According to our winemakers, #Harvest2019 was a mixed bag. While some found it to be adequate, others claim it was the “most challenging yet.” Anton Pretorius spoke to winemakers about the most significant lessons learned during #harvest2019.
Bussell Retief, cellar master at Van Loveren
“In our region (Robertson) we experienced two harvests in 2019. One before and after the big rain of middle March. The heatwave that usually occurs late January and early February came (to everyone’s surprise) as early as October 2018 during the blossoming of noble cultivars like Chardonnay. The blossoms of cultivars like Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc fell from the vine in regions all across the Western Cape. This caused a harvest loss of between 20 and 50% on these cultivars. After the heatwave in October, we expected a much hotter summer which, inexplicably, never realised.
We experienced an exceptionally cool ripening period during this time, which was very positive for grape analysis and wine quality. The rain gave us a massive scare, but with some planning and a bit of luck, we suffered minimum damage. We experienced a bit of rot on one of our Columbar blocks resulting in a 50 ton harvest loss. Surprisingly, our Cabernet Sauvignon stood firm against the onslaught of the 100 mm rain that we received during March.
The last part of season proved to be the most challenging, but we came out the other side unscathed and blessed with a beautiful harvest. Despite an overall 10-20% decrease in the region’s production, Van Loveren’s production was the same as in 2018. The reason for this was the cancellation of the effect of the 2017 frost damage on the 2018 harvest. If we didn’t experience the frost effect on the 2018 harvest, we would effectively, have been down 10% on production.”
Karlin Nel, winemaker at Vrede en Lust
“Some background: We have two properties for wine production, namely Vrede en Lust situation in Simonsberg-Paarl and Casey’s Ridge situated in Elgin. Our production currently runs from about 680-720 tons per year and we produce 24 different wines all coming from these two appellations. This year, we began harvesting on 21 January, collecting Chardonnay from Simonsberg-Paarl for our MCC. We hand harvest our grapes in Elgin and everything is transported to our production cellar at Vrede en Lust.
One thing that we’ve noticed this year is that our Casey’s Ridge vineyards were two weeks earlier on average than previous years. A phenomenon that we picked up on is that the soil in Elgin was 2°C warmer than in 2018 while the soils in Simonsberg-Paarl was 3.5°C cooler than in 2018. We started thinking about the correlation between soil temperature and the accumulation of sugar in the grapes. For us, it’s important to determine what we did in previous years compared to this year and focus on all the parameters leading to berry ripening regarding soil preparation for the harvest season.
My biggest findings for the 2019 harvest was: 1) Harvest started on 21 January, and currently, the destemmer-crusher is still running [Ed note: 10 April 2019]. Patience is key. Don’t rush the grapes. Analyse the vineyards visually and let the vineyards guide your decision-making on harvesting dates. Don’t reply solely on analysis. 2) We’ve had to do some experiments and trials. I experimented with Sauvignon Blanc and different harvesting dates, skin contact, barrels, yeast and nutrition. This is the only way you’ll learn about various vintages and the effect it will have on different winemaking practices. 3) Last but not least, phone a friend! I’ve made multiple calls to fellow winemakers to chat about the season and their findings during the course of the harvest. Sharing is caring. All vineyards are different, but take what’s relevant to you and interpret the advice to suit your vineyards. Nature does not hurry, yet, everything is accomplished.”
Charles Hopkins, cellar master at De Grendel Wines
“I think you’ll get various opinions about harvest 2019. There is a lot of frustrations in certain areas with regards to ripening and sugar that halted after the last rain we received in March. But I must add that we experienced one of our best years in a long time. Our grapes were excellent and the wines confirm this. Last year was especially tough as a result of the drought. But we had water for irrigation and the smaller harvest generally did not influence us as much despite the impact the drought had on the sharpness and quality of last year’s wine. From De Grendel’s point of view, we received good rain during the winter of 2018 and a very temperate ripening period (from the first week of January until the second week in February when the harvest began in all earnest). Many viticulturists predict that 2019 will still carry the burdening effect of the drought in 2018 and it might be true to a degree, but we’re largely unaffected by it.”
