Harvest Report 2006 – South Africa

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The South African wine harvest was smaller than had been forecast at the turn of the year before harvesting began but nevertheless came in around 6% up on 2005, with producers upbeat regarding the quality of the wines, particularly the Sauvignon Blanc. Ben Cooper reports.

Although the 2006 South African harvest eventually fell below estimates from November and January, it is still around 6% up on 2005, according to the generic marketing body Wines of South Africa (WOSA).

The trade association estimated the total 2006 grape harvest to be 1,245,182 tons, with wine volumes reaching 960m litres, including juice and concentrate for non-alcoholic purposes, rebate and distilling wine. However, WOSA spokesperson Andre Morgenthal told just-drinks that a revised and more precise estimate was "imminent".

The decrease from earlier estimates in November and January, when a harvest 8% to 10% higher than 2005 was being forecast, was primarily attributed to dry winds in the Western Cape since December as well as abnormally high temperatures in the latter part of January. Volumes fell in regions such as Malmesbury, Stellenbosch and Paarl because of the dry conditions. Water was also in short supply in certain parts of the Little Karoo, Olifants River and Worcester regions.

However, winemakers report that the dry winds may have actually had a positive impact on quality. "Although the winds proved dehydrating, most of our vineyards, even the dryland blocks, did not suffer the drought stress of 2005 because of the moderate climatic conditions and favourable soil/water levels at the beginning of the growing season," says Ernst le Roux, head of grape and wine buying at Distell which markets wines from all over South Africa. "In fact, the summer winds actually had a positive effect of reducing grape size, resulting in excellent skin to berry ratios and giving rise to excellent concentration of flavours across both red and white varietals."

In general, South African winemakers are upbeat about the 2006 vintage, with the country's most widely-grown varietal, Sauvignon Blanc, expected to be of particularly good quality. In addition to anticipating "the best year since 2002 for Sauvignon Blanc", Le Roux says the 2006 vintage has proved favourable for the majority of the other varietals. "Chardonnay benefited from the cold winter which allowed the vines to go into proper dormancy and our wines are showing extremely well," he says. "Reds have come in with excellent colour and flavours and should produce wines with great maturation potential. Shiraz is another absolutely stand-out varietal this year."

Eleonor Visser, winemaker at Winecorp, also singled out the Sauvignon Blanc, along with another important white wine variety Chenin Blanc, for praise. Winecorp said that warm, even temperatures have produced "outstanding results in the white grape vineyards". "The yields this year are not enormous, but what we've got is very good," said Visser.

Meanwhile, Riaan Marais, general manager of Southern Cape Vineyards (SCV) in the Little Karoo region, said the grapes this year were "exceptionally healthy and of a high quality".

Johannes Mellet, a consultant working for the producers' organisation VinPro in the Little Karoo region, concurs with Marais. He said he expected the vintage to be a good one for the region as a whole, with the drought that had affected most producers in many cases positively affecting quality. "The vineyards were very healthy throughout," said Mellet, adding that the drought was at its worst at Ladismith and, as a result, the harvest there was down 8% to 10% on last year. However, because the grapes were smaller, the flavour was more intense, Mellet said. "Cultivars such as Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc that have been harvested early, benefit from these conditions and are looking very promising," he said.

Marco Ventrella, viticulturist at Graham Beck Wines, predicts 'awesome' Breede River Valley Chardonnay and fantastic Cabernets across the board, with the Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon standing out. Singled out as promising are Franschhoek Petit Verdot, Merlot and Shiraz, and Stellenbosch Sauvignon Blanc.

Willem Botha, viticultural consultant for VinPro producers' organisation in the Robertson region, said that budbreak had been earlier than normal for Chardonnay, some Colombard and Chenin Blanc, while there was also some uneven budding in Shiraz and some Sauvignon Blanc. Uneven budbreak resulted in lower crop levels but he added that the red cultivars, with the exception of the Pinotage, had looked normal. "The 2005 harvest was difficult with diseased grapes and other factors, yet some good wines resulted," said Botha. "So I'm very optimistic about 2006, particularly for reds."

WOSA is also forecasting a reduction in stock levels at producer and private cellars from 308.4m litres on 31 December 2005 to 232.6m on 31 December 2006.

According to Le Roux, the oversupply of red wines is being addressed, with excess reds being used to produce Rosé, as this is among the fastest growing categories in the local market, as well as in the UK and the US, while some red wine production is being distilled.

Sectors: Wine

Companies: Distell

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