Standing tall and strong, newly appointed Jacques Viljoen may be fresh-faced at Boschendal, but his many years of experiences have certainly prepared him for his essential role as Cellar Master. With 2019 marking his first harvest at Boschendal, he speaks confidently about the importance of teamwork:
“While I stand for the property of Boschendal and focus mostly on making the red wine, teamwork is integral to the brand’s success. My fellow winemaker, Lizelle Gerber, is responsible for making our white wine and MCC. As MCC and white wine is the majority of the total production at Boschendal, Lizelle has a very big portfolio. She is very passionate, and it’s been fantastic working alongside her. We’re all a team here, but I see myself as both winemaker and as a driver of this vehicle to ensure there is good energy within our team. I really try always to see the glass half full.”
A Smooth Lead Up
Due to Boschendal producing MCC, harvest 2019 began early, with 700 tonnes of white grapes being brought in by the 29th of January.
The lead up to the harvest was, for the most part, relatively smooth. According to Jacques, temperatures were fairly moderate, with warm days to encourage ripening followed by cool evenings to maintain phenolic ripeness. However, the berries and bunches were smaller, lighter and less dense than usual. One of the reasons for this was due to unfavourable weather conditions during flowering in October and November, as well as above average winds experienced at the start of summer.
“Here and there, we have had a few cultivars that have seen uneven ripening as a result of the weather conditions, like our Shiraz and Chardonnay. Yet, I always see that there is a blessing in everything, and it all pulls itself right at the end of the day. We’ve had a cool summer and moderate weather, with one or two days of extreme heat, but not consistent week on week heatwaves,” says Jacques.
As the grapes started coming in, the Boschendal winemaking team saw good natural acidity and low pH values, meaning that the vines were in healthy condition and that concentrated and intense flavours should show on the wine.
Learnings From The Drought
“It’s been interesting to see how the vineyard has accommodated the drought over the past couple of years. We all think we had decent rainfall over the past winter, but the vineyard hasn’t really reacted in this way. Even our viticulturist struggled to make an accurate crop estimate, as it seems like the bunches are there, but the berries are smaller and further apart in the same bunch. So, crop assessment and forecasting were really a tall order for everybody this year,” adds Lizelle.
Intermittent rainfall occurred in March in some regions of the Western Cape, necessitating in greater inputs to control disease, while the risk of rot also contributed to losses in certain wine grape areas and farms. In addition, due to the heat, fires broke out in the vineyards, one of them being in Elgin. The fire originated in a reserve near Grabouw and spread quickly due to strong winds. “A sad thing for 2019 is that we won’t be producing our appellation Pinot Noir, due to smoke taint and damage of our grapes in Elgin,” explains Lizelle.
Despite this, the vineyards were not as stressed as expected following the drought, with minimal yellow leaves thanks to proper canopy management. Jacques’s attitude towards the drought has been nothing if not optimistic, with him sharing his learnings:
“Due to the last three dry years, our water management system has had to change. The stress period has been managed way more intensely and is more variety-specific. And perhaps, to a certain extent, this was a blessing in disguise for many winemakers. What I mean by this is that I’ve come to realise that we as winemakers or viticulturists sometimes give too much water to the vines. So I think that as long as we’ve learnt our lessons, the difficult years are the years when we make better wine because we tend to be out in the vineyards more, trying to make the best decision and I like to think that we learn the most out of these years,” explains Jacques.
When it comes to the cellar, minimising water use isn’t necessarily simple due to the very nature of the product. This said, Lizelle explains that all Boschendal’s effluent water is going into an irrigation dam, which is re-treated and made environmentally friendly before going back into the vineyard.
After all, this is not the first time the Cape has experienced difficult vintages. In 2008, there were massive heatwaves while in 2016, despite the drought and limited water supply, the Cape still produced many award-winning wines. This willingness to adapt has perhaps come to be one of the most crucial survival strategies for many winemakers during the drought, with South Africans everywhere learning the value of water and how to save it.
Apart from the ongoing drought, Jacques explains that the main challenge was to manage phenolic ripeness on his red wine portfolio and to decide when to pick. With the aim being to encourage soft tannins and good colour extraction, Jacques said he practised a ‘5-day rule’ during harvest.
“Personally, I’ve got a 5-day rule – if I really think a vineyard is right and ready, I would usually give myself 5 more days. That’s a general rule for me to try not jump the gun and practice patience to ensure each variety is picked at the optimum time,” he adds.
Diamonds Are Forever
The beauty about Boschendal is the vineyards are located on some of the best terroirs in the Cape. With access to some of the most beautiful fruit, Jacques and the team have their work cut out for them to ensure they continually extract the best from the vine.
“I always try to be classic when it comes to my winemaking style. I like the phrase ‘diamonds are forever’. I always want to respect the fruit and stay true to the terroir,” explains Jacques.
This said, the Boschendal team are not afraid to try new techniques or innovations, with two new concrete tanks arriving in the cellar this harvest. In one of the tanks, the team played around with Pinot Noir coming from the Ceres valley. The other tank was initially destined for Pinot Noir from the Elgin Valley; however, this was cancelled due to smoke taint and fire damage from a large fire in the area. Instead, Lizelle – always up for a challenge – experimented with fermenting some Marsanne.
What To Look Out For This Vintage
Without missing a beat, Lizelle’s names her top two varieties to watch out for 2019 as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. “Sauvignon Blanc is looking great, as well as the Chardonnay. However, it must be noted that the volumes are less. Chardonnay was down by about 30%. On the positive side, we had a substantial MCC harvest, and I’m excited about the quality. We are planning on bottling a 2019 vintage,” explains Lizelle.
Meanwhile, Jacques is already singing Lizelle’s praises when it comes to the dessert wine: “Our botrytis Viognier sweet wine from our Highfield Farm in Elgin is some of the best ever. I’m not sure we will see that quality again in 100 years. Lizelle really knows what she is doing, so get your hands on that in 3 years’ time if possible!” he advises.
As Jacques is responsible for the red winemaking portfolio at Boschendal, he elaborates on which reds he is most looking forward to for 2019:
“For me, it starts with Shiraz. What I like about the variety is that it is a very forgiving grape. In some sense, it’s good to use Shiraz as a base, but we are also using amazing terroirs to make great Shiraz,” he says.
During harvest, the Nicolas Bordeaux Red Blend 2016 was launched, prompting Jacques to mention his other passion, Cabernet Sauvignon – the king of the grapes. “For me, Cabernet Sauvignon is a challenge as you really need to put in the time in the vineyard and cellar, with picking time being crucial to ensure the desirable flavours.”
Practising Patience & Positivity
Harvest 2019 ended during early April this year. Due to the drought, overall yield decreased by 17% on last year. According to Lizelle, Chardonnay was the hardest hit.
“It seems that the white variety that lost most crop volume was Chardonnay. Some farms that had irrigation had better crops, but the dryland vineyards struggled. Shiraz was also down considerably,” she reflects.
It was also a very long and staggered harvest, spanning over almost 4 months. Yet, despite unexpected rainfall across the Cape in the middle of the picking period, the Boschendal team led by Jacques, Lizelle and viticulturist Heinie managed to avoid any significant issues, practising patience where possible.
“While the negative ripple effect from the drought means smaller crops, the vine plant has adapted naturally to keep that quality itself by bringing down the crop size. The positive thing is that a good small crop is much better than a bad, big crop!’. Indeed, when one is not hasty in making decisions and gives the vineyard a chance to give something extra back to you, you are often rewarded with the best fruit of the vine,” ends Jacques.
Ultimately, it all comes together at the end of the day.