Drum roll please…we have finished the harvest! It’s been hard work for the last few months but the grapes are finally out of the fields and into the cellar.
We started in the first week of February which is comparatively late but we still managed to finish ‘on time’ for Easter. As usual, harvest began with gathering the white grapes in February before moving to the slower-to-ripen red grapes in March.
Overall we are very pleased with the quality of the grapes from this harvest. The average production is slightly down on last year; the white varietals have produced more and red varietals less. But for us quality is the most important thing; it means the winemaker, Johan Stemmet, has the best possible ingredients with which to work. After all, you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear!
In terms of individual varietals, the Chardonnay grapes are of particularly good quality. There was a little bit of botrytis (also known as ‘noble’ rot) which lends a very good character to Chardonnay and Viognier. It’s not so good for the Sauvignon Blanc grapes which this year proved more of a challenge than usual. The first problem was the wet weather early in the year combined with the Sauvignon Blanc grape bunches setting tightly; as the grapes grew they pushed and squeezed each other, releasing some of the juice and attracting midges and bacteria which led to patches of sour rot that can give the wine an unpleasant flavour. To avoid this you have to be very careful when harvesting the grapes to avoid any that are infected.
The Shiraz grapes were variable and we have heard reports from across the Robertson wine valley of Shiraz grapes ripening at a lower sugar level (in our case 23.5%) than they have previously. The Cabernet Sauvignon is about 20% down in terms of yield which is due to inclement weather in October. This caused the grape bunches to ‘set badly’ meaning they were much looser than usual. In terms of quality though this can actually be a benefit because looser bunches allow better sunlight penetration and allow the air to circulate more which tends to result in healthier grapes. It also allows the grapes to develop thicker skins which results in better colour in the wine. So although the quantity is down the quality is tip top.
We have noticed this year that the pH is unusually low. In most years the total acid of the red grapes at harvest will sit at about pH5 and the pH of the juice at pH 3.8. The acid levels are important for taste and the pH of the juice is an indicator of the ageing potential of the wine. This year the acid is pH5 (which is pretty normal) and the pH of the juice is pH3. This leads to better colour extraction for the red wines and produces a beautiful deep blue/ purple colour of the wine. And in the long run the low pH indicates a stable wine.
All our grapes are handpicked. We do this partly because we want to continue to provide employment but also because it tends to produce a better quality harvest. A machine harvester will gather absolutely everything (including leaves and bugs) but if you’re harvesting by hand you can be much more selective. Despite the tensions pre harvest, the team worked phenomenally well. From the 200 hectares under vine at Excelsior there was a harvest of 2,400 tonnes of grapes; 62 people picked 120 tonnes in a single day!
For more information on the South African wine harvest of 2012 have a look at this WOSA article