Harvest 2018: South Africa

This year’s struggles in South Africa should come as no surprise to the wine trade – with serious drought in the Western Cape affecting both natural supplies of water and government allocations.

“The 2018 harvest has been the most challenging I have ever known,” says Bibendum buyer for South Africa Paul Meihuizen. “The official figures at this stage indicate that the overall crop will be down by 15%. Cooler-climate regions like Elgin and Walker Bay, as well as certain sub wards in Stellenbosch, were less affected with only slightly lower to average crop sizes this year. The dryland Swartland region has been the worst affected, with crop sizes down by up to 50% - and even higher in certain areas.

“Although down in volume, I am expecting the quality to be fairly good this year, especially on the white wines that could be harvested early. Reds are shaping up well despite the challenges and smaller yields. Later-ripening varieties were more challenging but are of good quality. We can expect alcohol levels to be lower this year.

“The challenge for South Africa going forward will be linked firstly to how wet the winter is in 2018, as some serious rainfall is needed to replenish the main storage dams. Secondly, it will be down to what the damage, if any, has been caused to the vines due to this year’s dry conditions,” Paul says.

Benguela Cove, Walker Bay

Located a mere 2.7m above sea level, where Walker Bay meets Bot River, Benguela Cove’s growing season was dry but cooler than usual, with lots of wind. “The drought is playing a role in the size of the harvest”, says winemaker Johann Fourie, “but it wasn’t a game changer at Benguela Cove. Being a 95% dryland estate, we had to irrigate some vineyard blocks twice that never needed water before. So yes, it was dry and the vines communicated that. Although the vines didn’t struggle, we can see the knock-on effect of three consecutive dry years in the smaller yield. It also varies from variety to variety. Chardonnay is down by 45% and Sauvignon Blanc down by 10%.

“Vines are wonderful things – they learn how to compensate and have visibly adjusted to the marginal conditions close to the sea. There was almost no evidence of salt burn on the vines, compared to when the vines were first established. Wind was our friend and kept the vines healthy. The cool breezes also play a huge role in cooling the vines in the peak of summer.

“Fortunately, we picked at the right times. The 2018 harvest has the potential to produce elegant, vibrant and concentrated wines packed with fruit. Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz will always flourish here, but the Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay might find themselves on the podium this year!”

Creation, Walker Bay

Creation cellarmaster Jean-Claude (JC) Martin is positive about the 2018 vintage for their site on the lofty Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge.

“The harvest started on schedule and we had perfect amounts of rain, just enough to keep the vineyards happy and not under too much stress,” he says. “The Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier grapes are reaching the cellar in prime condition, with no big variances in volume when compared to last year’s yields. All of the Pinot Noir is now in and although the yield has dropped by some 20% from 2017, quality increased this year.”

Graham Beck, Robertson

“This has been one of our most challenging vintages in recent years due to the extreme drought conditions persisting in the Western Cape,” says cellarmaster Pieter Ferreira. “However, conditions were promising during the run up and early summer was warm and dry, with very healthy conditions and no disease pressure.”

This year’s heat wave, combined with the severe drought conditions and limits on irrigation, made it difficult to keep vineyards in balance at Graham Beck. Cool temperatures in February helpfully slowed down ripening, leading to an extended 28-day harvest period – one of the longest in this Cap Classique producer’s 28-year history! Thanks to this, natural acidity levels were well preserved and the aromas in the wines are intense. After tasting the base wine components, Pieter and winemaker Pierre de Klerk are particularly excited about the Chardonnay, which has great aromas, bright acidity, good texture and great mid-palate weight.

Picking at Journey's End

Journey's End, Stellenbosch

Sporadic rainfall during spring and summer provided some relief for Journey’s End’s vineyards, which suffered, like the rest of the Cape, from severe drought this year. The annual rainfall for 2017 was below average for the third consecutive year, and only 600mm of rain fell over the farm in comparison to the normal 800mm.

The ripening period was met with temperate conditions, mild temperatures and light breezes – differing drastically from 2017, which had a number of heat waves and very strong winds. These conditions allowed for longer hang time and thus harvest was later than usual. This was also one of the longest harvest periods Journey’s End has experienced.

