Cape Winemakers Confront Fires

Blazes in South Africa destroy some vineyards around Stellenbosch Mountain and blanket others with smoke
Mar 19, 2009

Dry summer conditions in South Africa's Cape Town region have helped spark multiple wildfires during recent months, and the blazes are threatening vineyards in the Stellenbosch region. South African vintners are currently waist-deep in harvest, with grapes coming in by the ton (see Ken Forrester's 2009 harvest guest blog for more). As if there wasn't enough to do, the wildfires, or veld fires, as they're locally known, have added a new headache to the busy season. Some of the Cape's top vintners around Stellenbosch Mountain have been affected.

"The past four weeks have seen most of the Stellenbosch Mountain and half the Helderberg go up in flames," said Kevin Arnold, co-owner and head winemaker at Waterford Estate. The mountains are part of a range that makes up the eastern boundary of the appellation. Many vineyards are planted on the slopes.

"Fires started in Jonkershoek in early February and these moved all the way to Somerset West and then back again, around the mountain pretty much back to where they started," said Gyles Webb, co-owner and head winemaker at both Thelema Mountain Vineyards and Tokara. "We've had relative calm the last week, but the vegetation is very dry and there is no rain in the forecast, so there is still a big fire risk."

Webb noted that Tokara lost 12 acres of vines, along with a few hundred additional vines on Thelema's property. The fires also affected the De Trafford, Neil Ellis, Lourensford and Vergelegen wineries.

South Africa's native brush, called fynbos, can dry out quickly, especially during the warm summer months. Wildfires are a constant risk during dry times and wineries with hillside plantings are often on the front lines. Helicopters and firefighters were working hard to contain the blazes.

There are no exact figures yet as to how much land has been burned, but the damage is extensive. "We have had virtually no damage on our property but it was very scary and it took many of us to help save David Trafford and the rest of the land owners in the valley," said Arnold.

In addition to destroying vineyards, fires can also cause smoke taint, leaving a residue on the grapes that results in overtly charred flavors in the resulting wine.

"A strong wind kept our vineyards smoke free for most of the time, but when the Helderberg burnt, we had smoke on our Cabernet Sauvignon block," said Arnold. He plans to test for gaiacol and 4-methylgaiacol, substances that indicate smoke taint. Any grapes that turn up positive for the chemicals will not be used.

While the fires pose an obvious risk to wineries, there is some benefit from them. "The theory is that fynbos should burn every 10 years," said Arnold. "The regeneration of the fynbos is important and dormant seeds in the ground are activated by the heat to germinate and initiate new growth."

Harvest South Africa News

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