weather conditions. “How the harvest will turn out is almost impossible to predict.” That said, she continues: “2015 looks good so far. Yields are up and grapes are healthy.” Fruit for bubbly is already in, with Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Chardonnay due at the end of February. Depending on the weather, Syrah and Cabernet could be ready any time between the beginning of March and end of April.

It might seem obvious why there aren’t more vineyards in an area like this but Smorthwaite reflects: “KZN has been a topic of debate and area of consideration with the effects of global warming upon us. Being at an altitude of 1 100 metres and a cool climate, it seems an ideal candidate for the future. The biggest concern is whether global warming will bring more severe storms. This year we’ve had more hail than ever before at a crucial time. Luckily, the netting used for birds helps to shelter the vines, albeit not entirely.”

All winemakers in the Western Cape should thank their lucky stars for conditions here any year and especially, it seems, this year.

– by Angela Lloyd