Durbanville Hills Newsletter - March 2004

Wednesday, 31 March, 2004
Martin Moore
What a vintage it has been!
Let me say that again: What a vintage it has been! For there are many reasons that made it so. Not only did it start later than any I can remember, but when it did, the grapes ripened in fits and starts. It was tough for the producers, for there were weeks when they could pick only three out of five days.

However, in the cellar that suited us fine, for we had the unusual luxury of being able to devote all the time we needed to nurturing the young wines in the individual tanks. (It was also in the nature of this vintage to be unpredictable. Suddenly this leisurely pace was broken last week when, within three days, we received more than 1 000 tons. Now that had us hopping!).

I think it is a far better vintage than 2003, which was lauded as one of the best ever. The colour extraction is simply superb and the characteristics of the individual cultivars, complex and outspoken. There's many a slip twixt the cup and the lip, but if everything goes according to plan, we are in for something very special. My only concern is the last of the Cabernet Sauvignon that must still be harvested at a time when the soils are almost depleted of moisture. Right now I wouldn't mind a couple of warm days to boost the ripening of these grapes.

The Sauvignon Blanc is everything we expected, with stronger tropical flavours than usual. There are tanks of young wine of such individual, concentrated character that we will definitely be making a single-vineyard Sauvignon again this year while the fermenting casks of Chardonnay are filling the air with the most wonderful aromas of peaches and pears (not too poetic now, Martin!). And the reds that are already in ...!

The Shiraz shows marvellous potential while the Merlot enjoyed ideal conditions during ripening to producing lovely flavours of mint and spices. At the time of writing we are still waiting for our Pinotage grapes from the older vineyard blocks to be delivered to the cellar. We have been monitoring their development daily, waiting for the skins to fully ripen before picking. There might be areas where this vintage they had struggled with drought or rot, but for Durbanville Hills 2004 is going to be a great year!

So what makes ours a cool area?
We have just seen again in the quality of the grapes delivered to the cellar the advantages of being located in a cool growing area. But why can we make this claim for the Durbanville area, you may ask. First, we should look at its location, within view of both False Bay and, much closer, Table Bay. (As you will see from the masthead we have from the cellar a full-frontal view of Table Mountain some 10 km away so we hardly qualify as a 'West Coast winery', as Financial Mail described us recently).

The Durbanville hills, lying roughly in three rows on a north-south axis and enclosing two valleys, rise above the flat surrounding landscape. Facing Table Mountain, you have, on the left, the Cape Flats stretching away towards the Stellenbosch hills and the Hottentots-Holland Mountains while, on the right, this coastal lowland continues in the direction of Yzerfontein. The soil types found in these hills are very different from those of the surrounding sandy wastes.

Ours are mainly fertile Clovellys and Huttons known for their excellent water retention. The hills rise to over 450m with our highest vineyards at 270m and the lowest at 110m (remember the surrounding area is virtually at sea level). But the cool character of our area has not so much to do with height as with the South-easter which, during the summer months and then mostly in the late afternoon, blows off False Bay over the Cape Flats (where, true to its name, there is nothing to block its progress), bringing cool, moist air. The wind is surprisingly cold as it comes sweeping over the contours of the hills, cooling down the vineyards even on the hottest day.

These vineyards lie almost all broadside to the wind and because all are on an incline, there is excellent penetration of the rows. In the winter months the prevailing North-wester blows off the cold Atlantic from exactly the opposite direction. The first obstruction met by the heavy, rain-bearing clouds driven before the wind are our hills, and the clouds respond by disgorging their load over them and the valleys beyond. And that's the story.

Despite our higher rainfall compared to the surrounding area there are times, such as now after a dry winter, when ground water levels drop and surface water is in short supply. (Which is why we will all sleep more peacefully once the pipeline is completed that will bring water for irrigation from the Milnerton area.)

From the Netherlands nogal
With the dry season continuing producers are looking more and more to the nine weather stations dotted throughout the hills. These are linked to a meteorological institute in the Netherlands which processes the data received and then provides forecasts for five days in advance, giving expected daily minimum and maximum temperatures, wind speeds and not only the percentage likelihood of rain but also and exactly, in millimetres, the downpour to be expected. Now that takes some doing!

'Ach ja, das ist gut…'
In the cellar we have all been forced to brush up on our German since the arrival of Elmar Engelhorn and Stefan Kilburg. The youthful Elmar, whose family owns a winery near Karbach, travels all over the world to learn about different styles of winemaking while Stefan studies at the famous Geisenheim Institute. Both are helping out with the vintage while Stefan is also researching projects for his winemaking studies. However, until now they have not had time for much else than manning our red wine presses on a full time basis! So, as a belated welcome to them we will raise a glass to Elmar and Stefan and say Prost!

Martin Moore - Winemaker