New harvest: The road to the 2024 vintage

Tuesday, 20 February, 2024
Despite the recent unpredictability of the winelands’ climate, harvest is now in full swing. DGB’s wine team reflects on the growing season behind the 2024 vintage.

The wonders of winter 2023

A cold and wet winter arrived earlier than usual in 2023, setting the vineyards up for an exceptional period of restoration.

One of the wettest winters on record, Stellenbosch’s cumulative rainfall for January through July was not only double that of the drier 2022 but also significantly above the long-term average – especially during the months February through September. The late September rains bringing the cumulative total rainfall to just over 1000mm for the year.

The abundant rainfall resulted in both the dams and underground water sources – including boreholes - filling up to capacity. A welcome change after the slow recovery from the 2015-2017 drought.

In particular, the post-harvest rain period was immensely beneficial for the vines, allowing for very good root development. The subsoil not only being saturated but also well-saturated ground soil – much deeper than usual – set to protect the vines during warmer and drier periods.

“A more developed root system is essential for delivering high quality fruit as it is better buffered against warm spells in the dry summer months. This allows the vineyard to retain natural acidity in the grapes during the warmer spells and develop and protect flavours and flavour pre-cursers in the berries,” explains Stephan Joubert, Group Winemaker for premium wine producer, DGB.

In addition to being one of the wettest years on record, 2023 was also one of the coldest in terms of cumulative chill units – only surpassed by the 2019 vintage – reaching almost 400 units. This healthy accumulation occurred in each winter month from May to July – the first time this has happened in seven years.

The sufficient chill unit accumulation, though largely beneficial, also meant that during three instances of unusual heat spikes in July, premature budding was observed in isolated areas.

Below the vines, cover crop was another aspect affected by this remarkable winter, if planting was left too late, the wet soils and cold weather proved adverse for germination, although those who planted early reaped the rewards and saw fantastic growth of the related cover crop.

The cold spells, together with the heavy rain, meant all vines went into proper dormancy, showing promise for the growing season ahead.

That’s not to say the season had been without its challenges, with producers closely monitoring the arrival of snails, while tackling the increased growth of weeds due to the extensive rain – controlling these is important, especially on the banks where the vines are planted.

Overall, the winter provided an excellent start to the 2024 harvest season, with healthy growth expected in the first phase of growing season.

The challenges of summer

The late September rains and windstorms presented further challenges, particularly in the Elgin region with severe damage to dams and infrastructure which required repair and reinvestment.

While vines and new growth were thankfully free from damage, the excess amounts of water in the soil meant farmers needed to be on the lookout for disease affecting the vines during the weeks that followed.

The rain also meant there were delays in the planting of new vines, due to very wet soils which made the vineyards difficult to access says DGB’s Viticulturist Heinie Nel, “Although the planting of new vineyards on steep slopes proved challenging due to the wet, we still managed to get 11ha planted through well planned timing and plan to continue as the soils give us a chance.”

The phenomenal winter saw the arrival of budbreak earlier than usually anticipated, with the beautiful early October weather being well suited to this time of rebirth and rejuvenation.

However, as ever temperamental as life in the vineyards proves to be, the end of October saw the arrival of unexpected winds, which predominantly impacted the white varieties which had begun early flowering, this would result in less berries and naturally a smaller crop.

From October till end January there was almost no rain (10mm), and constant wind but given the wet winter, the dam levels were at 100% capacity which meant there was more than sufficient water for irrigation. Lower stages of load shedding also helped with irrigation cycles, ensuring the vines were suitably hydrated during this vital period.

January’s warm weather when paired with this vintage’s small crop saw varieties ready to harvest almost two weeks earlier.

Nel concludes, “Given the small, concentrated berries we’re seeing we can expect the 2024 harvest to be a great year when it comes to wine quality. We’re already seeing this in the early pickings, the flavour of Sauvignon Blanc is great, and we’re seeing good analyses on all the early varieties so far. We hope to deliver a super vintage from this year’s harvest.”

The growing prestige of South African wines from special vineyards currently observed worldwide continues to be a big motivator for DGB as they continue their commitment to crafting the best South Africa has to offer, and the team is filled with confidence after the early signs of this harvest. One which has demonstrated all the wonders and challenges faced when making wine in the majestic Cape Winelands.

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Richard Duckitt, DGB red wine maker
Richard Duckitt, DGB red wine maker

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