“It’s been a battle!” says Eben Sadie, just a third of the way through his 2016 harvest. In his voice is the hyping up, the adrenalin flow that harvest – and battle – brings, but also weariness. In 18 years working in the Swartland, he says, he’s never seen conditions like this, with implacable drought and heat burning up the vineyards: “We’ve had now three weeks of intense heat”. Coolness and a little rain are expected today, Monday 25th, which will bring a little relief, but terrible damage has already been done, and vicious heat is expected again later in the week.
“Heatwave after heatwave”, laments viticulturist Rosa Kruger; “things are by far the worst I’ve ever seen.” She adds: “No-one really realised quite how bad things were till they actually started harvesting. I’ve never seen such small berries – like little hard peas, just skin and pips. There’s no weight to the grapes.” With dryland vineyards (no irrigation possible to mitigate the heat and lack of rain), as found through much of the Swartland, Darling and the mountainous parts of the Olifants River, “you’re doing well if your yield isn’t down more than 50%”, says Eben. Where there’s some water available, the farmer could be contemplating a yield reduced by “only” a third. For many farmers, the consequent reduction in income is going to be serious.
The rest of the winelands are not suffering as much as the West Coast, it seems, thanks to the availability of irrigation, though lower yields than usual are widely expected. VinPro’s Consultation Service points out in a recent press release that “the heat and drought bring about lighter bunches and smaller berries – even in areas where producers have access to sufficient irrigation water…. The negative effects of the hot, dry weather could escalate even further should the conditions continue and wine producers not be able to provide vineyards with the necessary water.” It does add, though, that: “On the upside, the vineyards and grapes are very healthy. The smaller berries may also lead to good quality due to concentrated flavour and colour, should the berries ripen at an optimal level.”
Vineyards in Walker Bay and Elgin, for example, are apparently looking beautiful, and fire-struck Stellenbosch also looks good – though, as Rosa Kruger cautions, cabernet must still hang for another five weeks or so, and it looks likely that the heat will continue through February. Stellenbosch has suffered particularly from fire, of course, with the Simonsberg ablaze last week. Some vineyards have been lost, and much other vegetation. A Tweet from Delheim announced: “After 4 long days & nights the fire is under control. 95% of Delheim forest is gone. Vineyards saved.” Equally laconically and hopefully, Kanonkop tweeted: “Damage to 6 or 7 hectares, a lot of natural and alien vegetation destroyed, but no major crisis.” It is unclear if smoke taint will prove a problem – hopefully not.
Back in the sunburned Swartland, the good, concentrated quality that can be associated with smaller berries is true only up to a point, of course. As Rosa Kruger reminds us, heat shock and burn shock also take their toll; and vines shut down the ripening process in extreme heat. Eben Sadie is only cautiously optimistic about quality from his low yields, though he’s looking to bushvines (as opposed to trellised ones) to “hold the quality”, and hoping for the best. But the grapes must be harvested and the wines must be made to “capture the extremeness of the year”, he says. In 10 or 20 years, tasting the wines of 2016 in the Swartland (fewer bottles though there’ll be!), must bring back the season as it is. We must hope that, apart from what is in the bottle, this terrible heat and drought will be forgotten. But some old vines are unlikely to survive the stress.
- Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.