Distell’s head winemaker, Niël Groenewald said the 2018 wine grape harvest, some two weeks later than in previous years, had delivered healthy, good quality grapes, with the crop about 30% down on last year’s intake, although yields had differed across regions.

“The ongoing drought in the Cape has certainly had an impact on this year’s harvest, with some vineyards being water-stressed, but frost, hail and sunburn were also contributing factors in certain areas. We have seen slower ripening of the grapes than usual due to smaller canopies, limited water in the soils and that which is available for irrigation.”

Distell accounts for slightly less than a third of total wine production in South Africa, with nearly a quarter of all grapes procured from its own farms. The company’s impressive premium wine portfolio features well-established brands including Nederburg, Durbanville Hills, Alto, Fleur du Cap, Zonnebloem, Plaisir de Merle and Allesverloren.

Groenewald said Distell’s substantial footprint across wine growing areas of the Cape gives it ready access to grape and wine supplies, helping offset the drop in yields this year. “We have a very flexible sourcing policy with the manoeuvrability to respond to a variety of climatic outcomes.

“It was definitely one of the most challenging harvesting seasons in recent years. But from what we can judge at this stage, the dry growing conditions seem to have had a relatively favourable impact on the quality of our premium quality grapes, depending on growing area.

Groenewald explained that top-grade white fruit showing vibrant, concentrated ripe fruit flavours includes Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay from Stellenbosch, Durbanville Sauvignon blanc and Pinotage, Chenin blanc from Darling; as well as Chardonnay from Paarl, and Ceres Riesling. “These white wines feature an average alcohol percentage of approximately 12%.”

He said reds with intense depth of colour, full, ripe flavours and soft tannins can be observed in Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Pinotage, Merlot and Cabernet franc from Stellenbosch; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet franc, Petit Verdot, Carignan and Grenache from Paarl; as well as Ceres Pinot noir. “We are satisfied
with alcohol levels at around 13.5% across the board for our red wines. “Wine drinkers globally are increasingly seeking out wines with slightly lower alcohols, while still offering spectrum and intensity of flavour. Our 2018 vintage wines would be capitalising on this worldwide trend.”

Despite a dry winter in 2017, early summer (September to November) growing conditions were good with improved conditions of cool weather and some rain in October and November following erratic winter temperatures. “The prevalence of wind during October and November adversely affected flowering. The windy and cool conditions during the spring flowering period spring (September and October) also resulted in “poor set” and therefore a smaller crop.”

“Poor set” (millerandage) is a viticultural challenge in which grape bunches present berries that differ in size and maturity. It’s caused by cold, rainy or otherwise bad weather during the flowering stage of the vines. While “poor set” will in most instances cause a drop in yield, its potential impact on wine quality varies.

“Frost damage at the end of October had a negative impact in certain areas. High temperatures exceeding 35° Celcius (95° Farenheit) in December and January, very little rain during this period, and the preceding growing season, as well as the limited availability of water for irrigation, all played a role in shaping this year’s harvest. “Crushing across our cellars was very evenly-paced across the months of February and March, with uneven ripening experienced almost across the board in the case of white wines. A portion of premium Sauvignon blanc and Chenin blanc had to be harvested some two to three weeks earlier at lower sugar levels to retain freshness, spectrum and intensity of aroma and flavour, resulting in lower alcohol levels.

“Both premium Sauvignon blanc and Chenin blanc tonnage are down, while early predictions on eventual wine quality seems outstanding. Chardonnay came in on par with expected volume and excellence grade, mainly due to its innate ability to weather harsh conditions. “Vineyards situated at higher altitudes proved resilience, such us our Pinot noir vines situated at the top of the Matroosberg close to Ceres. It delivered largely stress-free fruit at a good level of phenolic ripeness.

“Dry-farmed vineyards, particularly those located in Simondium (situated between Paarl and Franschhoek) and Darling, were harvested earlier than vineyards that received supplementary irrigation. This was done to prevent further vineyard stress and the resulting higher pH values in grapes. “In contrast, some of our reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon and especially Shiraz are being harvested later than expected, with flavours subdued but now coming along nicely with the recent rains and cooler temperatures following quite an extensive stretch of hot, dry months.

“Fermentation of reds is a bit slower than in previous years, but we’re managing this with frequent, gentle pump-overs to soften tannins, stabilise colour and supply oxygen to the yeasts for sound fermentation.” Groenewald also said they’re expecting good noble late harvest and special late harvest wines from the 2018 vintage, given some rain in March and April.

“What is evident is that South African wine grape growers and producers need to accelerate efforts to adapt to conditions of the drought. This is the new normal.” In terms of wine supply, Distell anticipated a potential shortage given certain weather conditions. “We contracted around 40% of wine supply to mitigate against supply risk, especially for our popular brands like 4th Street, Two Oceans and Drostdy
Hof amongst others.”