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2023 Vintage Report: KWV

“Accept reality and respond to what is rather than your expectation of what should be.”

“Expectations are premeditated resentments. Manage your emotional response and get back to work. Do the next right thing.”

“Control is an illusion. Learn to surrender to reality and act accordingly.”

“Watch carefully until you understand. Then act decisively and appropriately. Don’t just react without thought or understanding.”

You would be forgiven for thinking I have misplaced my notes from some mindfulness retreat or leadership course here. I have not.  These are some of the lessons taught by this vintage to growers, workers and winemakers alike. A vintage of personal growth if you like. Born of struggles, challenges and new paradigms. Also this, is life.

Water is the key feature of this vintage. Its lack to begin with and its abundance at the end with a few key cameo performances in between. Simply put we began this vintage with a very dry winter indeed. Our winter rains are the main source of moisture for our soils in the Western Cape and particularly in the Coastal regions. Our soils are consequently the biggest (most important) reservoir of moisture for our vineyards in these regions. With winter rainfall between 50% and 60% of long-term averages, dropping below the drought years of 2017/2018 in some places, to say it was a dry start with likely consequences is putting things mildly.

Spring and summer rainfall were not enough to make up for the shortfall until early December when a cloudburst of thundershowers (and some hail) brought great relief. This was a Godsend, particularly to dryland areas like Darling and Swartland but for most areas too. Some hail damage to Southern Paarl was painful to growers there. The rains caused increased disease pressure and saw Oidium (Powdery Mildew) and some Downey Mildew outbreaks across many areas. The Powdery Mildew was of greatest concern and did result in additional sprays as well as dropping infected bunches. Some vineyards had their already smaller crops significantly reduced further.

What was becoming clear in January was a seriously smaller grape crop lead by smaller berries in particular. This was borne out in early MCC harvesting kicking off with Chardonnay on the 9th of January (7 days earlier than 2022) and with Pinot Noir lagging behind rather than leading the dance. Vintage was underway and moving swiftly and swimmingly as we went from bubblies to still whites. Quality looking fantastic and aromatics beautiful due to cooler early development weather. Chardonnays were bright and vibrant with citrus, down in yield. Chenin Blanc were bursting with florals and tropical fruits, down in yield. Sauvignon Blancs were racy with acidity and packing big tropical fruit punches like a boxer in a hurry to finish, down in yield. Early reds came rolling in down in yield but looking fabulous in concentration and structure Pinotage, Merlot, Shiraz then Cabernet got in the act. Block and farm order were definitely disturbed but despite the lower yields things were going very well indeed.

On a new moon, 20 February we had our first serious rainfall event of the vintage. Grape and vineyard health were good and this appeared to be no more than a small hitch in our giddy-up for this early, light and quick vintage. We slowed to a stop and waited for the water to dry off and the sugars to climb once more, which they did. We got back underway.

The pace increased and the pressure was felt in vineyard and winery alike. 27 February to 3 March was a blur of grapes, trucks, logistics and capacity straining on all sides. Taste it, analyse it, harvest it, bring it-rinse repeat block after block, vineyard after vineyard and farm after farm. More rain was on the horizon. Winemakers muttering about memories of Burgundy and Bordeaux as youngsters working harvests abroad. This was looking like a decidedly European vintage. “Careful what you ask for, you just might get it.”

Rain for days. All stop. Tension builds. Sampling and tasting, sampling and tasting. Eyes to the skies and the forecast, please some hot days we prayed. The winery grateful for a chance to catch their breath and ferment the grapes that are in. Full house anyway.

Back underway 13 March. Slowly at first but building up speed and ripeness as each day passes to a maddening crescendo by weeks end. Healthy, ripe and perfect. How? Our fears and expectations…. Still more rain on the horizon.

All stop. Sampling and tasting. Worrying, furtive looks accompany twitchy conversations about potential impacts. We passed 400% of the long-term average rain for March some time ago. Statistics meaningless now. Has anyone seen this before? Where are the older people? Small starts and stops. Need heat here now but season is turning. La Nina having a new way with us. The arrogance of thinking we understand how an anomaly, a phenomenon will behave. Calm, calm, Think, Watch, try to still the noise and find understanding. Where is the path? Sampling, tasting, walking the rows, evaluating the leaves, evaluating the bunches and berries. They are ripe. By every metric other than sugar. The weather has turned and no advance will come. We go now. We bring them in.

We finished this vintage of harvesting on the 29th of March with Cabernet Sauvignon from Swartland (I did tell you the order was strange).

 Sitting here writing this as we press the last of the reds from their skins and begin evaluating the whites I do feel we have learned a lot from this vintage. We learned about resilience; of the vines, of our people from the vineyards to the winery. We learned about patience and watching carefully. We learned that if we pay attention and still the noise, understanding will come and the course of action will open. The vines will yield their gifts and we will honour them. Our fears are worse than any reality and we actually bloody know it.

The wines are great. Relief!!! They are still young and the reds are busy with Malolactic fermentation. I am excited to see the balance of concentration and elegance from this vintage. Our people from the vineyard workers to the winery have once more proven themselves worthy of this gift. The gift that the vines give every year. More to learn and more to understand. Check that arrogance, ego, fear and just pay attention. The path will appear.                  

Marco Ventrella, Chief Viticulturist, April 2023.