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Harvest Report 2009

Harvest Report 2009

The information provided in this report was supplied by DGB, Distell, KWV, SAWIS, and the various bodies and individuals mentioned in each regional report, and was compiledby Angela Lloyd.


It is fitting that as South Africa records 350 years of winemaking, 2009 has delivered what promises to be a great vintage year for both white and red wines. As Hartenberg's winemaker, Carl Schultz, puts it: "It wasn't the case of whites being as good as 1997, or reds on a par with 1995, 2000. Having both perform so well in the same vintage is probably what sets 2009 apart from other years."

After a late start, winter 2008 was like the Cape winters of old - plentiful rain and cold, with snow on the mountains. These conditions bolstered both dam and water table levels, and sent the vines into deep dormancy. Good snow and frost was experienced in the eastern areas of Calitzdorp and the Klein Karoo but Boets Nel of regards the 2008/9 season as one of the driest in years.

Early spring in the western part of the Cape brought more heavy rains, causing floods around the Olifants River; it was also unusually cold - on 19 September the temperature on the Jordan's eponymous Stellenbosch farm fell to 4.2ºC. Despite the unusually wet weather, disease pressure remained low, mainly due to the cold conditions accompanied by brisk winds. The cold also delayed budding and growth, suggesting the harvest would be at least two weeks late. 

More floods occurred in November throughout the Breede River Valley and the Overberg, leaving many low-lying vineyards and their infrastructure badly damaged. 

The cooler than average weather continued through to January. After good, even budding, in some areas, the prolonged cool weather affected flowering and berry set, leaving early-ripening varieties, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinotage, with lower yields. But generally, and according to Distell's chief viticulturist, Dirk Bosman, these conditions "...slowed down ripening, which was good for flavour accumulation. Berry size tended to be smaller than average to give an excellent fruit-to-skin ratio, making for outstanding intensity of colour in the reds.'"

The unusually cool weather was not without its concerns. KWV's chief viticulturist, Cobus van Graan, jokingly compared the harvest to a pregnancy scare: "Things were running very late, everyone was worried, but once the test results were known and the grapes looked fine, we all got down to work again and soon no-one could remember what all the fuss was about!" 

Van Graan also comments positively that "thecondition of vine canopies remained superior, ultimately resulting in better grape analysis". This view is endorsed by Bellingham's viticulturist, Stephan Joubert, who describes 2009 as ''a text book crush, the kind that one wishes for at university; low pH and high natural acidity, with all the red grapes showing ideal tannin ripeness". Many viticulturists and winemakers also note that full ripeness was achieved at lower sugar levels, leading to welcome lower alcohols.

From January onwards, it became very dry, making irrigation in less moisture-retentive soils crucial and putting pressure on dryland vineyards with similar soils. In some of the latter blocks, especially around Darling, there were signs of stress towards the end of harvest. Dryland vineyards with virused, late-ripening varieties also struggled to ripen. The dry conditions were exacerbated by the hot weather which arrived later than usual, well into February. Thankfully, by then many of the white varieties, which show expressive aromatics, full flavours and good structure, were already in the cellars.

As usual, with the hotter weather, everything began to ripen simultaneously, often in unusual sequence, putting pressure on space in the cellars. If, in many cases, the harvest began two weeks late, it finished up to a month early. Stress levels ran high for winemakers!

As if everyone involved with the harvest didn't have enough to deal with, fires raged throughout the Cape winelands from 4 February, the worst occurring in the Stellenbosch, Helderberg and Jonkershoek areas; this lasted for nearly five weeks due to its inaccessibility, the heat and wind which often fanned embers. Many hectares of fynbos (indigenous vegetation) were burnt, and many vineyards in these districts were damaged. The problem of smoke taint is being assessed and monitored as the wines develop, but it is likely wine made from some vineyards will not be used.

According to the latest SAWIS statistics, the 2009 harvest is estimated at 1 305 681 tons, an overall decrease of 8.4% on 2008. Reversing last year's trend, only the Klein Karoo anticipates a larger crop.

But as the old saying goes, it is quality, not quantity, that counts and 2009 looks as though it will offer plenty of the former.