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Send  Share  RSS  Twitter  07 Apr 2009

BEVERAGES: Difficult Harvest But Superb Vintage


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The quality of this year’s wine grape harvest is outstanding, according to Erhard Wolf, who heads Distell’s grape and wine buying team.  This is despite a picking season that was shorter than average by more than a month, placing enormous pressure on harvesters and cellar resources. “Although this has been a tough vintage in terms of logistical challenges, both red and white varieties have come into the cellars in top condition, showing excellent concentration of flavour. Alcohol levels have also been well managed with fruit ripeness generally occurring at lower sugar levels than in recent years.”

Wolf said crops were on average about 5% down on last year but that this did not hold for all varieties, with the intake of Chardonnay and Merlot, for example, slightly higher than average.  Across the board, grape prices paid by Distell to its suppliers were 10% higher than last year.

The company sources its grapes from all the Cape’s major wine-producing regions.

A cold, fairly dry winter had been followed by late September rains which had helped to build up good moisture reserves in the soil, said Distell’s chief viticulturist, Dirk Bosman.  Cooler than average spring and early summer temperatures had slowed down ripening, which was good for flavour accumulation. “Berry size tended to be smaller than average to give an excellent fruit to skin ratio, making for outstanding intensity of colour in the reds. This year’s Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Pinotage and Merlot are exceptional.”

Lesser-known reds such as Grenache, Tempranillo, Carignan, Malbec and Tannat had also performed extremely well.

Wolf said the harvest had started two weeks later than normal, as a result of the cooler ripening season, but was accelerated by a series of heat waves during February and March.  “In effect, this meant the harvest was contracted to a period of virtually two months, from mid-January to mid-March, compared with most picking seasons which tend to last three months, at least.  However, with careful planning we were able to bring well-ripened fruit into the cellars with good fruit acids and sugar levels.  In some instances we could anticipate the heat waves and were able to pick the aromatic, heat-sensitive varietals such as Sauvignon blanc, Chenin blanc and Riesling ahead of the very high temperatures.”

He said that where necessary, picking had been undertaken before dawn or after dark and sometimes on week-ends, to ensure fruit was harvested at optimal ripeness.  “Fruit from cooler-climate vineyards, which had not fully ripened before the heat waves, was seldom adversely affected by the higher temperatures.  The number of hours when temperatures in these areas exceeded 35ºC, was in fact very limited.”

Callie van Niekerk, general manager of Distell’s cellars, said that by making integrated use of cellar capacity across the company, bottlenecks had been avoided and it had been possible to press and vinify the harvest as the grapes were delivered.  “We not only enhanced efficiencies but also wine quality, while at the same time reducing operational costs to provide even greater value.”

Some very late-ripening grapes were still to come into the cellars and noble late harvest crops would be significantly down on last year because of the dry conditions of late summer.  The botrytis cinerea fungus which attacks the grapes from which noble late harvest wines are made, needed moist, humid and warm conditions in which to thrive, explained Bosman.

Wolf said current soil moisture levels in the vineyards were low and early autumn rains would be welcomed to ensure the optimal health of the vines and their capacity to yield good quality crops next year.  “Climate change is pointing to drier conditions in the longer term.  As it is, we are very judicious in our water usage and studies we have undertaken are showing improved fruit quality with less irrigation.  Moreover, we are using recycled water for irrigation across several of our farms.  The use of water meters in the cellars has also helped to curtail water consumption.

“We take eco-sustainability very seriously and are not only reducing our water usage but our power usage as well, to lighten our impact on the environment.”

All the company’s farms and those of its suppliers comply with the Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) programme that promotes sustainable production.  Several of its farms, such as Papkuilsfontein Vineyards, Plaisir de Merle, Lomond, and Neethlingshof via the Bottelary Hills conservancy, are members of the Biodiversity & Wine Initiative that promotes conservation of fynbos ecosystems and rehabilitates areas within the vineyards to indigenous habitat.

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