Kobus van der Merwe, winemaker at Laborie
“The white wine harvest for 2019 was short and compact and grapes ripened simultaneously right in the middle of the season. We’re seeing a repeating pattern of this every year. In the future, we’ll have to really put effort into our planning when it comes to the delivery and press to process more tonnage quicker. High pH levels and higher acidity was our biggest worry this year with hardly any room to adjust acidity or lower pH levels. For example, on the Chardonnay basis wine, we experienced an acidity level of 10.7 g/L with a pH of 3.35. I believe that the effect of the drought has had a visible impact on the vineyard this year. During 2018’s harvest, the grapes were phenologically riper on lower sugar levels and our only guide was by constantly tasting the wine until the desired flavours were obtained. This year, the desired flavours were never really there due to the fact that we waited on the sugar to develop. With higher conversion of sugar to alcohol we now sit with higher alcohol levels too. After fermentation, timing on the lees is of the utmost importance.”
Johann Fourie, cellar master at Benguela Cove Estate
“What I’ve learnt from this year’s harvest (same as every year) is that you should always expect the unexpected. Don’t rely on analysis and recipes when you’re planning your harvest. Winemaking is all about spending as much time as possible in the vineyard. Every year, Mother Nature has a way of bringing you back down to earth. You’re constantly locked in a dance with her (but you’re not in control). It’s all about finding the right harmony. With our Cabernet Franc, for instance, we had to harvest 22 days earlier than usual because of unexpected early ripening. We’ve definitely seen the effect from last year’s extreme drought.”
Frank Meaker, cellar master at Org de Rac
“Last year’s drought definitely had a lasting impact, especially on the growth of the dryland manne like we have here in the Swartland. The drought also impacted on the vine and I wonder if some of the vines will survive the next harvest … (In fact, some of these vines should not even have had a harvest). I feel there is some tough times ahead for farmers in the marginal production areas.
The windy conditions in October swept away nearly 50% of my production. Furthermore, we experienced a cyclonic Northern wind that brought with it roughly 20 ml of rain including a seven-day heatwave in October (which is unheard of). If these weather patterns form part of climate change then I fear that things will become very difficult for South African grape producers in the future.
In November, we experienced damage to the blossoming varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Shiraz, especially when the grapes were forming. It’s something I’ve never experienced before in my extensive career as a winemaker. Luckily, we had the necessary sorting technology to our disposal to help the process, which gave us decent volumes. If you have the technology, close your eye and laat waai!”
Only our best grapes went into the tank. The quality looks decent – there’s more colour and fruit and it’s slightly more concentrated. But everything is in balance despite the vine carrying 50% less than usual. In essence, I think the 2019 harvest will be a bit of a nightmare financially, and to tell you the truth, I can’t wait for the 2020 season to start – only 277 more sleeps!”
Wim Truter, winemaker at KWV Cathedral Cellars
“This year’s harvest was very challenging. It was also a very humbling experience. We definitely felt the impact of last year’s drought. I think we underestimated the effect the drought might have had on this year’s harvest. We definitely experienced a smaller harvest that expected. On the white wine side, we had a very condensed press with 80% of our volumes completed in a matter of three to four weeks which caused a lot of logistical challenges. Eskom’s load-shedding also didn’t help the matter. Our red wines, on the other hand, allowed us more time and capacity in the cellar (because of the smaller harvest) and we could do extended skin contact, which helped a lot because of lower tannin levels on our red wines this year (we required more extraction time). The earlier cultivars, like Cabernet Sauvignon from the warmer areas, looks excellent, although the rain proved to be problematic. Overall, I think it’ll be a very ‘drinkable’ vintage (due to ‘approachable’ pH levels), but it probably won’t have the maturation potential of the 2018 or 2017 vintage.”
Ivy du Toit, winemaker at Jason’s Hill
“The main differences of #harvest2019 is that many (nearly all) of my red cultivars reached phenological ripeness with lower sugar levels compared to previous years. With red cultivars like Merlot, I struggled to get the desired and necessary sugar levels to be able to harvest. The pH levels were satisfactory, but the grapes appeared very precarious (inconsistent ripening) in various parts of the vineyard block. Total acidity came in rather high and fell out in the cellar. Fermentation tempo was generally slower than in previous years, but not worrying. For me, the total size of harvest 2019 was very much the same as last year.”