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Despite weather patterns that can vary by region, and despite the numerous microclimates within premier regions such as Stellenbosch, producers in South Africa are almost unanimous in their praise for 2003. Some call it the best vintage in a generation.
"If you are a young winemaker starting with your first harvest in 2003, you'll spend the next 20 years wondering what went wrong," said Jean Engelbrecht, who runs Rust En Vrede in Stellenbosch, one of the country's top wineries. "2003 was a one-in-25-years harvest."
Mike Ratcliffe, director of Warwick Estate in Stellenbosch, called the vintage "sensational."
Wet and cold winter conditions allowed vines to go fully dormant in preparation for the growth cycle. During the growing season, from September through February, there was little or no rainfall, while temperatures generally remained cool, thanks to steady breezes. Without significant rain, heat or the humidity that sometimes builds up later in the growing season, South African vintners had little trouble with the mildew and disease that are common problems in the country's vineyards. The grapes were able to ripen slowly and fully, with even berry size and full maturity.
Winemakers reported that yields were higher than in previous vintages, but within the normal range, since recent vintages produced smaller-than-average crops. In addition, many new Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah plantings have come into production recently, adding to the overall crop size.
Most producers were ecstatic about the quality of their Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot. South Africa's prominent white varieties -- Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc -- also performed well.
Mike Dobrovic, winemaker at Mulderbosch winery in Stellenbosch, said he brought in Sauvignon Blanc with tropical flavors, as opposed to the more typical gooseberry flavors -- a sign of the vintage's ripeness. Dobrovic is also excited over the prospects for his Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. "The next eight months of aging will be anticipated with interest," he said.
Outside of Stellenbosch, prominent wineries were equally satisfied with the vintage. In Walker Bay, where Hamilton Russell winery produces some of the country's best Chardonnay as well as high-quality Pinot Noir (a rarity in South Africa), owner Anthony Hamilton Russell said, "We had long hang times and managed to avoid any significant problems with rot or downy mildew."
At Glen Carlou in Paarl, winemaker David Finlayson said, "I only had one tank in 50 that I wasn't pleased with. Shiraz and Merlot are exceptionally dark, rich and soft. Cabs are elegant, yet structured."
Read last year's harvest report:
Read James Molesworth's latest tasting report on South Africa:
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