Heat Weaves its Magic in Ripening Grapes

Jaco Potgieter, checking out grapes. And wearing a blue shirt. In the vineyard.

Harvest reports are falling dropping into my inbox more frequently than requests to join U2 backstage on Friday night. The following report, however, is to be published as it is from the pen of Jaco Potgieter, cellarmaster at Douglas Green. This quiet, polite and unassuming fellow is one of the nicest guys in the business and has a way of putting the harvest in perspective. (PS to Jaco and Douglas Green: Thanks for the backstage invite! It did not influence me publishing this at all, promise.)

An early summer heat-wave that hit the Western Cape winelands at just the right time played a major role in the outlook for this year’s grape harvest. According to Jaco Potgieter, cellarmaster at Douglas Green Wines in Wellington, the three day heat-wave during the first week of January which saw temperatures rising well above 40?+¦?????+¦???-¬C in areas such as Robertson, Worcester and Wellington, struck before the grapes were fully ripe, enabling the hard skins and un-ripened flesh to absorb most of the heat.

“Douglas Green’s diverse range of wines are produced from vineyards in Robertson, Bonnievale, Worcester, Wellington and the Swartland, and you can bet your bottom dollar that every summer a heat-wave will break out in these areas,” says Potgieter. “It is, however, much better to have the heat at the beginning of the season before the grapes are ripened. This limits damage due to sunburn and for some heat-loving varietals, such as Chardonnay and varieties grown on bush-vines, the hot weather complements the phenolic ripening.”

Potgieter and his team make Douglas Green’s range from wines specially produced for the brand by some 28 wineries spread throughout the Cape winelands, which means that Potgieter spends extensive periods in most of the important wine-growing regions and therefore has an informed opinion as to the predictions for harvest 2011.

“Grapes are healthy all round ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ in terms of volume as well as quality,” says Potgieter. “Despite the dry winter the Cape experienced last year, spring and early summer was characterised by even and consistent temperatures. This does not only concern air temperature, but the soil temperature remained consistent, too. The result is that the plants’ growing phase was in a total balance ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ above the ground where the leaves, shoots, flowers and bunches are, as well are the root structures. This is extremely positive.”

Adding to plant health, thunderstorms in December saw 10kg of natural nitrogen being dropped on the vineyards, livening up the soils and causing the vines to get a surge of energy going into the grapes’ ripening stage.

“The harvest was slightly later than last year, with our first Chenin Blanc grapes and Pinotage for ros+¬ arriving at the cellars at the end of January and beginning February,” says Potgieter. “Our Chenin Blanc, which we source from the Swartland and Wellington, is this year characterised by tight bunches and thick skins which is going to lead to pronounced fruit-intensity.”

Chardonnay, which is sourced mainly from Bonnievale, Worcester and Robertson, has produced bunches that are ripe on the outside but slightly greener at the core, which should lead to a delectable balance between sunny fruit and fresh acidity.

“The vines grown on the limestone soils of Robertson and Bonnievale are world-renowned for top Chardonnay quality, enabling us to give wines with a classic structure complemented by the fruit-forward, peachy notes from the grapes we get from the Worcester area.”

Despite the warm summer, Douglas Green’s Sauvignon Blanc vineyards have developed superbly as a result of the sites where these vines are planted. “Our Sauvignon Blanc originates from Robertson, Bonnievale, Wellington and the Breedekloof region and planted on slopes fanned by the southerly and south-easterly breezed,” says Potgieter. “Here the early heat-waves have done wonders to the Sauvignon Blanc by literally burning the excessive green pyrazines out of the grapes during the early ripening period. The result is exactly the kind of fruit Douglas Green needs for our Sauvignon Blanc ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ lush tropical flavours of litchi and granadilla, and not harsh stomach-churning acids. It is a beautiful year for Sauvignon Blanc.”

Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc are harvested at sugar levels of around 22,5?+¦?????+¦???-¬B. “But I don’t rely on the sugar-measurer that much,” says Potgieter. “Tasting the skin, flesh and pips is still the best method to determine ripeness.”

On the red side, only Pinotage has been harvested with the picking of the other varietals still some weeks away.

“Merlot and Shiraz are going to be characterized by velvety tannins this year as a result of even ripening and the rush of energy the grapes soaked up from the heat of early January,” says Potgieter. “pH levels have risen and acids stabilized ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ great news for any winemaker!”

According to Potgieter 2011 looks set to be an excellent year for Merlot. “Douglas Green’s most popular red wine ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ Merlot – promises to be superb this year as the early heat drove off the green characteristics this tricky varietal is known to take on.”

Douglas Green’s wine range is created from some 8,000 tons of grapes grown throughout the Western Cape, and at this stage Potgieter and his team are spending a lot of time in the vineyards.

“Our philosophy is to offer the customer the best quality in every wine at an affordable price,” he says. “This can only be done by sourcing fruit from a wide variety of diverse terroirs found in different areas and blending different regions’ wines to come up with that one wine that will hopefully hit the sweetspot of the wine lover.”

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