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The millennium vintage in South Africa

Greg Sherwood
August 2001

After all the hype of the recent Bordeaux en-Primeur releases, vintage 2000 is certainly still ringing in the ears of most people. And as Robert Parker Jr put it, 'considering all appellations, 2000 is the greatest vintage since 1990…an undoubtedly fabled millennium vintage for the history books.' Wow, pretty lofty stuff indeed! As usual, only time will reveal the hidden secrets of the vintage, with wines only due to be bottled in July 2002 and shipped in March 2003. This leaves more than enough time for the bank balance to recover from the damage inflicted while purchasing any of the first growth Bordeaux which cracked the £2100-£2200 per case price for pretty much the first time en-Primeur.

Climatic conditions
But how did this fabled millennium vintage shape up in South Africa? Quite well from most reports. In the coastal region, the average daily temperatures for the period July 1999 - May 2000 was, except for September, 1 to 2 degrees above the long term average. The reported average daily maximum for December 1999 was, however, 5 degrees C warmer - this is a record for the last 120 years.

The rainfall during July 1999 was 20% lower than the long-term average while the rainfall for August and September was double the recorded normal. In the seven months following (October 1999 - April 2000) only sporadic, light falls of 4 - 5mm were recorded. In contrast to these observations, November and January both had 40 mm recorded.

The ripening period from January to March/April was also highlighted by the lower than average rainfall. This lower rainfall coupled with the higher temperatures raised fears that negative effects to flavour and acid contents would be realised. However, the good rains during August and September ensured that the soil water reservoir was full. This led to well buffered conditions during the drier months and the effect of the lower rainfall was only noticed towards the end of the season, especially in late ripening cultivars managed under dry-land conditions. Most vineyards adapted to the drier conditions after August 1999, which ensured that the flavours and acids were retained. This warm, dry ripening period ensured an earlier harvest of healthy grapes.

Grape and wine characters
The warm and dry conditions, similar to the conditions in the 1998/9 season, resulted in the harvesting of healthy, ripe grapes. These conditions effectively discouraged the formation of botrytis, essential for Noble Late Harvest wines, but were favourable for the development of higher sugar levels and supple tannins. The heat and absence of rain which also occurred during berry development resulted in smaller berries with favourable juice to skin ratio. Red wines benefited greatly with better colour extraction, and white wines are higher in terpenes and associated flavour components.

The 2000 vintage is generally regarded as being good, with few grapes of low quality. The minimum standard of the red wines is higher than normal. Although the maximum standard was sometimes lower, the average standard was higher than normal. Most of the wines will be accessible at an early age.

The wines
For vartieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, there was a decrease in production which can be ascribed to the hot and dry conditions during berry development. Most vines did seem to adapt to the prevailing conditions. Careful vineyard management and grape monitoring ensured that the grapes were harvested at near optimal ripeness.

For Chardonnay, there was similarly a decrease in production. The wine quality is good overall, more than likely as a result of the early ripening of this cultivar and its adaptability to warmer conditions. Chenin Blanc realised higher production with quality ranging from average to good. Higher temperatures did however, result in higher sugars and lower acids, leading to some potentially hot alcoholic wines.

In the case of Cabernet Sauvignon, the wines in general show less berry character than previous vintages, but do show an increase in colour and intensity. The acids were lower and the pH's higher which indicate that these wines will be for early drinking and may not have the same potential for ageing. On the other hand, Merlot, a early mid-season ripening cultivar, missed a great deal of the stress of the latter part of the season and delivered wines with good flavour, colour and character. One of the reasons may be that a large percentage of the grapes come from areas where irrigation is available, which would have helped to alleviate the hot and dry conditions which could have had a negative impact on quality.

For South Africa's home-grown variety Pinotage, the wines are slightly less complex and show more non-typical characters than in previous years. The wines do have good colour that may not necessarily indicate good potential longevity. Most will be for early consumption. Pinot Noir performed the most notably in the cooler coastal vineyards, but generally it was a vintage that will not be remembered as ideal due to the high temperatures and quicker ripening. Finally, Shiraz, also an early mid-season cultivar, adapted well to the extended warm conditions. As a result of efficient vineyard monitoring, fully ripe grapes were harvested and produced fine to excellent wines with good colour and concentration.

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