Wine harvest time in the Constantia Valley is an exciting time. A time when grapes are plucked from vines to be metamorphosed into award-winning wines enjoyed locally and overseas.
It’s also an opportunity to donate any excess fruit to a nearby safe house and a couple of homes for the elderly.
What could be better than an invite to pick and pluck purple bunches of sun-ripened muscat d’ Alexandrie grapes (also known as hanepoot) at Constantia Uitsig? The answer… that it does not start before sparrow’s…
Handed a pair of (sharp) scissor-like cutters, Boetie Isaacs who has worked on the farm for 45 years says only to pick if red.
Julie Williams says these are the only red hanepoot grown in the Constantia Valley. This year no new Muscat will be produced so the freshly-har- vested grapes are being sold in the farm’s shop, with some donated to Anchusa Court, Rusoord and Miracle Kidz.
Elsie du Plessis, founder of this safe house, says the kiddies love receiving the grapes. At Plumstead Rusoord Marlene Stander said their 220 residents thoroughly enjoyed this special treat.
Uitsig farmworkers usually start harvesting at 6am although some grapes are harvested by machine at 2am. “The colder the temperature the more firm the grape,” says Boetie.
He says when he started work that morning he saw a worker on Klein Constantia returning from harvesting by torchlight. Apparently on that farm they pick all their grapes during the night.
Earlier this month Uitsig had finished harvesting their white grapes. Constantia Glen, which is at a higher altitude and around the corner, had just started picking its sauvignon grapes.
Jolette Steyn, winemaker at Steenberg Vineyards at the southern end of the valley, tells the story of it being a tradition for male winemakers to shave their beards completely at the start of harvest and not shave again until the end of harvest. “A tradition I love. Being a woman, I’ve come up with a different cellar couture theme and plan my harvest outfits around that.
This year I drew inspiration from the 1980s and featured bomber jackets and print trees,” says Jolette.
She says harvesting on Steenberg began on January 10 with Chardonnay, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc for their sparkling wines. Since then they have harvested sauvignon blanc, semillon, merlot, syrah, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and cinsault.
“Most of our grapes are harvested by machine, with select older blocks and the grapes for our sparkling wines being harvested by hand,” says Jolette.
Justin van Wyk, winemaker on Beau Constantia and Constantia Glen said they started harvesting sauvignon blanc on February 16 followed by some viognier on February 21. “All grapes are hand-harvested because the steep terraced slopes command that,” he says.
Justin says gut feel, working with the same vineyards for over seven years and tasting the grapes is how he knows when to harvest.
Groot Constantia’s winemaker Boela Gerber says they will pick the sweet muscat for the Grand Constance early in April. They finished harvesting their sauvignon blanc early in March and their last white, Semillon, one week later. With red grape varietals they finished harvesting pinotage early in March and then started with merlot and cabernet franc, followed with shiraz and cabernet sauvignon.
Even though the trellis system in all their vineyards is compatible with mechanisation of mechanical pruning and harvesting, they use manual labour. “We believe the extra care of hand picking and selecting makes better wine and we also have a social responsibility in a country with an unemployment figure of over 26 percent and a responsibility to South Africans to create jobs and opportunities,” says Boela.
Constantia Glen started harvesting wauvignon blanc on February 20 and has been going flat out since. They pick between eight and 10 tons each day which are cooled in a cold room before being processed.
Their vineyards are all dry-farmed without supplementary irrigation and Justin says that all of Constantia Glen’s vineyards have coped very well.
Stuart Botha, winemaker of Eagle’s Nest harvests white grapes (sauvignon blanc and viognier) during February, and their red grapes (merlot, cabernet franc and shiraz) mid-March with picking extending into late April in cooler vintages. “Harvesting later and slow ripening promotes complex flavours and structure in red wines. It also means we get silky smooth tannins,” says Stuart.
As for the drought, Boela says Groot Constantia measured 750mm of rain last year while Stuart says Eagle’s Nest received 900mm which he says is more than enough to keep their vines happy until the next winter rains. Justin says they had over 1000 mm and their supplementary irrigation has only been required on young vines and new plant- ings.
And has it been a good season? Boela says given the dry winter and summer one would expect it to have a negative impact on the yield and quality. “But we’re on track for the biggest crop in the last 20 years, and the quality is outstanding. The white wines that are busy fermenting are showing amazing flavours, and early indicators show bold reds with great fruit quality. I’m very optimistic about 2017,” says Boela.
Stuart says it’s been excellent thus far with good crops and very healthy grapes.
Justin has experienced textbook ripening conditions. “Fantastic ripeness of fruit in terms of sugars and flavour concentration, coupled with incredibly good acids on the grapes which are some of the most concentrated, flavourful and tasty I’ve experienced in my time here so I’m very excited about what the 2017 vintage has in store,” says Justin.
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