Grape Courage

Among all last year’s challenges as well as the worries about our health and the immense pressure on our industry, there was at least one brilliant blessing – an extraordinary growing season for wine grapes in South Africa.

Remember the exceptionally cold and wet winter of 2020? While most of us stayed home, probably trying out that stationary bike or attempting home schooling from under the covers, the Cape vineyards enjoyed the (more than usual) quiet season with proper dormancy. Winter cold is what the vine wants (read more) and followed by a relatively cool summer, South African winemakers and viticulturist are excited about the quality of the 2021 vintage.

La Motte Cellarmaster Edmund Terblanche is known for a more restrained, elegant style of wine and such a growing season is what his winemaking dreams are made of. With the final grapes in the cellar, he calls the 2021 harvest a “moedskeppertjie” – almost a bit of a breather in between all that’s troublesome and uncertain, a reason to take courage. We might feel powerless against the relentless pandemic, policies that are hard to understand and all that is crazy about politics and the economy. What the 2021 harvest shows us, is that sometimes it is not up to us, we just have to brave the bad and be grateful for the good. And luckily for us, the 2021 harvest really looks good.

Budding was remarkably late due to the lingering winter and relative cool climate – even until late November. With the absence of heatwaves and temperatures staying moderate throughout summer, harvest was delayed with up to 14 days. For many wineries the harvest only started in February – quite a rarity! The easy summer also resulted in an easier harvest. Sugars climbed gradually, saving pressing cellars from those annual waves of ripe grapes that usually create harvest havoc.

The combination of cool conditions for the grapes and calm circumstances in the cellar, are exactly what a Covid-weary wine industry needed this year. The cold is good for the development of colour and flavour and early analyses show good acidity at optimal ripeness and proper concentration and body in the wines. For some later red varieties such as Grenache, Mourvèdre en Cinsault, optimum ripeness arrived at lower sugars than usual – a wonderful opportunity to make elegant wines at lower alcohol levels.

It wasn’t all rosy though. The Cape South Coast had above average summer rains resulting in instances of both powdery and downy mildew. Napier got the worst of the untimely rains, but while volumes were down significantly, the grapes that were harvested were healthy and beautiful. While the volume of the SA harvest is predicted to be similar to or slightly higher than 2020, most wineries had to employ some type of crop management due to excess wine stocks in the cellar. Cellar capacity stays a challenge and of course a big portion of our market – restaurants and tourism – is still under extreme pressure.

We will all have to be wise when it comes to spending and exceptionally sharp when it comes to strategy, but there is no reason for heavy hearts. There is no denying that it has been an unusual season. Having the pressing team all masked up was quite a strange sight and we missed the foreign accents of international cellar hands who usually come out to help with the season, but those are the small things.

I am excited about many innovative and creative ideas on my table. I am thankful for the health and the can-do spirit of my team. And when I look at the desperate attempts of our wine colleagues in France trying to prevent frost damage with candles in the vineyards (Read more) and I remember the devastating Cape drought not too long ago, I am extremely grateful for the kind conditions and what a beautiful harvest can mean for the courage of everyone in SA wine.