Winemakers in the world’s Southern Hemisphere regions have an advantage on their Northern Hemisphere comrades—while grapes are still hanging on the vines up north, down south they are tasting the first wines of the 2015 vintage. Here is the first of our Southern Hemisphere Vintage Previews for 2015, a dispatch from South Africa's Cape wine regions.
The good news: South African producers were nearly universal in their effusive praise for the 2015 growing season—rare for a wine-producing country with myriad climates that are home to a wide range of grape varieties. Very dry weather persisted all season long, but temperatures remained relatively cool, leading to an early harvest across the Cape.
The bad news: The dry conditions and early harvest dates may have led some growers to pick before grapes reached full phenolic maturity. In addition, late-season wildfires forced some producers to pick under less-than-ideal conditions, though so far none have reported any smoke taint issues in the nascent wines.
Analysis: The 2015 season was marked from the start by warm and dry conditions that put the growing season on an early track. Those conditions persisted throughout growing months, but without the deleterious heat spikes that are common in the Cape winelands. Most vineyards avoided any blockage in maturity due to water and heat stress. The upshot is a crop of high quality and uniform ripeness that left some of the region's most experienced vintners nearly giddy with excitement.
“Truly a dream vintage,” said Ken Forrester, whose eponymous Stellenbosch winery is a top Chenin Blanc producer. “I'm inclined to say [that] if I live to be 100 I may never see another vintage like this. Great berry set, and then veraison was very even. There was no mildew or disease problems, just pure, clean unblemished evenly ripened fruit, two weeks earlier than usual with perfect natural acidity and great phenolic profile.”
In the Swartland, where Rhône varieties lead the way, Mullineux Wines co-owner and co-winemaker Andrea Mullineux was equally optimistic. “We had a very dry spring with slightly above-average temperatures,” she said. “Fruit set was early, very even and above average in yield. Summer remained dry and was slightly cooler than average—not cold, just no heat spikes. These conditions were perfect for ripening.”
“2015 was an extraordinary vintage,” said Anthony Hamilton-Russell, whose Hamilton-Russell Vineyards in the Walker Bay area is a top Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producer. “The harvest started a full two weeks early and finished over a period of four weeks, instead of our customary seven.” Despite the fast season, “the grapes were extremely healthy, with thick skins and an unusually low juice content, and the resulting wines are fuller and more concentrated than the 2013s and 2014s.”
There were some notes of caution on the vintage though, as the persistently dry conditions put a premium on irrigation and some vintners report uneven quality. “Due to the cool season, I anticipated that even ripening was a given, but I think the dryness changed this dynamic,” said Coenie Snyman, winemaker at Rust en Vrede in Stellenbosch. “I never felt that the grapes fully developed the flavor profile or the tannin structure, and picking decisions were driven by high sugar and not ripeness.”
Snyman also had to deal with the chaos inflicted by the fires, but thankfully only had to pick grapes in smoke on a single day. “It does not seem to have had any negative effect,” he said.