DGB Harvest Report 2020 | A Collaboration with Mother Nature

If 2020 has shown us anything so far, it’s that Mother Nature is always in charge. With this year’s vintage described as one of the shortest and intense picking seasons on record, one might say that perhaps she offered a guiding hand to ensure the DGB vineyard and cellar team worked in collaboration with nature and wrapped up before the national lockdown! 

A Choreographed Challenge 

‘It is no secret that this year’s harvest was an extremely interesting one,’ opens Heinie Nel, Group Viticulturist for DGB.

To begin with, the cooler weather (-0,2ᵒC to -1,7ᵒC cooler than that of the long-term average) leading up to harvest offered a real advantage for the development of the grapes, ensuring slow and even ripening. However, this changed in February with an increased day time mean temperature of about +1.1ᵒC higher than that of the long-term average.

Yet, the unusual occurrence of warmer days and cooler nights meant that the overall harvest period was a full fortnight shorter than previous years, calling for an ‘all hands on deck’ approach across the DGB wine portfolio. “We thought that we would be able to ease into the 2020 harvest, but oh how wrong we were!” laughs Heinie. In fact, as soon as harvest started, it didn’t stop. Instead, it became a choreographed challenge on how to win a game of Tetris in locating space for fermenting tanks and how to juggle the fast ripening grapes still on the vines”. 

Heinie points out that another interesting occurrence this harvest was that the late-ripening red cultivars went through early veraison at the beginning of January. “It is very uncommon and could be due to the change in weather patterns. The long hanging time was actually a real highlight as it alludes to upcoming high-quality red wines, especially for cultivars like Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.” 

Heinie Nel

Finally, one region Heinie had to keep a particularly close eye on was Elgin. The delicate terroir poses many challenges in exchange for the high-quality grapes cultivated and is definitely a region for fine wines. “This year, we had extremely strong winds blowing from bud break and carrying on  throughout the whole season. We saw vineyards that had badly set bunches and we were worried about the overall quantity due to the strong winds experienced,” he says. 

“We, therefore, saw a smaller vintage in Elgin. But the fruit was healthy with great aromas, no mildew because of the winds and the grapes had good analysis at crushing. So, a small but very good grape intake was declared,” ends Heinie. 

With that, it was time for the winemakers to head into harvest. 

First Pickings | Boschendal 

As always, the making of Methodé Cap Classique took the lead at the Boschendal’ s harvest starting line, led by the bubbly brilliance of winemaker Danielle Jacobs. With first pickings beginning on the 14 January, the Boschendal Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinotage vineyards were a hubbub of activity. Early picking is crucial to ensure the grapes retain their naturally high acidity and lower sugar levels needed to achieve that sought-after zest and refreshing palate. 

“Overall, we experienced good yields with marginally lower quantities coming in from Elgin – which showed a remarkable concentration of fruit aromas and freshness. Grapes from cool climate areas like our farm in Elgin and our other coastal vineyards really over-delivered on flavour and acid concentration, forming essential components in base wine production. Low pH’s assist in the wine’s preservation of freshness and quality management due to no or minimal Sulphur dioxide protecting the wine. The higher and balanced acids assist to preserve the freshness of the wine after secondary fermentation in bottle,” adds Danielle. 

Textbook Analysis and Teamwork 

Meanwhile, Cellarmaster Jacques Viljoen oversaw the remainder of the Boschendal harvest, which ended on the 26 March and came in at a total 3400 tons.

“All in all, I’m very happy with the 2020 vintage. Danielle did an amazing job looking after the Cap Classique, while our new White Winemaker Michael Langenhoven brought in very good Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc for his first vintage at Boschendal.

Boschendal Winemakers 

From a red wine perspective, the wines look promising, with plenty of flavour and a superb balance – true to cultivar and terroir with textbook analysis,” suggests Jacques. 

Despite the curveballs that the cool summer and early ripening period brought, the Boschendal team batted them away expertly. In fact, teamwork was a real highlight for Jacques. “I have a passion for getting each team member to identify and develop his or her particular strengths within the workings of the cellar. We are also privileged to have fantastic growers that understand grapes from diverse areas to enable us to make top-quality wines,” he explains. 

“I’m looking forward to blending. I can already see how the different vineyards play a vital role in the making of the 2020 Boschendal wine but would like to single out Shiraz.” According to Jacques, the Shiraz grapes coming from Elgin, the Helderberg, Darling and Swartland regions all offer intensely different characteristics. From unique spice and minerality in Elgin to depth and chalky, integrated tannin in Helderberg, Shiraz comes out top in Jacques books for the 2020 vintage. 

Best Practice | Old Road Wine Company 

Across from Boschendal and over on the other side of the Hottentots-Holland Mountains at the entrance to Franschhoek, Ryan Puttick and his team worked equally feverishly at Old Road Wine Company. Harvest started on the 22nd January with Verdelho and finished on the 5th March with Mourvèdre. 

