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Swartland faces ‘challenging’ 2016 harvest

Continuing dry weather in South Africa’s Swartland will make for a “challenging” 2016 harvest according to the CEO of one of the region’s biggest producers, who has confirmed that volumes will be reduced.

Zakkie Bester, CEO and Cellar Master

Speaking to the drinks business at the World Bulk Wine Exhibition in Amsterdam this week, Zakkie Bester, CEO and cellarmaster at Riebeek Cellars, said the very dry weather in the region was “not normal” and that production volumes would be affected.

“It’s going to be challenging for the Swartland because of the very dry weather we had which was not normal. We are very nervous about that but it’s not the end of the world. The Swartland is known to have its ups and downs for many years but this is the first for a long time that its been so dry.”

Riebeek normally has enough supplementary water for extra irrigation to boost plants just before ripening as the Swartland itself is not an irrigated region, explained Bester. However this year he said there will not be any extra water, “or very little.” However while volumes produced from the 2016 harvest might be reduced, the quality is likely to be higher.

“It will affect the quantity more than the quality because in a dry season the berries are normally small and flavours are more concentrated, so that’s a plus but it will have an effect on volume available from the Swartland, i’m sure.”

He added: “We are looking forward to more expressive Chenin Blanc and Shiraz. If it’s a dry season the berries are smaller and more concentrated. In a dry season the colour of red wines is so much better.”

Historically the Swartland was a region that typically used dry farming and bush vines, a tradition that Riebeek still maintains, balancing the economical pressure to produce higher yields.

“A lot our vineyards are dry farmed, not as much as in the past but I would say easily 20% is still dry farmed and bush vineyards”, he said. “The issue that we have with the labour is that people done want to bend down anymore and pick. They want to bring in the machines for the harvest.”

Turning toward their current focus, Riebeek has just launched its first commercial Rhône blends, highlighting a trend by winemakers, specifically in the Swartland, toward southern Rhône-style blends. Produced from vines planted over the past decade, including Grenache Noir. Mouvedre and Viognier, the Short Street range comprises Short Street SGM 2014, a 14% abv blend of 68% Shiraz, 20% Grenache and 12% Mourvedre, and Short Street CGV, a 13% blend of 50% Chenin, 35% Grenache Blanc and 15% Viognier.

“It takes time to get a good fruit”, explained Bester. “In the beginning, especially the Grenache, it was bare fruit that you could not even touch for wine. It used to be on an experimental basis but since 2015 crops have become available and vineyards have come into maturity. It shows very good promise for us.”

Launched this year on the off-trade, it is named after a small palatzio in Riebeek Kasteel – a small town in the heart of the Swartland – said to be the “life and soul” of the town.

Referring to the style of Short Street SGM, Bester said his team “tends to go more for a more fruity style”.

“I don’t like to call it easy drinking, but it’s not serious wines”, said Bester. “It’s more juicy and fruity and voluptuous.”

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