“The ongoing drought brought about another exceptional vintage at Journey’s End in 2018,” says director Rollo Gabb. “The berries were small and had very concentrated flavours (with very little water present to dilute flavours) and the bunches were also far lighter than previous vintages.

“Minimalist winemaking was the name of the game this year with extremely small, concentrated berries that could potentially create highly phenolic and extractive wines. The white grapes were pressed very gently, minimizing phenolic extraction and lessening the risk of juice browning and bitterness. Our red wines were also treated very gently, keeping them soft with a balanced tannic structure. Red colour uptake was intense and immediate due to the high skin to juice ratio from smaller berries, and nice high natural acidity. The correlating low pHs produced very clean refined wines with great linearity and elegance.”

Spier, Stellenbosch

The 2018 harvest at Spier is down 15% compared to the forecasted yield, with Chenin Blanc, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon worst affected. The hardest hit was Spier’s Nooitgedacht farm in Paarl, which is 35% down on expectations.

“Considering the dry and warm conditions we’ve been experiencing, we’re very happy with the quality of the white wines,” says Frans Smit, Spier’s cellarmaster. “We were very choosy about what we picked, and careful processing in the cellar ensured we were able to keep our standards high.

“The quality of our reds is outstanding. A lot of the lower yields – resulting in smaller berries and smaller bunches – reflects in the intensity of the colour and the overall quality. The varieties we picked earlier, such as Pinotage and Merlot, look especially promising, but the rest, with time, will definitely be right up there with them.”

Steenberg, Constantia

Despite the drought conditions, Constantia has more water than most other growing regions. A cool spring brought about uneven budding and flowering, with a late-starting harvest. Cool temperatures continued, resulting in high acid and low pHs, perfect for the Sauvignon Blanc grapes in particular. In terms of volume, Steenberg is 14% down on last year – with Sauvignon Blanc down 18%.

Stellenrust, Stellenbosch

“The picking teams set off with their secateurs on 6 February this year – a full 12 days later than in 2017. It was our latest start in 13 years,” says winemaker Tertius Boshoff. “Warmer conditions led to quick ripening and the harvest team had their hands full taking in one third of our entire grape harvest within 10 days!”

Tertius is quick to emphasise the severity of the drought, with irrigation dams completely out of use this year. However, the vineyards have found ways to adapt to the conditions. The 2017 winter was very dry but still cool, so the slow temperature rise with summer onset allowed for slower, gentler ripening. The cool canopies of the bush vine Chenin Blanc gave welcome shade to protect the grapes from sunburn as the heat grew.

“Quality from dryland vineyards harvested from our properties looks exceptional, despite the drought,” says Tertius. “Analyses on the juice are promising and the wines that have finished fermentation are delightful little fruit bombs. 2018 is definitely the year of the viticulturist and winemaker.”

Strydom Vineyards, Stellenbosch

“I was pretty happy with the Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah that we harvested this year,” says winemaker Rianie Strydom. “The Chenin was very healthy and I was able to pick twice in order to spread the flavour profile across the different sugar levels. The pH is nice and low, and acidities quite fresh. Long term I am seeking this in the wine in order to give me ageing potential. This year the wine is in 80% Amphora, which is very exciting for me.

“Our Syrah ripened as expected, with no issues. As you know our season was quite dry and we had to be very strict with our water management. Shiraz is a good grower and happily ripened the grapes to perfection.

“The Cabernet Sauvignon was a bit more of a challenge. As a late ripener, the cool weather setting in from early March slowed down its ripening a lot, meaning we picked a bit later than expected. The berries were very tiny, so I slightly adapted the pump-over regime in order to prevent extracting too much tannin and maintain our focus on the fruit.”

See an overview of the Southern Hemisphere harvest in our 2018 report

Jess cut her teeth in the drinks industry throwing muddlers around behind the bar at Be At One. After a brief stint as an education journalist she found her way back to booze in the rather more sophisticated arena of wine, and was shown the ropes by the very best wine educators at Bibendum.

Leave a Comment

* Indicates a required field