Where the 2009 brought memories of the surfing movie ‘The endless Summer’, the 2010 vintage reminded me of the seven plagues in the book of Exodus in the Bible. It will be remembered as one of the smallest vintages in many years and virtually every force of nature, pests and fungal disease contributed to a significantly smaller yield.
But before the wrong impression is created about the 2010 harvest let me just say that although not one of quantity, it was certainly one of quality, with smaller crops brimming with concentrated fruit. It is very exciting to see the superb quality of the young wines, both red and white.
When you look back in history the 1961 vintage in Bordeaux was rated as one of the greatest vintages after the War and it too was a small vintage which delivered unsurpassed quality. In their case it was spring frost that decimated the grapes.
During the growing season of the 2010 vintage, a time when the shoots are soft and green and too short to reach the support of the trellis wires, Stellenbosch was crippled by the notorious ‘Black South Easter’, a destructive wind hailing from an easterly direction as opposed to the ‘Cape Doctor’ which blows in a south-easterly direction.
High-elevated vineyards soaring on the mountain slopes were the hardest hit and crop losses of more than 80% came standard. To add insult to injury the very next week saw heavy downpours saturating the soils with more than 100 mm of rain. The flowering of Chardonnay and late varieties such as Cabernet and Shiraz were adversely affected. The moist conditions were ideal for downy mildew, which is fortunately normally controllable, but the fungi hit the small green bunches first and not the leaves. This had the biggest effect on the crop size. Even in the latter stages of the vintage one could still see portions of Cabernet and Shiraz bunches turning brown and drying out due to downy mildew.
Climatic conditions remained moderate to cool and dry, which was ideal for the ripening of the early varieties, especially the Cap Classique cultivars. Harvest commenced on 14 January, a week earlier than in 2009, with Pinot noir grapes the first to make their way to the cellar. The quality of the Pinot noir was excellent, but we soon realised that the yield was dramatically smaller – ultimately down by 20% on last year.
On the whole, the Stellenbosch region produced 102 500 tons compared to 125 000 tons in 2009 – a decrease of 18% – which made the 2010 harvest, the smallest one at Simonsig since 2002.
The Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Pinot meunier cuvées are all of very high standard and the natural acidity was remarkable with pH levels slightly higher than in 2009.
Sauvignon blanc was a standout variety in 2009 and we knew it would be hard to beat, but many winemakers believe quality is equal or even better than last year. We were delighted by the quality of the grapes we sourced from the cool climate Groenekloof ward in the Darling region on the West Coast. The grapes were intensely flavoured and combined with the quality of the Elgin and Simonsig grapes, we expect the 2010 Simonsig Sauvignon Blanc to be a stand out wine with an excellent flavour profile.
Chardonnay was one of the worst affected varieties with yields down by as much as 47% in one of our prime vineyards. The concentrated flavours in the healthy bunches augurs well for the 2010 Chardonnay. Much more natural fermentation was done this year and fermentation temperatures were allowed to go into the high 20’s, which should create more glycerol and a bigger mouthfeel.
Chenin blanc has become the brightest star in our vinous universe at Simonsig and every year it seems impossible to improve on the quality of the previous vintage, especially after the superb 2009 and 2007. The latter won the Best Unwooded Chenin Blanc category at the 2010 Wine Magazine Guala Closures Chenin Blanc Challenge while the 2009 scored 3 stars at this year’s contest.
Sauvignon blanc and Semillon was left on the vines to develop Botrytis, but the rains stayed away and there was less noble rot than normal, but more raisins when picking took place on 13 and 28 April.
Pinotage was also hit very hard by the damaging effects mentioned earlier. Our two top vineyards had between 30 and 67% less grapes than last year and the yields were between 3 and 4 tons per hectare. The fact that both these vineyards are farmed organically proved again that under these influences of nature, it is not possible to provide adequate protection when abiding by accredited organic practises.
The silver lining is the excellent quality Pinotage that was made. Big, black and brooding with unctuous fullness on the palate. A standout variety of 2010.
Shiraz normally yields good quantities when the vines are young and virus free, making green harvesting to limit the yields a regular occurrence. Due to this year’s smaller crops, it was only required to remove those bunches that were slow in turning colour to improve even ripeness.
Ripening progressed evenly and the vineyards were looking fresh up to the customary February heat wave that came right at the end of the month and the first week of March when the mercury reached the high thirties. Shiraz sugar levels jumped to 25-26° Balling and it was a mad rush to pick as quickly as possible. There was some shrivelling of the berries or ‘old man’s face’ as it is referred to by winemakers. Sunburn damage also occurred on the one side of the vines facing the afternoon sun and intensive grape selection was done in the vineyard. The wines show great ripeness and concentration of fruit, with excellent structure ideal for long term ageing. Another superb Shiraz vintage, but with significantly less volume. The organically farmed Shiraz blocks took a hammering with yields down to 4.7 tons per hectare.
The Mourvedre really took its time to achieve physiological ripeness and it was picked after Easter on 6 April with a sugar level of 27° Balling. It needed very long hang time to reach optimum phenolic ripeness.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a late ripening variety and picking started on 18 March and finished during the first week of April. One of the toughest decisions to make during a harvest is to decide when to pick the Cabernet as it has very big tannins with the grapes needing to be perfectly ripe to achieve top quality.
Apart from the analysis of sugar, acid and pH, the flavours are assessed by tasting the berries and chewing the skins to see how the colour is released when you rub it between the fingers. The ease with which the berries can be pulled off the stalk and the colour of the little brush on the stalk is a good indicator. The seeds need to be brown in colour, not green. It is all very subjective, but practise makes perfect! Looking at the quality of the Cabernet in our cellar we can feel satisfied that the full potential of the vintage will be realised.
Johan Malan is Chief Winemaker at Simonsig Vineyards, South AfricaShare and Enjoy:
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