South African Wines In For A Blockbuster Harvest

Words: Katrina Rose Wind

Harvest season has swung round again, and Boschendal Cellar Master, Jacques Viljoen, believes it’s going to be another great season despite the global pandemic. Viljoen says industry-wide drought recovery is well underway, with water-wise practices fostering future fitness. In terms of trends, sustainability is top of mind, along with terroir. Here, Viljoen delves into some of the secrets this harvest season holds – from power supply challenges to top vineyard tech.

Harvest Updates

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How is the harvest looking so far?

Jacques Viljoen: Weather wise, it’s been a beautiful growing season leading up to the harvest, with a series of cool months from October to January. January has been moderate, which is excellent for the crop. Everything looks extremely promising and even, with nice colouration and veraison (onset of ripening) of the grapes.

How has the drought impacted the industry?

Jacques Viljoen: It’s played a huge role. Vines are quite drought-resilient, but at the end of the day, there must be a balance. We are proud of our Elgin Chardonnay grapes – grown from an unirrigated vineyard on the farm. Drier conditions usually result in a lower crop; if you can pull through with just enough water, you potentially have an awesome vintage.

However, farmers rely on being able to achieve a certain level of supply, so low yields are not sustainable in the long-term. Some producers have been trying to over-crop to recover from low yields, but this can hurt the future productiveness of a vine. We might see some die-back in certain vineyards, but as a general impression, most areas seem to have recovered. As an industry, we’ve had to get smarter with our water management in the vineyard and the cellar. So far, Boschendal’s 2020 crop is up (we’re harvesting more), and there’s been more rain for us to work with.

What has Boschendal done to combat the drought issue?

Jacques Viljoen: At Boschendal, we rely entirely on our own dams, which collectively hold 3 500 megalitres. We consistently clear invasive alien species and the difference this makes to soil quality and water flow can reduce water use by 30%. Additionally, we have 300 precision probes in our soil, which measure moisture up to 80cm deep, allowing us to micromanage the farm. We use cover crops in the vineyards to minimise water evaporation and through use of an innovative smart irrigation system, we only irrigate where and when necessary, thus ensuring not a single drop is wasted. These practices have resulted in Boschendal receiving our 5th consecutive WWF Conservation Champion Certification.

What trends do you expect to see from this year’s harvest?

Jacques Viljoen: a) South Africa is at the forefront of the terroir-driven wine trend. From a red wine perspective, gone are the days of overly concentrated, extracted, ‘oaky’ wines. Our shiraz is the workhorse within the red varietals. We are respecting the terroir (how a region’s soils, aspect – aka terrain – and climate) impact the fruit and overall taste of the wine. We want you to be able to identify the cultivar (shiraz tastes uniquely like shiraz) and the terroir in every sip. The fruit must add to the structure and concentration of the wine, contributing to its balance and finesse. That’s why our Heritage range – which houses Grand Syrah, Black Angus and Manumission – is one of our most distinguished collections.

  1. b) We’re making wines that are more in balance. We do this by ensuring we achieve phenolic ripeness (changes to the tannins in grape skins, seeds and stems) in the vineyard itself. We don’t want to make wines that are over-ripe; tannins must be tight but integrated, and the wines need to have longevity.
  2. c) Finally, the season seems to be getting earlier and earlier. I’ve been making wine for 18 years and I’ve brought in Pinotage in January this year, which is extremely early. That’s something to be cognisant of going forward.

Harvest Inspiration and Challenges

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The most exciting development for the SA wine industry right now?

Jacques Viljoen: The technological tools we have available in the vineyards. Now, when we plant it’s much more specific, from site selection and planting distance, to how the soil is prepared and what root stock we use. VinPro is contributing to putting South Africa ahead of the game by doing a lot of research in this area.

Highlight some of the challenges you’ve faced this harvest season?

Jacques Viljoen: Power cuts are quite a challenge. The brief period between the power going off and our generators kicking in effects the cooling system for our tanks. But we’ve learnt to take each challenge as a learning opportunity – like getting wiser with water. The other challenge is competition with the rest of the world. It’s fierce out there so we need to be at the top of our game.

International wine regions that are inspiring you right now?

Jacques Viljoen: The heart of Boschendal is our Shiraz. It’s like the Robin Hood of grapes – the king of hearts but also, incredibly flexible! Our 1685 Shiraz is a highlight of our portfolio and, right now, I’m inspired by what they’re doing with Shiraz in Northern Rhône.

Any final words on the harvest?

Jacques Viljoen: Nature is really given us magic to work with this year! There’s been even ripeness throughout our vineyards at veraison stage, which helps to ensure good tannin ripeness, especially on the reds. You can expect some exceptional wines from vintage 2020.

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