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2017 Harvest Report: Despite Drought, Potential Is High for South African Wines

A dry winter and growing season was challenging for vines in the Cape wine regions
Old vines, likes these for Alheit winery, fared better in a dry year in the Cape wine regions.
Photo by: Courtesy Alheit
Old vines, likes these for Alheit winery, fared better in a dry year in the Cape wine regions.

James Molesworth
Posted: June 12, 2017

South African vintners dealt with an extremely dry growing season in 2017, resulting in a small crop. But vintners are enthusiastic about quality, noting that the wines are rich and concentrated due to the smaller berries, while on the more elegant side stylistically, thanks to even and moderate temperatures throughout the season.

"2017 was a very nice vintage all around," said Chris Alheit, whose eponymous winery is making some of the country's most distinctive white wines from parcels located around the Cape. "Tasting the barrels now I'm convinced that it's at least of the same quality level as 2015. Having said that, the 2015s were generally quite powerful, while the 2017s seem finer. Both vintages made very concentrated wine, just different in nature."

The season was dry from the start, and following a dry winter there was little moisture in the soils. Luckily temperatures were normal during the days, cooler at nights and a healthy fruit set and full canopies allowed vintners to manage their vineyards effectively.

"Nighttime temperatures were cooler and this resulted in higher acid retention," said Adam Mason, winemaker at Mulderbosch. "On average, daytime temperatures were in line with long-term average, and there were no major heat waves this year."

"November and December saw virtually no rain, resulting in a very nervous situation," said Coenie Snyman, winemaker at Rust en Vrede estate in Stellenbosch. "We had to start irrigation in December before veraison. The only other vintage we irrigated before veraison was in 2015. The cooler days and nights resulted in slower sugar accumulation but the phenolics kept developing. It was unique to see phenolic ripeness at lower sugar levels."

As the drought conditions persisted, those working in dry-farmed vineyards saw some stress on younger vines, which have shallower roots and struggle to find water in dry years. But while there were some stressed vines, there was no halt in ripening in the Cape's vineyards, with most spots continuing to accumulate both sugars and phenolics.

"The young vines took a lot of strain in spite of the mild temperatures," said Adi Badenhorst of A.A. Badenhorst Family in the Swartland. "The old vines were fabulous this year. The crops were decent and the fruit very healthy and flavorful."

Finally, a significant rain fell in late January across the Cape, save for the Swartland, giving the vines a boost heading into the harvest period. ”The [earlier] dry conditions contributed to healthy vineyards with almost no pests, diseases or the occurrence of rot," said Hannes Storm of Storm Wines, a top Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producer in Walker Bay.

In the end, the producers say the wines are showing ripeness and concentration. The only caveat is slightly lower acidities. "Much of the perceived freshness was malic acid and that was lost in malolactic fermentation," said Eben Sadie of Sadie Family.

"Plenty of challenges, but I think we had a cracking vintage," said Duncan Savage of Savage Wines. "Whites are lively and fresh, with the reds showing brightness and fruit purity. An all around classy affair."

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