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Following a terrific 2003 harvest, South African vintners in the prime areas of Stellenbosch and Paarl, as well as in eastern areas such as Constantia, were more reserved in their praise for the recently completed 2004 harvest.
"Quality is good, but not outstanding," said Jean Engelbrecht, who runs Rust en Vrede estate. "2003 was a freak year -- high quality and quantity -- so it's difficult to compare it directly."
Cool temperatures marked the growing season, leading to a late flowering and veraison (the period when ripening grapes begin to change color). One spell of extreme heat during veraison compromised some vineyards, leading to uneven ripening in bunches.
"The key to quality grapes this year has been crop control," said Chris Williams, winemaker at Meerlust Estate. His viticultural team made five separate passes through the vineyards to remove uneven bunches or unripe berries.
"The winners will be those who bunch-thinned and selected exhaustively," said Anthony Hamilton Russell, of Hamilton Russell Vineyards.
Despite the cool weather, the season was dry so vine diseases, such as rot, that are common to the normally humid region were not prevalent. Early-ripening varieties performed well, particularly South Africa's lead white grape, Sauvignon Blanc.
"The Sauvignon Blanc was gentle with us this year," said Mike Dobrovic, winemaker at Mulderbosch. "Packed with everything ranging from gooseberry to tropical [fruit flavors] -- perhaps due to the uneven ripening."
"[Sauvignon Blanc] developed at a very slow pace to the advantage of flavor development," said Lars Maack, general manager of Buitenverwachting in Constantia.
The dry and cool conditions led to extended hang time, with the harvest stretching into early April -- very late for Cape winemakers. "Many weeks had one or two days when no harvesting took place," said Johan Malan, winemaker for Simonsig. "Our main problem was to be patient and not pick too early."
The extra time on the vines proved beneficial to late-ripening varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. "Cabs are stunning, with Shiraz not too far behind," said Simon Barlow, owner of Rustenberg Estate.
Read James Molesworth's recent harvest and tasting reports on South Africa:
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