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Harvest 2008: South African Vintners Deal With Inconsistent Weather

A cool, wet growing season puts a premium on vineyard management

James Molesworth
Posted: May 27, 2008

South African vintners worked through a difficult growing season this year, resulting in an 2008 harvest that looks to be wildly uneven from region to region and producer to producer.

"If ever there was a vintage with marked weather and climatic difference between different regions, this was it," said Carl Schultz, winemaker at Hartenberg Estate, located in Stellenbosch.

Following a very cool and long winter, budbreak was delayed by up to two weeks. Springtime saw above-average rainfalls across the Cape's growing regions, with intermittent heat spikes that affected early-ripening white grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. "We had much less vegetative growth and very quick ripening on the early varieties," said Abrie Beeslaar, winemaker at Kanonkop Estate in Stellenbosch.

Chenin Blanc ripened at varying intervals during the early and mid-growing season as well, allowing growers to pick at varying degrees of potential alcohol and acidity, a benefit for the grape, which can be made in dry, off-dry and sweet versions. "With lots of variation and scope to separate batches [of Chenin] for later blending, [2008 has] all the makings of a classic vintage for Chenin," said Ken Forrester, whose eponymous winery is one of the Cape's top Chenin Blanc producers.

Following the harvest of the white varieties, the rainy weather continued through the growing season, though some growers reported they were able to deal with the conditions. "Overall we had higher rainfall for the growing season, but the timing was generally good, falling either just before or after heat spikes," said José Condé, owner and winemaker at Stark-Condé, located in the Jonkershoek ward of Stellenbosch. "The excess moisture was either quickly evaporated or served to temper vine stress."

Not everyone was as lucky however, as growers who reported vineyards with overzealous canopies had to deal with rot, compared to those with lighter canopies who were able to benefit from the drying southeasterly wind that blows during the growing season. Cooler temperatures pushed back the harvest of the reds. "This was a vintage to test the patience of the growers," said Forrester. "Those carrying too much crop must have had relatively early 'sugar ripeness' [but] with hard, green tannins."

Workers bring in this year's harvest at Rust En Vrede in South Africa's Stellenbosch region.

Vineyard management was critical for success. Growers needed more green harvesting than usual to keep crop levels in the normal range, ensuring ripening. Extra leaf pulling was also necessary, to provide air circulation through the canopy (to offset the moisture). "Difficult weather conditions during the whole season required 25 percent more labor hours in the vineyard," said Mike Dobrovic of Stellenbosch's Mulderbosch Vineyards.

With the added hang time and cooler temperatures, most Stellenbosch-based growers reported their late-ripening and thick-skinned Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon looked strong, with dark colors but noticeably lower than normal alcohols.

Outside of Stellenbosch, the Cape's prime winegrowing area, the inconsistencies of the vintage continued. In the warmer, inland Swartland region, where Rhône varieties are becoming more popular, Sequillo and Sadie Family owner and winemaker Eben Sadie noted, "I saw the best Mourvèdre and Grenache ever, even the Carignane came through perfect."

Elsewhere, in the cool, coastal Walker Bay region, white varieties outperformed the reds. "Overall 2008 will go down as more of a white wine year," said Anthony Hamilton-Russell, owner of Hamilton-Russell Vineyards. "The Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are denser and a little more complex than 2007. The reds are lighter, finer and less fleshy."

With the up-and-down growing season leading to the inconsistent performances across the Cape, winemaker and co-owner Marc Kent of Franschhoek Valley-based Boekenhoutskloof summed it up, saying, "Overall I'm of the opinion that this will be one of our lesser vintages, like '02, but with good selection and blending, pockets of brilliance will emerge."

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