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Comments on the extreme South African vintage in 2016

Posted by MLC on

Cape Harvest 2016: Notes from Stellenbosch (courtesy of


I spent the morning with Razvan Macici, Distell’s Head Winemaker (mostly in driving to and from Ceres, as well as some time in vineyards there), and with Distell viticulturist Henk van Graan. A lot of discussion was inevitably about the mostly problematic current harvest, and Razvan drily made the point that the sellers of tartaric acid were making a killing this year: acid levels in grapes from many areas are low, and many winemakers (including those of Distell) will be “rectifying” the situation by adding acid to the fermenting must.

Members of the Swartland Independent Producers and others oriented to non-interventionist winemaking will not be doing this, of course. Nor will they be making appropriate additions to stimulate the malolactic fermentation, in which tart malic acid is converted to gentler lactic acid. This “secondary fermentation” generally gets going naturally quite readily, I think, and is most frequently allowed to do so (unless it is unwanted and prevented altogether). Razvan was talking about this, again rather humorously, as he (Distell) had spent a lot of money in buying bacteria – French, I think – to perform this function on their grander wines. Trouble is, there’s not really enough malic acid around to be converted!

This lower level of acidity in (many) grapes this year has been widely noted, and Chris Williams, Meerlust winemaker, alludes to the problem in the fascinating report he generously found time to write at my request, about the Meerlust vineyards this year, and how he’s responding in the cellar to what’s going on there. I’ve covered some of the other regions in previous blogs, but now that Stellenbosch is well into its harvest, it seemed time to say something about the area that is, in many ways, the most important Cape wine region.

Interestingly to me, Chris also picks up on the point I made in the blog I wrote for yesterday, about the possibility of irrigating farms running out of water…

I think, though, it’s well worth just quoting Chris’s report entirely. I will just make the point that, while it seems that Meerlust’s yields appear to be not down, that is not by any means the universal experience in Stellenbosch, where reductions of 10% or me seem to be common.

What Chris says:

Well, apart from what has already been said about the Cape in general, I would agree that vintage 2016 has certainly been atypical and, in my career so far, unique.

Our neutron probes and rainfall data have confirmed this is the driest vintage on record, one which followed a very dry winter. This may explain why, even since bud-break, it has been one of the most even vintages. Whole vineyards budded, grew, flowered, went through veraison and are ripening in lock- step unison, which is, in all respects, a positive thing. It has made canopy management, green harvesting and actual harvesting a bit easier. Analysis on vineyard samples, harvested loads and tanks are boringly similar, while all the vines on a given soil type are at exactly the same stage of development. One curious observation is that veraison on Cabernet Franc has been late and slow. Only now are the final berries colouring up and softening.

That said, the dry conditions have brought forward the harvesting dates of Chardonnay, Pinot and Merlot, and while the phenolic element is not so crucial for whites (in that the skins are removed early and play much less of a role in the final character of the wine), for Merlot it may lead to patchy notions of ripeness, it’s still too early to say. The flavours and aromas on Chardonnay are really expressive and beautiful, but it remains to be seen whether the Chardonnay will have the depth of flavour we look for.

For Pinot Noir, we had to pick very early as sunburn and raisining, with resultant loss of freshness were a danger, so I have been purposefully light in my extraction regime, rather seeking freshness and purity at the cost of depth and agebility, I suspect. There is no point trying to make deep, full bodied wines if the phenolics are not up to it, so I have sought to accentuate fruit on the Pinot.

Our younger plantings of Merlot were picked incredibly early. Those with well developed roots seems to have weathered the drought better with slight problems of maturity only on the very young vineyards. That said, I have been cautious with extraction on the Merlot as well, with no post fermentation maceration and shorter, more regular remontage and pigeage on what we have brought in so far. Our better, older, later blocks may be better.

Normally, at Meerlust we use irrigation supplementally, to establish young vines and to give the vineyards a post-harvest irrigation just after picking. This year we have had to irrigate even the mature vines to avoid water stress and vin shut down pre-harvest. This seems to be working, particularly on the later Merlot, the Cab Franc and Cab Sauvignon. The result is that for the first time ever, the little island in the middle of the Meerlust dam is reachable by foot! We have had to stop irrigating now because we have run out of water. This has never happened before. 30mm of soaking rain now would make me re-examine my religious scepticism!

I know of the sad stories from many other areas and growers, but, because of our access to water and the ability to deliver it strategically and timeously, I see 2016 as an opportunity to make really distinctive, different yet high quality wines, but its demanding much more thought, planning and sampling than a normal Cape vintage. Fortunately, our quantities are normal if not slightly up, we have been able to bring most of the fruit to apparent maturity but what I’m excited about is that it appears that this year will be different. I foresee the Cabs being the winners this year because of their ability to weather drought and retain acidity. It also seems that the flavours in the Cab are building, growing as time goes by, not being eviscerated by vine stress.

That said, to be brutally honest, I just don’t know exactly how 2016 will turn out. All I’m trying to do now is to get the fruit as close to our definition of ripe as possible, and to give myself the broadest set of blending options later.

The most similar vintage I have experienced is 2000, and possibly 2003; but that said, 2016 seems to be unique.

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