Harvest 2012: All's well that ends well

Viewers from 'Old World' wine countries, such as France and Germany imagine that reliable weather conditions at harvest make growing wine in the 'New World' predictable and consistent. The 2012 harvest did its best to defy that presumption and yet, when all is said and done, it could turn out to be much like last year, with similar production levels and similar quality levels.
Similarities, definitely, but red and white grapes took different routes to get there.

What started out as a rather ‘bullish’ projection of bumper, healthy crops, is likely to end only slightly larger than last year. In November, VinPro was announcing a 4% to 10% increase on last year at around 1.35 million tons, estimates are now suggesting 1.33m tons (SAWIS 21.02.12).

Overall, the story is of a cold winter but with insufficient rain to replenish vital water resources. There was little damage caused by the Cape Doctor winds, though cooler weather conditions during the flowering and set periods caused poor and uneven fruit set (Millerandage) and in some areas Oidium (powdery mildew) was a problem for whites.

The Orange River region is returning to normal after the devastating floods which reduced the 2011 harvest. Yields are up, but not yet near the 2010 totals. After a cold Spring which delayed fruit set, harvest was some two weeks later than normal and the extra ‘hang time’ saw a better sugar-acid balance and quality looks good.

Despite a cooler growing season, the Olifants River should see a larger harvest than last year. Quality should be good as grapes had a longer hang-time (left on the vine) and care was taken by many, including Koos Thiart at Bellpost, to pick in the cool of the evening, ensuring healthy, cool grapes arriving at the cellar.

Swartland suffered from drought throughout much of the season, and 50% less rainfall than usual. With some days spiking at more than 40°C, sunburn was a problem for grapes and less protected bush vines suffered most. Humidity caused problems with Oidium in Siebritskloof but overall quality, according to Malanot winemaker Marius Malan, ‘is looking great, but with low yields’. Sugars are high, but optimum ripeness was largely achieved and Marius believes the strong Swartland natural yeasts will cope.

Robertson had higher than usual rainfall, mixed with periods of intense heat where sunburn was again a risk for some grapes, but there was little disease and yields on most varieties will be up. Despite mid-ripening varieties, like Chenin, lacking acidity, Cobus Marais at Cloverfield is predicting good quality all round with some excellent whites, especially Sauvignon Blanc.

Expectations are high at Boplaas in the Klein Karoo according to Margaux Nel. After a drier than normal winter, berries remained small and rot free and with yields down by 25%, Margaux is confident of some very special ports this year. Picking is ongoing, as elsewhere slightly late, but already the Pinotage and Touriga Nacional is looking good. Muscadel and Hanepoot saw sugars reach 34 balling and should be excellent this year. ‘We are very happy’, said Margaux.

The Paarl and Stellenbosch areas had their share of trials. Rain and wind in Stellenbosch in early Summer created some Millerandage, Stellenbosch battled with Downy and Powdery mildew, then Paarl saw consecutive days where temperatures hit 40°C, though both enjoyed a dry, even cooler in places, more normal vintage, if somewhat later; "Grapes are ripening slower and later than usual", notes Francois Bezuidenhout of MANvintners, "yet reaching ripeness earlier and at a lower balling".

Good news for those who agree with the Wine Intelligence Report which concluded that most people prefer wines at lower alcohol levels; in fact a quarter of those surveyed preferred less than 10.5% alcohol; a tough ask for most of South Africa! (Wine Magazine Online 'Low tolerance for high alcohol', 21.02.12). Whites are more problematic, the Bormans at Boschkloof were still waiting for sugar levels to rise in mid February, and Francois hasn’t started picking Chenin or Chardonnay yet. The Sauvignon Blanc, a supposed 'early' cultivar has just been picked. Harvest is two weeks later at Stark-Condé also, and Raymond Noppe says this has resulted in better phenolic ripeness and acid balance, as well as spreading out the harvest and relieving pressure on the cellar. Quality, says Raymond, "looks very good".

On the whole, in this region, a healthy, robust crop but with few exceptional wines, as Francois Bezuidenhout says, "no fireworks this year".

The reds will be especially good at Eagle’s Nest, in Constantia. Winemaker Stuart Botha is pleased that after a cool Spring and threats from Mildew there should be a medium sized crop with good colour requiring little, if any, acid additions. Stuart believes that what looked an average season will produce long-lived, balanced wines with, "ripe, juicy tannins".

Good acid levels, small berries, little disease, ripe fruit; things are looking "fantastic" says Nadia Newton Johnson at Newton Johnson Vineyards in Upper Hemel-en-Aarde. Not enough rain and too much heat at times didn’t prevent the early Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from looking "excellent", says Nadia, and the reds about to come in look very good, too.

Little respite for producers, though. With yields this year up for some and down for others it looks likely that margins will remain tight. Increases in costs running at 5% a year (Vinpro) and excise increases at 12% p.a. there seems little change to producer income which has been declining since 2004 by an average of 8% a year; showing a depressing return of only R5 360 a hectare after costs (average of Vinpro members). You need a very large fortune to make a small fortune in wine, these days.
Removing MOG (material other than grapes) at Kanonkop