A summons from the Boss (or rather from the formidable women in our office – which is much more scary) to fill you in on our past season. Having rather deftly avoided the "Spring" letter, I'm in no danger of inundating the unwitting public with Newsletters. I give you my word they will continue to be erratic and infrequent. I couldn't bear to regale you with reams of news of one fabulous season after another, which A) would be completely untrue and B) as boring as sin. So here goes folks ...
Starting with the obvious – we have experienced the driest 6 months on the trot in my experience of farming in Elgin, only 14 years, which makes me a baby in farming terms, but still! To quote our winemaker, Werner Muller, – "If you got rot this year you seriously have to question your farming practices ..." So in a nutshell, minimal disease pressure and so dry that one herbicide for the season were more than adequate. The one year you could practically have farmed organically by default. You would think that this meant a worry free season and of course you would be wrong. It's what we farmers do. So instead we fretted about lower crop levels (much to Werner's delight), we worried about unusually high acid levels (much to Andrew's delight) and we are still worrying as to when the rain is going to arrive to germinate our recently sown cover crops (much to my shattered nerves).
On a serious note – what will the wines from such a vintage be like? I have some idea, having tasted through the wines during their progress and to date. Although there has been much favourable hype in the industry applauding this vintage as one of the greats, the proof for me will always be in the drinking of these wines and their staying power in terms of ageability. While the condition of the grapes was without doubt fantastic, an absence of rot is not the sole requirement for great grapes, otherwise we could safely rule out ever drinking a decent wine from most of the Northern Hemisphere. So the question remains as to what impact the warmer season would have in the hotter areas, or on our warmer slopes? Would physiological ripeness at reasonable alcohol levels be achieved? I believe one always needs to remain slightly circumspect when dealing with wine. It's such a living thing and so sensitive to changes in the vineyard and changes in management, winemaking style, and all those other different aspects of that elusive word Terroir. What I've tasted so far has surprisingly exceeded all my expectations of the vintage – I am highly sceptical of anything that appears to be "too good to be true" or too easily gained. So in good faith I would urge you to try the Iona 2015 wines when they are released and make up your own minds.
Vintages such as this one also remind me how important it is to farm with integrity with respect to your farm's terroir. At the end of the day this is the authenticity that will prevail in the wines – despite smaller or bigger volumes, less concentration or more concentration, more rot or less rot, respecting the limitations (and unique potential) of our own farm is the thread that will endure in Iona wines if we continue to farm honestly and allow the vineyards and the sites on which our vines are grown in, to reflect our philosophy of maximum care and minimal intervention.
A dryer season on Iona is generally welcomed, as we need to curb vigour in the damp years, so it can mean less work in these vineyards, less leaf-breaking, less topping, and less shoot suckering. For our dryer, warmer sites situated at lower altitude though, we experienced significantly less growth due to drier conditions, so to avoid stress in the white varietals where sufficient vigour and growth in the canopy is deemed necessary to ripen and protect or shade the bunches, more irrigation than usual was unavoidable. So while irrigating vineyards may be a moot point, I believe common sense should prevail. With less than half the average rainfall of Burgundy in our growing season, it seems pointless to get worked up over using an incredibly valuable tool such as highly controlled irrigation. So while Andrew hoped that our labour bill would be less, he was to be disappointed as the fun and games of keeping vineyards balanced and treating each block with the individual approach they need, is simply on-going.
Seasonal variation and fluctuation is not terribly responsive to recipe farming and so it was very much business as usual this year. It was I admit, a real pleasure picking fruit in such good conditions – small bunches of clean, quality fruit. There has been much talk of stuck ferments, high acidity levels and phenolically unripe fruit this season – and it is never more apparent to me, that in warmer vintages such as this one, the cooler climate of Elgin and of Iona in particular, provides a more temperate area, subject to less fluctuation, in which to grow quality grapes.
So far no stuck ferments or any other cellar catastrophes – not that we are due for one after our Friday 13th incident. After dreadful winds we lost a portion of our storage barn roof. We then had to remove huge bins of bottled but unlabelled wine into the wine cellar to make way for the repair team. This in turn clogged up our usually quite spacious cellar which in turn led our fork lift operator to "not see where he was going" and hook the handle of a full 10 000 litre tank's hatch door with the prong of the fork lift, and then rip it open ...
When I heard the news standing in Johannesburg, I innocently asked if anyone had managed to push the door closed again or drag a bucket or something underneath and try and save some wine, only to be told that the pressure was so great that poor Thapelo was squirted clean off the forklift and pinned to the wall by the flow of wine, fortunately not for very long as the entire tank emptied in less than 30 seconds flat and went down our very efficient drain. So if any of you are assuming that the wine industry is without its own style of curved balls, come and talk to me! I must say Andrew was impressively Zen about the whole thing ...
Andrew as always has been extremely busy. When not harassing our team of sales ladies to keep the market well covered, he has in partnership bought a spectacular piece of land with vineyards bordering the Palmiet River in Elgin. The farm is called Langrug and has 16ha of vineyards on it, including Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc making our investment in the Sophie and Mr P range ever more family run and further securing access to quality Elgin fruit for these brands. New plantings this year will include some Nebbiolo (a first for us and inspired by one of our wine pilgrimages to the Barolo and Barbaresco regions of Italy.
Never truly happy unless he is building something, Andrew is also in the process of completing two new storage sheds. Nine years ago Andrew asked if I could recommend a good builder as he needed someone for about three months. The builder in question (Naaldt) still hasn't left! We never seem to run out of things for him to do. To date he has built our wine cellar, our barrel cellar, a shed on Langrug, a home for our winemaker, our swimming pool, our holiday house, our garden walls, our vegetable garden, renovated our tasting room and offices and fixed our house as well as those of our workers. He's also converted an old labourer's cottage into a studio for me – and I've probably still left something out.
We salute this astonishing individual whose dignified demeanour, considerable skill and experience, acute attention to detail and dutiful work ethic have contributed so valuably towards making Iona what it is today.
Elgin continues to grow as a wine destination and in this regard Iona always participates in open weekends and so forth. Our intention has been to offer smaller more intimate events which really showcase our wines and give some real insight into what it is we do here at Iona. We feel this focussed strategy has worked well, and will continue to keep it small and hopefully "beautiful" at Iona. While we manage to adequately feed our guests with home cooked, mostly home-grown produce on these occasions, we are not officially in the catering or entertainment business and would prefer to leave those offerings to others in the valley more suited and able.
As always, a salute to all who work with us – from vineyard workers to winemaker, from domestic workers to office staff, from sales staff to the Boss, drivers, builders, gardeners and foremen – you are all rock stars and my heartfelt thanks.
And to you who bother to read this and purchase and drink our wines – cheers!