South African Winemaking | Resilience and Optimism
Jane Masters MW is Opimian’s Master of Wine
South African wine quality is on par with wines from anywhere around the world. The Cape’s proximity to the cool Atlantic and the warmer Indian Ocean, cloudless blue skies, sunshine, and abundance of mountain foothills combine to create an array of terroirs.
An exciting and entrepreneurial spirit has transformed the industry from seeing wine as a by-product of brandy to its current focus on quality. Many of today’s top Cape wine producers, like Opimian’s Aristea and Kershaw, didn’t exist twenty years ago. Since the 90’s, winemakers have planted vineyards to explore new areas in both cool and warm climate regions. In parallel, South African winemakers have become enamoured with the country’s old vineyards in hotter dry farmed regions – grapes which were previously used for brandy production.
However, it’s not all been smooth sailing in the Cape Winelands. The Cape suffered severe drought conditions after three years of low rainfall. Just as it was recovering, Covid hit. The toll of Covid on the South African wine trade was exacerbated by four government-imposed alcohol bans. These lasted a total of more than 161 days, preventing domestic sales and restricting exports of wine. Simultaneously, there was a major decline in wine tourism. For wineries dependent on domestic sales, this meant cash flow issues or worse. Earlier in the year, a reported 18,000 jobs, 80 wineries and 350 grape growers were at risk. Lack of sales also meant full tanks and less space to receive incoming grapes at harvest.
Against this background, I spoke to Corlea Fourie, Vineyard and Wine Manager at Bosman Family Vineyards and Lukas Wentzel from Groote Post about the challenges and joys of being a winemaker in the Cape for the 2021 vintage. Harvest is what winemakers everywhere look forward to with anticipation and excitement. It is the culmination of the yearly cycle in the vineyard and preparation in the winery. It is a relatively short but very busy period when the fruits of the vignerons’ labour are revealed. All those ideas that have been taking shape in winemakers’ minds since the previous harvest can finally be enacted upon.
After years of drought and water restrictions, the 2020-21 growing season saw good water replenishment of soils. Both Corlea and Lukas report that cool summer conditions meant grapes ripened slowly, developing exceptional colour and flavour. Deciding the right moment to pick depends not only on when grapes are fully ripe, but also on the weather forecast and practical constraints of throughput and capacity in the winery. For many wine regions, this can mean harvesting before autumn rains set in. In South Africa, the previous years of drought meant getting the grapes in before sugar levels skyrocketed, acidity plummeted, and grapes started to raisin. In 2021, cooler temperatures and good weather meant winemakers could bide their time to pick at exactly the right moment with high natural acidity and phenolic ripeness. Both Corlea and Lukas were very happy. Grapes were generally picked a couple of weeks later than previous years with bunches in good numbers and berry size both contributing to the increase in yield. From my point of view, this translates into tasting deep coloured reds with lots of ripe forest fruit flavours and tannin structure. The white wines are also fresh and brimming with fruits, with both Bosman’s Generation 8 Chenin Blanc and Warwick’s First Lady Sauvignon Blanc as immediate Coups de Coeur.
On the impact of Covid, out of adversity comes creativity. Corlea’s team quickly adapted to a new way of working with shifts designed to minimize contact, and meetings held outside. Masks were made for the company by the women’s club and Bosman made their own sanitizer. As with many wineries in South Africa, the company made huge efforts with social media and e-commerce to compensate for the disruption in sales channels. During this time, Corlea also reported a change in customer preferences with environmental and sustainability aspects becoming more important.
The impact of Covid continues and has a knock-on effect all the way down the supply chain, affecting in particular the availability of glass bottles. The current shortage is due to production at local foundries being shut down for a period. There is also limited availability of almost every single dry good: paper labels, closures, capsules, cartons – not to mention disruption of freight and ports. Thus in 2021, it seems that many of the challenges for South African winemakers was not so much in the actual winemaking but in dealing with these operational issues. South Africa has proven itself to be resilient. It will overcome these difficulties and will continue to make high quality wines. To quote Mike Ratcliffe of Vilafonté: “the future is bright!”