Vineyards in the U.S. and Europe are just flowering, but there's juice fermenting in the tanks down south, in the Southern Hemisphere, that is. Variety is the spice of life, but South African winemakers may be cursing it. South Africa's top wine regions produced dramatically different results this growing season, especially between hot, dry inland areas and cooler coastal zones.
South African vintners are happy overall with potential quality following the recent 2011 harvest. But grape quality and yields varied tremendously from area to area, and even within individual estates. “One thing is for sure,” said Peter Finlayson of Bouchard Finlayson, a top Pinot Noir producer located in the Walker Bay district. “You will receive very conflicting reports from around the Cape for vintage 2011.”
The one consistent factor in 2011 was the timing of the season, which ran several weeks early. “The harvest was early and it was very fast too,” said Luke O’Cuinneagain, winemaker at Glenelly Estate in Stellenbosch. “We managed to get some blocks in that were riper at lower sugar levels, but it did require intensive sorting as Cabernet Sauvignon in particular had a lot of green, shot berries. Overall, quantity was the same but there were variations—Chardonnay was down, Merlot was up, Petit Verdot was down, etc.”
Following a warmer-than-usual winter, vines developed buds early. Windy conditions during flowering produced an irregular crop set. Steady rain fell through the early part of the season, but by mid-January the weather turned warm and dry, resulting in a disease-free growing season. “We do natural fermentations, and the health of the vineyards helped give us very strong [yeast] cultures this year,” said Andrea Mullineux of Mullineux Vineyards in the Voor-Paardeberg ward, which specializes in Syrah and Chenin Blanc and Rhône varieties. "The fermentations cruised through to dryness."
The dry weather reduced yields even more. “Berry size was very low as we received almost no rain during the growing season. Yields were down 20 percent,” said José Condé of Stark-Condé, located in the Jonkershoek Valley ward. “Once we hit veraison, the crop was so light and the vines in good shape that ripening just blasted through. The biggest challenge was the Bordeaux varieties, so I do expect careful barrel selections with Merlot and Cabernet.”
Conditions were hot and dry during harvest at Ken Forrester Vineyards in Stellenbosch.
The problem for the Bordeaux varieties was sugars developing before tannins. “With the lack of cool nights, we had rapid sugar load that resulted in higher alcohols and tough tannins. Tannin management will be key for the reds,” said Miles Mossop, winemaker at both Stellenbosch’s Tokara as well as his eponymous label.
While Bordeaux varieties struggled, other varieties, including Syrah and Chenin Blanc, seemed to relish the growing season. “Both came in early, with lots of flavor concentration and good color,” said Christophe Durand of Vins d’Orrance, a top boutique producer.
While the inland areas dealt with the difficulties of the hot and dry season, the cooler coastal areas naturally offset those conditions, and whites from those areas performed well. “It was a season that really seems to suit us best,” said Duncan Savage of Cape Point Vineyards, a top Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon producer located on the Cape Point peninsula. “The vineyard blocks with a bit of clay in the soil profile performed best of all [as they retained water better] with wonderful structure and intensity in the wines.”
“It shows on the nose of the Sauvignon Blanc that we get from Darling [a cool, costal area],” said Anthony de Jager, winemaker at Fairview, who echoed Savage’s thoughts. “The whites are more tropical than spicy and green, with nice rich mouthfeel.”
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