Is it good? Is it bad?

It’s harvest time; excitement in the winelands mounts as the first grapes are picked and carted off to cellars, their juice soon to be transformed into wine.

Harvest time

How is this year’s crop going to turn out? Is it larger, smaller, better or worse than usual? What were the run-up months like? Was winter generous with the cold and wet, allowing the vines to go into full dormancy and re-filling the dams and ground water? Did spring behave; no mean winds stripping the vines of their flowers, or humidity causing mildew problems?

These are major conditions which may affect the vintage in South Africa; the negative ones may be detrimental, but nothing like as devastating as Europe and France especially has experienced this year: frost, hail, floods, then more hail with Burgundy in particular being hard hit.

While vintages certainly differ here, we have to look beyond weather conditions and our climate for reasons of success or failure. The scatterball approach taken to planting before producers woke up to the importance of viticulture – varieties, their preferences in soil type, aspect, altitude, training and pruning methods and, of course, the deadly leafroll virus (among other vine diseases), all have a bearing on the outcome.

Ask yourself why so many Swartland producers are successful – because they have chosen to make wines from varieties, such as shiraz, which are at home there and perform well. Many imagine shiraz is the area’s most planted variety; wrong, it’s cabernet. Yet where are the great Swartland cabernets?

It is only just over 20 years since the quota system was dropped and we’re still playing catch up, albeit with greater awareness and attention to what is planted where, with new sites being tested, and how the vines are looked after; one major problem is a vine doesn’t mature overnight.

Taking all of the above into consideration, to pronounce on the overall quality of a vintage when it’s barely off the vines or even a year later can come back to bite one.

I remember how some producers were so enthusiastic about 2005 (in a drought cycle), something I struggled to agree with. Nevertheless, it gained a good reputation. This wasn’t upheld 10 years down the line, when the wines (mostly red with a couple of whites) looked heavy and flat. In contrast, 2006, which wasn’t a ‘rated’ year, has produced some worthy 10 year olds.

Coming to more recent vintages, 2014, where one is beginning to see some of the major wines on the market, is offering a very mixed picture, especially for the later-ripening varieties. Early winter rains certainly affected ripeness in virused cabernet, resulting in wines with unpleasantly harsh, minty stress character from unripe tannins. By the same token, from well-managed vineyards, even if not entirely virus-free, there are ripe 2014 reds. Mveme Raats de Compostella. Delaire Graff Botmaskop, Eikendal Classique, Creation Cabernet Sauvignon Petit Verdot and Diemersdal Private Collection, to name but a handful – all of which achieved top rankings in the recent Riscura Red Hot Awards.

Work in the vineyards is one thing; a sensitive approach in the cellar is another. Over-extraction is a recurrent problem; those who made the above wines read the vintage well, going easy on extraction. Even so, what I’ve observed so far is that even with well-judged tannin, there isn’t always the flesh to allow for extended ageing. These are my thoughts rather than a final judgement.

Such a call is further off still with 2015, a year hailed as great by the majority, though there are words of caution from those who believe an early harvest doesn’t necessarily produce great wines.

Rather than any qualitative thoughts, some of the more serious 2015 whites now being released intrigue me. Take a few Elgin sauvignon blancs I’ve tried recently; they’ve surprised by being much bigger and richer than I anticipated, especially from this cool climate region known for its quaffable sauvignons with juicy, fruity acids; but they’re so well balanced and much more pleasurable to drink than the lower alcohol 2014s.

Pronouncing on the quality of a vintage too early is like stepping into a minefield. I’ll save myself from being blown up now over 2015; rather ask me what I think around 2019.

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