Climate Challenges Harvest 2019 as Grape Quality Delivers the Goods
One of the – no the – most challenging harvests in his winemaking career, says Neethlingshof cellarmaster De Wet Viljoen of Harvest 2019 on this famous Stellenbosch estate. Neethlingshof has 99ha of vineyards and with its location, facing south-east towards False Bay, is recognised as being one of the premier cool-climate estates in the Stellenbosch region.
“The erratic climate conditions caused a figurative perfect storm during this year’s season,” says Viljoen. “But now that the wines are showing themselves, whether in the bottle or maturing in barrel, the challenges have resulted in some truly superb wines.”
The gauntlet for Harvest 2019 was thrown down in 2018 with a winter not able to break the grip of the drought the Western Cape has been experiencing for the past three years. “A few cold fronts brought rain and cooled the air, but it was far from the winter needed to ease the effects of the on-going drought,” he says.
Neethlingshof’s average rainfall is 750mm, but the farm only received 580mm in the past year. The vineyards, thus, did not get the opportunity to build-up the required winter reserves for the taxing growing season of budding, flowering, bunch formation and ripening. Due to the dry conditions they have been running back-to-back marathons for the past three years. Something had to give.
During the spring flowering unseasonal strong winds resulted in the formation of uneven bunches causing unevenly sized berries. However, it would appear the later ripening – the harvest began five days later than normal – gave the grapes opportunity to gain balanced structures.
“When the first grapes came in, the Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay – as well as the Pinotage – we saw from the outset that the quality was stunning,” says Viljoen. “The acidity was vibrant and fresh, and the balance between acids, sugar and pH levels were ideal. Also, the grapes just looked very healthy coming into the cellar without any signs of rot or underripe berries.”
With the Neethlingshof Sauvignon Blanc from this vintage already on the market, Viljoen says 2019 looks like one of the estate’s best years for Sauvignon Blanc in a long time. “This is our most planted white variety on the farm, and as a cultivar it is going from strength-to-strength on local and export markets. Neethlingshof Sauvignon Blanc is this year portraying strong varietal characters, balanced between tropical and fresh and green. It is just a gorgeous wine – better than I would have predicted seeing all the obstacles we saw during the growing season.”
Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay qualities are also spot on and the Gewürztraminer, of which Neethlingshof is one of the few remaining producers in South Africa, is described as “superb, something to make any lover of this fruit-driven white variety swoon over”.
The cool conditions this year was also ideal for the solid formation of botrytis (noble rot) in the Riesling vineyards, allowing for the making of a very special Noble Late Harvest.
Another feature of this year’s harvest was that the different grapes ripened harmoniously, with the different varieties following each other at pick-readiness, thus causing no logjams in the winery that can occur when different cultivars ripen simultaneously.
The red cultivars were characterised by very early bud-break, some three weeks premature, due to a few spring days where the temperature shot up to over 36°C. Usually the buds start surfacing on these vines in the third week of October, but Neethlingshof was seeing the green eyes out on the canes at the end of September.
Despite a few warm days in January, the cool days and truly cold nights experienced in February and March resulted in the red varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot and Malbec ripening slowly, and then basically shutting-down in the middle of March, the vines drained of energy and unable to push anymore sugar up into the berries.
“Those red cultivars had just had it,” says Viljoen. “The lower half of the vine was not working to provide the leaves and grapes with any energy, and as a result the sugars would not go above 24.5° balling. You could let the grapes hang as long as you wished, but the sugars would not rise, and the grapes would just turn to raisins.”
With these low sugars, Viljoen says the red wines are low in alcohol and very elegant in their youth. “With alcohol being a preservative, we had to work carefully in the cellar to prevent the onset of spoilage, but that is what winemakers are trained to do. The wines aging in oak are showing restraint and classic nuances, and we are eagerly watching their development.”