"Patience, patience and more patience," is how Philip Costandius, Chairman of the Cape Winemakers Guild, describes the 2008 grape harvest, which seemed to take forever but brought welcome rewards of lower alcohol, more elegant reds and some above average whites.
Members of the Cape Winemakers Guild, representing the pinnacle of South Africa's winemakers agree that the 2008 harvest, which lasted up to two weeks longer than usual, smiled upon early and late cultivars. Early predictions indicate that it should be a particularly good year for Méthode Cap Classique, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and gentler Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz.
Wines of excellent colour, concentration and fruit intensity owing to the slow ripening and good vineyard management was the general consensus of harvest reports by CWG members representing the major wine growing areas throughout the Western Cape.
Higher than average winter rainfall was reported in most regions resulting in vigorous growth but thanks to the steady intervention of the "Cape Doctor" in the summer months, the vigour was kept in check and soils were fanned dry by the unrelenting south-easterly winds. Vineyards with good canopy management reported adequate protection from extreme wind conditions, whilst careful green harvesting maximised the flavour and quality of the fruit.
While the harvest started late for most winemakers, Jeff Grier of Villiera was one of the earliest out of the starting blocks on 15 January bringing in the grapes for the base wines of his Cap Classiques. Conditions were perfect for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier in both the Stellenbosch and Robertson regions producing good acidity and flavour which should result in some really fine 2008 Cap Classique wines. The Robertson Chardonnay is particularly full, with complex flavours and lower sugars.
The coastal areas have produced excellent Sauvignon Blanc this year and the cool growing conditions and good rains allowed the dryland vineyards in Durbanville and Darling to produce fruit of powerful concentration balanced with great structure.
These conditions have also resulted in slow sugar accumulation across the board for red wines in most regions. Pieter Ferreira of Graham Beck believes the longer hang times of the reds will yield softer, rounder phenols and more supple structure.
Stellenbosch has been hailed Cabernet Sauvignon country this year by a number of Guild members who all welcome the lower alcohols.
Winemakers on the slopes of the Helderberg reported significantly higher yields than last year for both whites and reds. Kevin Arnold of Waterford is happy with the excellent fruit quality and refined tannin structures whilst achieving phenolic ripeness without excessive alcohols. The reds to watch out for are Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz in particular. Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay have developed great fruit and minerality at lower alcohol levels.
Johan Malan of Simonsig reports that rains during mid February caused some concern in terms of rot in Chenin Blanc and early Shiraz blocks, but it also had a very positive affect by stimulating botrytis development or "Noble Rot" to add complexity and flavour to the Chenin Blanc.
Gary Jordan, who also had his fair share of problems with the higher humidity, is happy to report that botrytis on later Chardonnay vineyards has added complexity to the fruit and his 2008 Riesling Noble Late Harvest is more concentrated than any previous vintage.
Generally late varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz were able to reach optimal ripeness in the warmer conditions ending the harvest on a high note after twelve long weeks and "producing reds wines with more elegance and finesse rather than power", said Malan.
For Steenberg winemaker John Loubser the harvest was the latest ever with very low yields as a result of poor fruit set from the excessively high winds and higher than average rainfall. He foresees a financially challenging year with low production but great quality, particularly of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Merlot.
Further south in the Cape Point region, excessive winds also delayed the harvest, but ensured very clean, healthy fruit on high lying blocks. Good ripeness was achieved at lower sugars and winemaker Duncan Savage expects it to be a good vintage for elegant whites.
In the Botriver area, Niels Verburg is happy with the quality of his Shiraz and on the white front, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc look good from early ripening areas.
The Paarl region which took much of the brunt of the heat wave of the 2007 harvest, had a shorter than usual harvest this year with healthy, good quality grapes. Chardonnay, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc should produce some exceptional wines.
The Cederberg had the wettest winter since 1997 which delayed the harvest by two to three weeks. David Nieuwoudt describes it as a long and tiring harvest but one that he wouldn't mind having again. It has been a good year for Chenin Blanc and one of his best Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz vintages ever.
The Calitzdorp region expects a very good year with Touriga Naçional, white Muscadel and Shiraz showing the most promise.
In terms of pest and disease control the harvest was uneventful in most areas. Some rot occurred due to humidity in sheltered vineyards but the widespread use of high-tech satellite weather information and sophisticated soil and vineyard analysis is paying off in terms of pro-active intervention. David Trafford's innovative use of 500 CD's strung up in the vineyards to flicker birds away, paid off royally reducing his bird loss by about 70%.
With such positive reports, the 2008 harvest could hardly be described as going to the dogs, but at two Stellenbosch cellars, dogs certainly played a significant part this year! Gyles Webb has a new wine called Hair of the Dog, after his new mutt from Animal Rescue was recovered unscathed from falling into a tank of fermenting Merlot. David Trafford's dog, Mombassa, got his share of attention hobbling around the winery with a peg leg after an accident. And the tallest harvest tale of all comes from Carel Nel of Boplaas, who made history by using an elephant to tread his grapes at the Knysna Elephant Park.
Exceptional wines, crafted exclusively for the prestigious Nedbank CWG Auction by the members of the Guild, will go under the hammer on Saturday, 27 September 2008 at the new auction venue at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC). For further information visit www.capewinemakersguild.com or call (021) 852-0408.