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Pinotage Shines in South Africa's 1999 Harvest

Melvyn Minnaar
Posted: July 5, 1999

South Africa's long, difficult 1999 harvest has finally put to rest the perception that there are only minor variations among Cape vintages. Weather conditions were confusingly abnormal, and no vintner is claiming that this year has produced star wines, unlike the brilliant 1995 and, to a lesser degree, 1997 vintages. There might be some stunners, but those would be due mostly to individual winemaking skills.

However, 1999 is a good year for Pinotage, according to Beyers Truter, winemaker for the esteemed Kanonkop Estate in Stellenbosch, whose highly rated Pinotages have earned international attention for the indigenous varietal. Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, ripens early and thus obtained full ripeness in what was an extremely long and very dry summer. At a tasting Truter organized of the 1999 Pinotage from various regions, the samples showed strong, typical berry and banana flavors, with the year's smaller volumes producing more concentrated flavors.

Other varietals did not fare as well. The harvest period was the longest ever, and many grapes did not achieve optimum ripeness. Exceptional care in the vineyard and cellar may be the only reason that solid reds get onto the market. "Cutting out the unripe bunches was vital," said Norma Ratcliffe of Warwick Estate, which makes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Pleased with the latter's intensity this year, she commented, "It's the best Cabernet Franc we've ever made."

Cool, wet weather during flowering resulted in weak bunch set for some varietals. Following that, heat and drought caused loose bunches with small berries, except in the cases of Chenin Blanc, Cinsault and Shiraz, whose yields increased from last year. Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot yielded about as much as they did in 1998, while Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay volumes are down. Gyles Webb, winemaker and co-owner of Thelema Mountain Vineyards in Stellenbosch, said that late snow in the flowering period cut his Chardonnay down 45 percent, but resulted in concentrated flavors.

Overall, South Africa's total harvest increased 10 percent from last year. Despite increased plantings, this is still less than the record 1996 vintage.

For past South Africa harvest reports:

  • July 8, 1997
    Weather Plays Havoc With Southern Hemisphere Harvests

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