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The 2009 Grapes Arrive in South Africa

Ken Forrester is bringing in Pinotage, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc in Stellenbosch.
2009 Southern Harvest Winemakers
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Posted: Feb 13, 2009 3:44pm ET

By Ken Forrester

Posted by Ken Forrester

First of all, I would like to wish all those Southern Hemisphere wineries around the (lower half!) of the globe the best of harvests ever! Good luck to you all, may this be a great vintage for you.

Our sympathies go to all those in Australia—and particularly Victoria—who have suffered loss as a result of those catastrophic fires. We here are not immune either, and although our last really big burn was in 2002, this year has again seen fires across the mountains around Stellenbosch. Typically these wildfires are fanned by the prevailing south-easterly wind, and unless the helicopters (no other way to get at the slopes) get to them during the daylight hours, they can run amok through the night, causing massive destruction. We have woken up for the past three days to the smell of burning and everything covered in ash. Fortunately the winds have been kind, and the blaze is now almost under control, thanks to all those fire crews who have been at it relentlessly.

The summer heat has finally hit, and there is ripe fruit all over the place. Isn’t that typical? First the waiting game, and then panic as it all happens at once!

So we have Pinotage and Sauvignon Blanc coming in, there’s Chenin just waiting, and I know many guys have harvested their Chardonnay as well. Surprisingly, the Merlot is showing high early sugars but, coupled with green phenolics, this variety is going to be a test of nerves and patience as the sugar/potential alcohol climbs and ripeness creeps along behind it. Clear days are predicted for the next week, with moderately high temperatures ranging from about 16° C to 36° C. That’s all good!

So far, the crop estimates appear to be on track, with a crop of whites very similar to last year's; time will tell as we get to ripeness on the reds in the coming weeks.

We took a trip up to Elgin, a relatively new vineyard appellation just over the mountains that already has a loyal following of great winemakers sourcing some really cool-climate fruit: Gyles Webb, Ross Gower, Neil Ellis and Martin Meinert, to mention just a few. It’s really a very special area, with predominantly cool, steep slopes. It's obviously a unique microclimate, and the fruit we saw was fantastic: leaf-green Sauvignon, a single and unique Chenin vineyard where the current analysis is 16 Balling (what you call Brix in the States), a total acidity of 16.4 and a pH of 2.45—insane stuff!

Getting around a little to check out various vineyards took me up to the Swartland earlier this week, about 1.5 hours north of Stellenbosch. Swartland is a drier appellation and somewhat warmer, and is also long established, so there are plenty of old bush-vine vineyards. It's a real treasure trove of quality and lower yields, with some wonderfully balanced fruit in the right hands. More and more of our smart winemakers—Eben Sadie, Adi Badenhorst, and even Charles Back from Paarl—are sourcing fruit out of this region, which seems to produce some very fine Chenin and some great reds: Pinotage, Shiraz, even a smattering of old-vine Grenache, which is fast gaining popularity. And fortunately we are seeing more and more new plantings.

Well, the weekend beckons: Some rugby ahead with the start of the Super 14 series. All the more reason to get together with some friends for a good old South African braai!

More about the crush next week.

Dennis D Bishop
Shelby Twp., MI, USA —  February 14, 2009 9:45am ET
Thank you for this most interesting update! I look forward to more of your reports!

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