The yield was up from the last two years, as the previous harvests had been affected by the drought. Cultivars like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Merlot showed the biggest increase for yields in the 2020 vintage. 

“It was a challenging harvest for the Old Road Wine Company. The late summer rain caused mildew to creep into some vineyards, but luckily this did minimal damage and did not affect quality,” explains Ryan. As with rest of the industry, the picking season was a true flash in the pan, with 80% of the grapes for Old Road Wine Company harvested within a 3-week window. 

“For me, the best part of our 2020 harvest was to once again see the resilience of the old vines we work with in the Franschhoek Valley. Stone Trail Chenin Blanc is from a 38-year-old vineyard, and the Grand Mère Semillon from an 80-year-old vineyard. These old vines always perform under any circumstances with minimal intervention”. Again, perhaps another gentle reminder that leaving Mother Nature to nurture is best practice. 

An Experienced Eye | Franschhoek Cellars 

Ryan is also responsible for winemaking at Franschhoek Cellars – a winery situated within the municipal boundaries of Franschhoek town. 

“We started with harvest for Franschhoek Cellars on the 15th January and we finished on the 16th March. As per normal, we began with Chardonnay and finished with Cabernet Sauvignon,” states Ryan. He shares that a highlight for him was the expression of the Sauvignon blanc grapes and the structure and intensity of fruit from the Swartland Shiraz grapes that he is taking in for the first time.

“The most interesting factor for the 2020 harvest was the phenolic compound of the white grapes and especially Sauvignon blanc. Phenolics have to do with flavour, smell and colour of the juice and wine. This year, the phenolics had a huge influence on colour. It required careful management of our Sulfur dioxide levels from harvest until fermentation,” expands Ryan. 

Luckily, Ryan’s years of experience helped the team navigate any unexpected challenges and overcome them to result in consistently exceptional wines. 

Natural Fermentation | Bellingham

Richard Duckitt and Arlene Mains, the new assistant winemaker at Bellingham

If there is an advocate for minimal intervention, then Head Winemaker Richard Duckitt from Bellingham is the one to speak to.

“As we have seen in previous years, the best wines are from our natural fermentations. So, this year, we’ve decided to do this on a much larger scale, using no yeast for any of our Old Vine wines or Chenin Blanc. I have to say that the resulting wines have the most amazing mouthfeel and roundness. I’m also very excited about the Pinotage, which is showing really deep, intense colours and a rich mid-palate with incredibly silky tannin,” adds Richard excitedly.

As with many wineries, the harvest was short and congested at Bellingham. Starting on the 21 January with Verdelho and ending on the 9 March with Petit Verdot, the overall yield was on par with the long-term average. Richards says: “We harvested about 70% of the vintage in just under two weeks. This took a lot of planning to ensure everything would keep running like clockwork.” 

Despite the rush, the Bellingham team made time for a few new projects, including an up-and-coming, high-quality, low alcohol wine range. “We’re looking at a Pinotage, a Sauvignon Blanc and maybe a Chenin Blanc. It’s still a work in progress, but it is looking very promising!” 

It’s for the Wine drinker to Decide 

Overall, the 2020 Vintage saw an influx of fruit coming from 80 different vineyards, with around 95 people working in 3 main cellars and a few hundred harvesters split between many farms. It is an incredible feat to orchestrate such an endeavour, and there is no better man for the job than DGB Group Winemaker Stephan Joubert. 

“It was a good, atypical vintage with its own challenges where you had to think on your feet. Regular load shedding posed their own logistical challenges, although fortunately, we had generators to help us during this time. Following the past few years of drought which resulted in lower yields, it was rewarding to see our yield numbers returning to normal, except for Elgin,” he says. 

With new and unexpected challenges facing us all in the months and perhaps years to come, the long road ahead will also involve embracing the use of new technology in the vineyards and cellar. Keeping ahead of the pack, Stephan works closely with Heinie Nel to continue pushing the envelope. This harvest, they made use of Revolute Systems and bought access to NDVI (Normalised Difference Vegetation Index) scans on some of the top-end blocks in Stellenbosch and the DGB farm, Highfield in Elgin. 

“When used with drone sensors and agriculture, NDVI is the classic indicator of plant health. These scans enabled us to carefully track the water and soil changes of these specific blocks leading us to make informed decisions on when to harvest,” explains Heinie. Both Stephan and Heinie explain that the use of this sort of technology going forward will be key to continue levelling up DGB’s performance and standards of quality year-on-year.

As Stephan reflects on the harvest that has been, he concludes: “A personal highlight for me was the way the winemakers and the winery staff took full ownership of their wines, and then tasting the very good 2020 juice and wines during and after fermentation. At the end of the day, it is the wine in the glass that will judge the season, and that’s for the wine drinker to decide.” 

Sure. That – and Mother Nature herself.