January 2020 was a challenging month. This seems to be the sentiment everywhere I go. There’s no escaping the economic, social and climatic challenges around us, but as talk has moved on from Australian wildfires to the Corona virus and wine in cans, there is one group of people who, at this time of year, is not as concerned with such newsworthy matters. Winemakers.
Winemakers in my eyes are more than those with the title. This time of year, everyone involved in getting the new vintage into the cellar is making wine – from the viticulturist and farm workers to the actual Cellarmaster and his team. With the South African wine grape harvest in full swing, these winemakers are getting up early and going to bed late, they carefully consider picking times and analyses and for most of the first three months of the year, they are trying to balance the unpredictability of nature with their cellar capacity, human resources and the ultimate style and quality of wine they want to produce.
Except for the Northern Cape that suffered wide-spread frost damage, the drought roll-over effect in the Olifants River and some parts of the Klein Karoo that are still experiencing drought conditions, Vinpro predicted 2020 to have a slightly bigger harvest than in 2019, although still smaller than the long term average. The small drought-induced harvests prior to 2019 brought production volumes down and prices slightly up and industry leaders agree that there is a better equilibrium in SA wine.
“South African wine grape producers’ financial viability is looking up following a long downward cycle; however, there is still a long road towards sustainability”, says Vinpro agricultural economist, Pierre-André Rabie. (Read more) According to their surveys, 28% of wine grape producers were making a profit in 2019, compared to 2015’s 15%. While uprooting of vineyards and a decline in area under vines were prevalent in recent years, an increase in average return on investment can encourage farmers to plant again. Latest figures show the average return on investment to have increased from less than 1% in 2015 to 4.83% in 2019, while the aim is to reach 9%. These positive figures are part of the reason why, since 2018, we see an increase in the replanting of vineyards. Despite this, however, Vinpro predicts that “Total plantings will probably decrease by a further 5 000 to 7 000 ha before the area under vines starts stabilising.”
Coming back to what we can expect of the 2020 vintage. With a moderate ripening season and sufficient water ensuring better volumes, Vinpro Viticulturist Conrad Schutte’s early quality expectations are also good: “We see good tonnages and grapes with beautiful colour, high malic acid and low pH levels…” (Read more)
On trend with the bigger industry, we started the La Motte harvest one week earlier than in 2019. With the focus currently on Sauvignon Blanc, Cellarmaster Edmund Terblanche reports that Sauvignon Blanc volumes from the Franschhoek property are currently 100% up on the same time last year. He expects alcohol to be lower and is happy to report healthy grapes with fresh and lively flavours. Volumes from our Walker Bay vineyards are, however, expected to be smaller. Hail during November resulted in losses and untimely rains in January damaged Sauvignon Blanc berries. “We know that this region is a higher risk area for Sauvignon Blanc”, says Edmund, “but the flavour quality we get from these grapes, make up for any risk.” With February heat kicking in, it’s important to carefully monitor ripening and ensure all the hard work done in the vineyards are honoured during the harvesting and winemaking processes.
There is much to worry about in today’s world, but when you feel the sun on your back in the vineyards, get your hands dirty on the sorting table and smell fermentation in the cellar, it is easy to forget the world and its troubles. While tired cellar hands might disagree, there is no denying the romance of harvest-time in the Winelands. This special time involves the whole community, it brings opportunity and possibility. Having a harvest is a blessing.