It is time. As the South African wine industry heads into one of the most unique and disrupted harvest years in history, these things of nature determining any wine vintage appear to be, well, gorgeous.
And the word is cool. And steady. And even.
Grapes like to begin their lifecycle in cool weather conditions. Which was the case late in August, early September when the vines woke sprouting green buds. Waking was slow and sleepy, for the winter had been raw and wet, sending the bare vines into a deep and comatose slumber. Once awake with the advent of spring, the vines groggily shot the green buds, waiting for the sunny warmth of spring to energise, invigorate and thrust the plant into a lively growth cycle.
Because spring remained cool, lots of rain and wind. And as summer truly set in in November, the characteristic fiercely hot 30°C-plus days were gone missing. Same for December. All this means that flowering and berry-set and canopy growth was retarded by a beautifully cool spring and early summer.
Come January, and some hot days dawned. But went. Grape-bunches formed, but – as we speak – are slow due to the conditions showing no urgency to develop sugars to the ripeness levels required for harvest. Farms from Robertson to the Swartland; Stellenbosch to Franschhoek are reporting a two-week later harvest date than in more typical Cape seasons.
This longer hang-time on the vine is a godsend, allowing grapes to develop balanced chemistries and the kind of phenolic ripe complexity leading to complete wines. The most brilliant aspect here, are the acids. The life-affirming heart of the grape, the zesty, joyful part of a wine announcing verve, vivaciousness and excitement. Warm conditions draw acidity away from the fruit. Due to this beautiful cool period, acids are firm and crunchy.
I tasted some early Pinot Noir grapes this morning from one of Jan Boland Coetzee’s vineyards at Vriesenhof in Stellenbosch. When asking him what the grapes’ sugar levels are, he spat out a piece of purple grape-skin: “Can’t tell with these acids,” he said. “They are so great they mask the sugar.”
Out in Robertson where De Wetshof picked Chardonnay for its Cap Classique, the acids are also the talk of the town. “Fantastic,” said Johann de Wet, CEO. “Crushed, settled and fermented the acids are firm enough to remain in the wine and not drop-out, like they can do in warm years.”
Frank Meaker, the sage of organic estate Org de Rac on the northern rim of the Swartland, is not even thinking acids. I popped out there this week, expecting to feel the hot sweat of a Swartland summer running down my neck. “Acids, Frank?”
“Hey man, we gotta get the stuff ripe first,” he said walking between the vines, pulling at shoots and snarling at the under-ripe bunches of Merlot. “Where is the colour, man?” he asked the vines. “Normally we’ll be preparing to pick Merlot in a couple of weeks, but the stuff ain’t ripening.” The cool breeze flowed through the vineyard, and the grapes sighed with a mellow satisfaction. With no heat to rush them, they are loving the weather and the freshness of the air. They know their time will come, and for us wine-lovers the slow pace of vineyard life would have been waiting for.
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